- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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There have been much anticipated drafts in the WNBA before, but likely not one that will prompt quite as much chatter as that which will take place next April. That's because there are three marquee seniors with very different games -- Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins -- who will bring not just talent, but a kind of "presence" to the league next year. Or at least, that's what is hoped for from them.
The 6-foot-8 center Griner, who was the consensus women's college basketball player of the year in 2012 for 40-0 Baylor, is seen as a potentially transformational addition to whichever franchise is fortunate to get the No. 1 pick.
Delle Donne, who has exceptionally versatile scoring skills at 6-5, and the multifaceted point guard Diggins, who appeared in the past two Final Fours, also both could be big-impact players.
Because of this trio -- but most especially Griner -- WNBA followers this season were paying close attention to the bottom of the league standings as well as the top. And for first time, the draft lottery comes almost immediately after the end of the regular season. The order of the first four picks will be announced during Wednesday's 6 p.m. ET "SportsCenter" on ESPN.
Washington, which finished a league-worst 5-29 Saturday and fired coach/general manager Trudi Lacey on Monday, has a 44.2 percent chance of getting the top pick. Next is Phoenix at 27.6 percent, followed by Tulsa at 17.8 and Chicago at 10.4.
"This can be a game-changer for a building franchise like ours, considering the high level of talent available in the top end of 2013 draft," Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg said. "[Having an] early lottery is good in that we'll know where we stand and can start to plan ahead on any personnel moves we'll want to make."
If the fans of teams not in the lottery have a rooting interest in it, it's fair to say they wouldn't mind seeing the Shock defy the odds and come up No. 1. That's because despite having the worst record in the league in 2010 and '11, Tulsa didn't get the top selection, which cost the team Maya Moore and Nneka Ogwumike, who went to Minnesota and Los Angeles, respectively. Moore was rookie of the year last season, an award that Ogwumike is a lock to win in 2012.
Also, the Shock earned some goodwill for playing as hard as they did this season, getting six of their nine victories after the Olympic break. This despite the fact their No. 2 draft pick from 2011, center Liz Cambage, changed her mind about returning to Tulsa for the final 10 games of the season after she'd played in the London Games for her native Australia.
There's also a general sentiment that the Mystics -- who've devolved pitiably in the past two years -- could use a big break, as well. This despite the fact the Mystics' management shot the franchise in the foot with seemingly unnecessary staff moves after a successful 2010 season.
Washington has had the No. 1 pick once before: in 1999, when the Mystics selected Tennessee's Chamique Holdsclaw. She played six seasons in Washington, where she was a four-time All-Star, but the team has never advanced further than the Eastern Conference finals.
Chicago, which had the worst record in the league in the team's inaugural season of 2006, has never gotten the No. 1 pick. The Sky's top selection came in 2008, when they took LSU center Sylvia Fowles at No. 2. Chicago also has never advanced to the WNBA playoffs, something that the franchise was really hoping to do this year. However, at 14-20, the Sky finished fifth in the East.
"We shouldn't be in this position," Sky coach/GM Pokey Chatman said of participating in the lottery rather than the postseason. "The way our season ended makes you sick to your stomach. We didn't have a full arsenal of people because of injuries, but that's not an excuse. I know there was some progress made, but at the end of the day, you have to say we didn't achieve what we set out to do."
Therefore, if Washington, Tulsa or Chicago wins the "Griner Sweepstakes," a lot of WNBA followers will consider it good for the league, because all those franchises clearly need the help.
However, playing the role of the lottery's "scoundrel" in some eyes is Phoenix. The two-time WNBA champion Mercury finished last in the Western Conference at 7-27, and they also might have lost the battle of perception among many league followers. While other coaches, GMs and players haven't necessarily made direct, public accusations that Phoenix willingly climbed in the tank this season to boost its lottery chances, it's not difficult to find some of that grumbling off the record.
Mercury president Amber Cox and coach/GM Corey Gaines insist they did everything they could to win as much as possible this year, but that they couldn't overcome a plethora of injuries that started with Penny Taylor getting hurt while playing overseas.
Both Candice Dupree and Charde Houston had surgeries during the WNBA season. Cox said that was because the Mercury wanted to take advantage of the time off during the Olympics for them to heal. Both did eventually return to play in September (Houston for nine games, Dupree for three).
Causing the most consternation among those suspicious of a conspiracy in the desert was the handling of past No. 1 draft pick and MVP Diana Taurasi. She played in just eight games this season, the first time in her nine-year WNBA career that she didn't compete in at least 31.
