The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, December 2, 2020
What's at stake for the WNBA Lottery teams — Kentucky coach Kyra Elzy talks Rhyne Howard's return — Must-click women's basketball links
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What’s at stake for the WNBA Lottery teams
This week, we learned that the long-delayed 2021 WNBA Draft Lottery will be held on Friday night, December 4. The four non-playoff teams — New York, Atlanta, Dallas and Indiana — all have various levels of shots at the top spot. The great Kurtis Zimmerman even built a lottery simulator for you to play with! I dare you to do it just once.
Okay, you back? Good, let’s talk about what it means for all four teams.
For the New York Liberty, the lottery pick is the guaranteed player they can add to a roster that otherwise contains plenty of questions and very few givens. 2020 was, by design, about a system, not the players within that system. Accordingly, it is both easiest to project draft-eligible players who fit the team, and hardest to know where the Liberty need to fill.
Indications are increasing that Rhyne Howard, Kentucky’s elite wing, could graduate early and enter the 2021 draft, sources tell The IX. And that turns the decision at the top overall pick into one between what some may view as best available player and best positional fit.
The Liberty, with the top pick, could replace Amanda Zahui B. with Charli Collier. (I’m not going to use the “if she comes out” qualifier, but please read it, silently, after every player. The NCAA is giving everyone a free year of eligibility this season, so we truly don’t know who is entering the draft until it happens.)
If they choose Howard instead, as many observers I spoke with think they or any team would, it suddenly gets a lot more crowded on the wings, with Rebecca Allen and Kia Nurse, before accounting for players like Asia Durr and Sabrina Ionescu in the backcourt. The five-out system needs better accuracy from three than the Liberty got in 2020, and if Kiah Stokes starts at center, well, the wings need to be more like Allen from three than Howard, who was under 40% each of her first two seasons at Kentucky.
Same issue presents itself in reverse should, say, Indiana get the number two pick in a Howard-inclusive draft, or a number one if Howard stays at Kentucky but Collier comes out. There are other excellent talents in this draft, such as Michaela Onyenwere of UCLA and Aari McDonald of Arizona — a reasonable quartet of probably lottery picks as of this writing, per a pair of WNBA talent evaluators — but unless Indiana blow up Lauren Cox and Teaira McCowan at the 4/5 before even giving it a chance, there’s no place for Collier on that roster. McDonald, though? If Erica Wheeler doesn’t return? That could be a dynamic backcourt next to Kelsey Mitchell. Must-watch for sure, and McDonald has needed defensive skills for the WNBA’s worst defensive unit in 2020.
And what about Atlanta, who needs a stretch big as much as I need an outing, well, anywhere these days? Would they go Howard instead? If so, what becomes of Shekinna Stricklen? How does Howard share the ball with Courtney Williams and Chennedy Carter? Atlanta has a track record under Chris Sienko and Nicki Collen of collecting talent first and figuring it out second, but Collier fits that roster better than any lottery pick fits any other roster, except possibly Collier in New York.
When I spoke to Collier this week, she emphasized that her versatility was in response to seeing bigs at the next level expand their games, and Collier namechecked Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson. That’s worth noting, because it seems to take a Parker, a Wilson, a Breanna Stewart, a Jonquel Jones, an Elena Delle Donne, to reach the pinnacle in this league. Put another way: name the last WNBA Finals without at least one of those five. It’s 2015, and Tamika Catchings vs. Maya Moore.
Do we think Rhyne Howard can be a Catchings or a Moore? Is that a fair expectation for anyone?
Four slots. Four very different players. A ton of roster instability. The stakes are high on Friday, and the truth is, unlike something like the Stewart draft of 2016 or the Wilson draft of 2018, we’re not going to know who won for quite some time, however the ping pong balls land.
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