- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Asked how he was doing after his Liberty ended up fourth in the WNBA draft lottery Tuesday, New York coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer joked, "Oh, I'm just destroyed and heartbroken."
He was totally kidding, of course. Last year, with the "3 to See" lottery, coming in fourth left Mystics' president/managing partner Sheila Johnson visibly stricken and disappointed.
But this year, while No. 1 is coveted as always -- Connecticut has the top selection, followed by Tulsa, San Antonio, and New York -- the talent available for the top four picks is not perceived to have a precipitous fall-off between selections.
"Compared to some prior years, the difference between one and four is not as dramatic," Laimbeer said. "Whether that's because the players at the top are better across the board, or whether it's because there are no marquee-style players of magnitude … that's what they pay you guys to write about."
(I'm going to guess Laimbeer thinks the latter, which is why he at least seemed unbothered about picking fourth. But he's a wily fellow when it comes to discussing these things, and he's not going to give away his strategy, for sure.)
So now that we know the order, can we guess whom the lottery picks will be? Yes, but there's far more uncertainty than there was last year, when it was all but set in stone that Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins were going 1-2-3.
Ambiguity is kind of a WNBA theme right now, though, as we're still waiting for the league and the players' union to finalize a collective bargaining agreement. Assuming that's going to get done, what twists and turns might happen with the draft? Connecticut starts off in the driver's seat.
"We have the opportunity to draft an impact player," Sun CEO Mitchell Etess said. "But you have something that you can use, also, if you decide to improve your team another way."
That was a common refrain, in fact, from all four men who represented their teams at the lottery Tuesday: Maybe we'll keep the pick … or maybe we'll trade it, if the right deal comes along.
This reflects what Laimbeer said: There might not be that "we really must have her" kind of player available. That doesn't mean those who will fill the top four spots won't be impact players. Just that they might be even more valuable as trade bait.
Plus, a lot can happen over the course of this college season -- and by "a lot," unfortunately we mostly mean the potential for injuries -- that could impact teams' choices.
Will Stanford's 6-foot-4 forward Chiney Ogwumike follow her older sister, Nneka (2012), as the No. 1 pick?
The presumed top college seniors going into this season were Ogwumike, Maryland forward Alyssa Thomas, Baylor guard Odyssey Sims, Duke guard Chelsea Gray, UConn center Stefanie Dolson and Notre Dame guard Kayla McBride. That's a variety of positions and styles of play to choose from, and so far all of them are performing well.
Ogwumike, though, would seem to be the front-runner at the top spot. She's currently averaging 25.8 points and 11.5 rebounds for the Cardinal. She might not have quite the sheer, explosive power that Nneka has. But she is still a tremendous player who seems a sure thing in the WNBA in terms of decent production, especially rebounds.
Is Chiney what the Sun need most? Perhaps. Connecticut was a below-average rebounding team last year, despite the presence of 2010 No. 1 draft pick and 2012 MVP Tina Charles.
But a lot was amiss with the Sun this past season, and how those things are remedied will impact their draft choice. Several of the Sun players were upset with the firing of Mike Thibault as coach after the 2012 season, and that lingered throughout 2013. His replacement, Anne Donovan, had that discontent and injuries to deal with, and the Sun ended up with an uninspiring 10-24 season.
"We didn't feel we were as bad a team as our record," Etess said. "We definitely like to think last season was an aberration. We have a lot of good players, and we add this No. 1 pick -- or something substantial we get for the No. 1 pick -- and we can make a big jump.
"Our fans are used to a different type of season. They stood by us, and to have this for them to look forward to, it's really exciting."
Once again, Tulsa didn't end up with the No. 1 pick, but the Shock have No. 2 after getting No. 3 (guard Diggins) in 2013, No. 4 (forward Glory Johnson) in 2012, and No. 2 (center Liz Cambage) in 2011.
Shock owner and managing partner Sam Combs III, when asked about the lottery position, said, "We're a team that's committed to building through the draft. We like getting young players into our system, and hopefully develop them into quality pros. And get them before they develop any habits that might not fit our system."
(Take a deep breath … count to 10 …)
System? Tulsa has a system? Huh? Whose system is it? The Shock have no coach; Gary Kloppenburg was let go after two seasons, following Nolan Richardson and Teresa Edwards.
And the Shock organization has been in Tulsa since just 2010, with a record of 29-107 in four seasons. It's not like there's an established, successful "Tulsa way" of doing things, and now all they need is to just plug in the new maestro on the sidelines and carry on as usual.
Rather, the Shock will have to figure themselves out all over again. Whoever takes on the tall task of getting them out of the West cellar -- Combs said the coaching search is now down to a "short list" of candidates, and the announcement should come in early 2014 -- has to implement his or her own system.
And that likely will impact whom Tulsa drafts No. 2, or if they keep the pick. While Combs said Tulsa wants to keep building through the draft, he also didn't rule out the possibility that the Shock could get an offer they couldn't refuse for No. 2.
That said, if Ogwumike goes first and the Shock don't trade their pick, Thomas would seem Tulsa's most likely selection.
Then there's San Antonio, which was decimated by injuries in 2013 -- including to guard Becky Hammon and forward Sophia Young, who missed all or most of the season -- and could use help in several areas.
"We really could go a lot of ways," Silver Stars coach/general manager Dan Hughes said. "Because it's hard for me to read my team; it was so beat up last year. The good thing is, that lets me say, 'Who is the best player available to us, and how can we shape our team by adding her?' Picking at three, we may see someone who can be very valuable to us."
He expects Hammon, Young and guard Danielle Robinson -- who are all three re-habbing injuries this winter -- to be back in good shape for San Antonio for 2014. If Sims -- who can play point or shooting guard and has been on a scoring tear to open her senior season (30.0 ppg) -- is available, will Hughes add her to San Antonio's backcourt? Or deal the pick?
As for New York, Laimbeer is entering his second season with the Liberty, and he wants a talent upgrade, period.
"We need to have more assets," Laimbeer said. "The draft will help to a point. Free agency is not as strong as some years. But overall, we were challenged offensive-wise last season, and we need to get some scoring.
"Taking the step from college to the pros is a big one. From a physicality standpoint and a basketball maturity standpoint. Our guard core, as a whole, needs to be strengthened. That's one of the things that we will be looking long and hard at. We're still going to pick the best player available, but we do have to look at getting a deeper, stronger backcourt."
So let the wheels start turning in earnest. There wasn't much, if any, drama for the No. 1 spot the past several years: Candace Parker (2008), Angel McCoughtry (2009), Charles (2010), Maya Moore (2011), Nneka Ogwumike (2011) and Griner (2013). But Lindsey Harding was traded the day she was drafted No. 1 in 2007. Who knows at this point what will happen in 2014?
"I think all of us could write down a list right now of how we think it's going to go," Hughes said of the lottery picks. "And none of us might be right when it's all said and done. There's more reason for diverse opinion with this class."