However, Taurasi started all eight games during the Olympics for the United States, averaging 24.1 minutes and a team-high 12.4 points. That she played in just six of the Mercury's 15 contests after the London Games raised some eyebrows.
"Yeah, she led the [U.S.] team in scoring, but she didn't look like herself," Gaines said about his view of Taurasi's physical condition during the Olympics. "Some games, she looked really, really bad, to be honest."
Will that make a few eyes roll? Of course. But here's Cox's take on the suggestion that Phoenix essentially kept looking for reasons to not play Taurasi.
"Absolutely not," Cox said. "She came back [from London] in a ton of pain with her wisdom teeth. It took a couple of games for her to feel better from her dental procedure. Then she played, and once we were mathematically eliminated, we decided to shut her down and give her rest for the last couple of weeks.
"We understand that every fan wants to see Diana play every night. But she's 30 years old and has played eight years for us and given us everything she's had. So to give a player at her age, who has played this much, two weeks' rest is a big deal. If we can do that and ensure she is in a Mercury uniform for a lot of years beyond this, that's the positive."
Ultimately, the paying customers in Phoenix didn't seem to mind, accepting that the losses this season might lead to a big payoff in the near future. Phoenix has had the top pick twice before in the WNBA draft, taking UConn's Taurasi in 2004 and Duke's Lindsey Harding in 2007 (the Mercury immediately traded Harding on draft day to Minnesota for Tangela Smith, who was an important part of Phoenix's two title teams).
The debate exists in most pro sports about how franchises might position themselves for draft gems during seasons in which they clearly are struggling. Did Phoenix follow a prescribed plan to end up in the lottery? Or did the franchise just inevitably drift in that direction when the injuries began to pile up?
WNBA president Laurel Richie navigated a diplomatic tightrope when asked about the perception of the Mercury this season.
"There is no question that Phoenix has had a tough year in terms of injuries," Richie said. She added that in regard to the debate over how much Phoenix used certain players, "I don't know that anyone who has entered into that dialogue has spent time talking to the [Mercury] physicians, who are the only ones who can really speak to the health of the players.
"While I'm very cognizant of there being a lot of conversation about this, a formal complaint with respect to Phoenix has not been registered with the league."
The Mercury could look on the bright side of the allegation that they didn't do all they could to win this season: It indicates that the organization is typically held in pretty high regard as a WNBA contender. Whereas those kinds of expectations aren't really there now for Tulsa, Chicago or Washington.
Furthermore, Cox said if some opposing fans are fuming about the Mercury, it's at least a good sign that they are so passionate about the league.
"We know what's happening internally and that these injuries are real," Cox said as the regular season wound to a close. "And that the players on the court every night were playing to win. Our fan base has been super-supportive. Fans are fans; they're supposed to get riled up and excited one way or another."
How excited will fans be once the lottery is complete? Griner is the most obvious bet as a sure-fire game-changer. Even if Chicago -- which has a two-time Olympian in Fowles at center -- were to defy the odds and get the top pick, Griner almost certainly would still be its choice.
"I would love to have that 'problem,'" Chatman said in regard to having two such talents at the 5 position. "I don't think about it a lot, but I hope it happens. We've seen it happen in the past."
In fact, the team with the least amount of chances has ended up with the top pick twice: Phoenix for the 2007 draft, and Los Angeles for 2012.
By contrast, the last time a franchise with the most chances actually did win the lottery was for the 2009 draft, when Atlanta -- after a 4-30 inaugural season -- took Angel McCoughtry first.
Where will the 2013 draft rank with some of the best of the past? Will it live up to the hype generated by the trio at the top? Clearly, that can't be judged right away. But it has been a conversation generator this whole WNBA season, and will continue to be for the 2012-13 college campaign.
Will Griner get to stay in Big 12 territory by going from her native Texas to Oklahoma for her WNBA career? Would that prompt the Shock to entertain trade options for Cambage?
Speaking of geographic ties, might the South Bend, Ind., native Diggins end up in nearby Chicago? How about Delaware's own Delle Donne going to D.C.? And considering how good Phoenix should be if the veterans are healthy next year, how much will any of the 2013 rookies help in trying to get the Mercury back on course?
In the past, the lottery has been held closer to the end of the calendar year, which gives the WNBA an "event" of sorts in the offseason. But considering the television window and the names involved this year, having the lottery this week, between the regular season and playoffs, seems logical.
"We'll see how it goes this year, but I do think it makes a lot of sense," Richie said. "I'm hoping it will be well-received by viewers. The composition of this [draft] class could be very exciting."