This year's WNBA Draft will have a definite UConn flavor
UConn's Breanna Stewart will be the first player taken in April's WNBA Draft before a partisan crowd at Mohegan Sun Arena. It's not an assumption. It's a forgone conclusion.
Moriah Jefferson, the Huskies' three-year starting point guard, has a very good chance of being selected second.
UConn forward Morgan Tuck is a sure-fire first-round pick, likely in the top five, should she decide declare for the draft.
UConn's senior class is that good. And that special.
"I think it's reasonable," ESPN women's basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo said when asked if it was far-fetched that the Huskies' trio could be three of the first four players drafted. "And if Tuck didn't have an injury history, it would be likely."
UConn has sent enough players to the WNBA to fill more than one team's roster. The Class of 2002 made WNBA history when it had four of the top six picks — Sue Bird (first), Swin Cash (second), Asjha Jones (fourth) and Tamika Williams (sixth).
Diana Taurasi (2004), Tina Charles (2010) and Maya Moore (2011) have all been the top overall picks. Ten other Huskies have been drafted in the first round since 2001.
The versatile 6-foor-4 Stewart and the lightning quick Jefferson will add to UConn's star power as top picks.
"In the past, UConn didn't have two (great players) come out in the same year," said Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault, a 13-year WNBA coaching veteran. "Tina Charles came out a year after Renee (Montgomery), and Maya (Moore) a year after that, kind of in sequence.
"I can't think of another school that's had that kind of impact with two players."
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Seattle has benefited from the No. 1 pick as much as any team in WNBA history. It drafted Australian Lauren Jackson with the first pick in 2001, a 6-foot-5 center-forward who could both dominate down low and shoot 3-pointers with equal aplomb.
The WNBA instituted a draft lottery in 2002 and the Storm hit the jackpot again. They chose Bird.
Jackson became one of the greatest players in league history, winning three MVP awards (equaled only by former Los Angeles Sparks center Lisa Leslie and Houston Comets wing Sheryl Swoopes). Bird is arguably the best point guard in league history and still going going strong 14 years after being drafted No. 1.
Both formed the foundation for Seattle's 2004 and 2011 WNBA championship teams and were no-brainers when the league named its top 15 players of all time in in its 15 season (2011).
The Storm hope they have their new cornerstones in Jewell Loyd, the 2015 Rookie of the Year and the No. 1 pick out of Notre Dame, and Stewart.
"She has very few weaknesses in her game at her level," first-year Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller said about Stewart. "There's few players in the world that have her skill set with her ability to stretch the floor and shoot threes and play the back-to-the-basket game and mid-range game. She's so skilled offensively.
"And how she impacts the game defensively with her length, ever since she was coming up through the AAU and circuit and high school ... One of the things that you can't help but talk about over the years is her length and her wing-span and how that affects the floor on the (defensive end)."
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Stewart arrived at UConn with enough capacity to make an impact and became just the fourth freshman to earn the Final Four Most Outstanding Player honor.
Jefferson required time to develop into the country's best collegiate point guard.
"I remember when Moriah was a freshman how we couldn’t really put her out there," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "You have to do it in practice first. But when she came back as a sophomore, she knew this was her team and it changed her."
Jefferson, a 5-foot-7 point guard, has been a three-year starter who has made incremental growth each year. He free throw shooting, for example, has improved each season. She shot 76 percent as a freshman. She is averaging 90.7 percent as a senior.
"She always been a very confident kid," Thibault said, "but I think there's a confident calmness that comes with kind of growing up and being in charge of things. She's the clear leader on the basketball court. Her shot has gotten better. People didn't think of her when she was younger as a three-point shooter. Now she hardly misses. She's become a terrific outside shooter. Her instincts about the game are really good. That sounds kind of trite, but she senses when she can go for the jugular."
Added Lobo: "She's one of the best defenders that I've seen in a long time. Odyssey Sims is a good defender. Skylar Diggins is a good defender. But Moriah is kind of a game-changing kid."
Lobo referenced Jefferson's defensive effort on South Florida senior Courtney Williams in the American Athletic Conference championship game on March 7.
Williams, a potential top five pick in the WNBA Draft, is one of the nation's top scorers this season, averaging 22.2 points prior to the AAC final while shooting 43.6 percent from the floor.
Williams missed five of six shots in the first half and finished with 16 points on 7-for-18 shooting.
"(Jefferson) took a really, really good player out of the game," Lobo said.
Jefferson, by the way, was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year.
The top concern about Jefferson is her size — she's short by basketball standards and lithe. It's simple anatomy that she'll be at a disadvantage against smaller guards.
But height doesn't doom a WNBA player's career. Two-time All-Star Ivory Latta (Washington) is 5-6. Temeka Johnson (5-3) is an 11-year veteran and the 2005 Rookie of the Year. Becky Hammon (5-6) was one of the 15 voted as one of the league's best players.
"I think every team gets concerned when you have small guards," Thibault said. "Phoenix is going to run out a lineup where (6-foot Diana) Taurasi is the point guard … But on a lot of nights, that's not going to be a factor. And other teams have to deal with her quickness in transition. What she gives up against certain teams on defense, she'll make up for on the offensive end.
"She's really good. She impacts the game every single night."
Lobo said, "I'd be surprised if she didn't go second, but who will have the second pick?. ... I would think she would probably go second if San Antonio decided to trade the pick."
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Tuck is the biggest wild card in a draft.
Will she stay or will she go? That's the first question. Tuck was granted a medical redshirt following her sophomore year. She has another year of eligibility, but has indiciated she won't announce her future plans until after the season.
Tuck's health is a huge concern, too. Her right knee was surgically repaired after her sophomore year, and she sat out nearly two weeks this season due to chronic soreness, missing five games.
"My knee is kind of an old woman's knee," Tuck told the Hartford Courant in January. "I know my professional career is going to be a lot shorter than I would want it to be. I thought I'd be able to play until my mid-30s."
Tuck's remarkable candor did nothing to assuage the fears of most WNBA teams.
Lobo, asked if she'd draft Tuck early if she were a general manager said, "I don't know. I'd have to really do my homework on her and all (teams) will … I'm getting this player for however so long? Is she going to to play overseas? Is she only going to play a WNBA season?"
There's much to like about Tuck, right knee notwithstanding. She doesn't have the ideal height for a power forward (6-2), but has a frame built to handle the physicality of the league. She's a heady player who is willing to shoot threes, but is also an excellent passer.
"I think she's tall enough to be a power forward," Lobo said. "I don't think she's a three (small forward). Look at (Connecticut Sun) Chiney (Ogwumike). Chiney is a (power forward at 6-foot-3). … I think she can be a very good pro. She's a little bit like Asjha, but with a better perimeter game."
Auriemma said, "Some of what Tuck does on one leg is amazing. Sometimes, she's the one that gets overlooked because of what Stewie and Moriah do. But I guarantee you, no one takes her for granted here. I have a hard time yelling at her. She's always in the right place."
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