Commentary

Lottery is magical for Mercury

But Washington winds up with fourth pick; Chicago gets No. 2 pick, Tulsa No. 3

Originally Published: September 26, 2012
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW

The big grin on Phoenix coach Corey Gaines' face might have reminded you of Bruce the Shark when he gets a whiff of blood in "Finding Nemo." The Mercury won the WNBA draft lottery Wednesday. And unless everyone in that organization loses their sanity between now and April, the two-time WNBA champions will add Baylor center Brittney Griner to their franchise.

Meanwhile, everyone associated with the Washington Mystics probably felt like Marlin and Dory when they found themselves face to face with that creepy, hungry, multifanged, horrible-looking monster fish in the inky depths.

[+] EnlargeBrittney Griner and Skylar Diggins
Justin Edmonds/Getty ImagesBrittney Griner, rear, seems a lock for Phoenix at No. 1 overall, but South Bend native Skylar Diggins might be a good fit for Chicago at No. 2.

"Oh, no! We're [blanked]!"

Actually, it might be a good idea for Mystics personnel and fans to go watch the Pixar classic in 3-D at the theater, in order to remind themselves of Dory's optimistic motto: "Just keep swimming, just keep swimming, just keep swimming!"

Because just as Wednesday was dreamy for Phoenix, it was a nightmare for Washington.

"This is a huge crush for us. I'm not going to lie to you," Mystics team president/managing partner Sheila Johnson told ESPN.com's Graham Hays after the Mystics wound up fourth in the lottery, held at ESPN's studios and broadcast live on "SportsCenter."

While the Mercury are overjoyed, the Chicago Sky also are quite happy. The Sky had the fewest amount of chances in the lottery, yet finished second. They should have their pick between Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins and Delaware guard/forward Elena Delle Donne, and Chicago can't go wrong with either player.

Meanwhile, Tulsa didn't get the No. 1 pick for either the 2011 or '12 draft, despite having the most lottery chances both times. The Shock had the third-most chances Wednesday, and that's where they finished. It seems a bad break for a franchise that you'd think should have ended up with a top pick one of these years.

That said, either Diggins or Delle Donne certainly can help Tulsa, too. (Although how comfortable Delle Donne in particular might be in Tulsa is a question the Shock might have to consider. More on that later.)

And then there's pitiable Washington. You know how bad it feels to place fourth in the Olympics? Well, that's how the Mystics feel now. There were three medals to be had Wednesday, and Washington -- which finished the season Saturday with the worst record (5-29) in the league and thus had the best lottery odds -- didn't win any of them.

"This is over-the-top disappointment," said Johnson, which is saying something, considering the Mystics unfortunately are a franchise that has specialized in over-the-top disappointment. "But I'm very happy for [the Mercury]. It's great for them."

Realistic translation: Damn you, Mercury.

Gaines, looking ahead to adding a No. 1 pick to the Phoenix players he hopes will be back healthy for the 2013 WNBA season, said, "The first word that comes to my mind is, 'Excited.'"

That is not the first word some other folks will be thinking about the Mercury. One of the main subplots of this WNBA season -- in which Minnesota is trying to repeat -- has been the belief by some inside and outside the league that Phoenix "tanked" to increase the franchise's odds of getting a top 2013 draft pick.

The Mercury brain trust has insisted that wasn't the case, pointing to the numerous injuries Phoenix had to key players, including a torn ACL that kept Penny Taylor out all year.

But the handling of Phoenix superstar Diana Taurasi, in particular, riled some observers who felt that if she was healthy enough to play every game of the Olympics, she could have played more than six of the Mercury's 15 contests after the Summer Games.

If Phoenix, which had the second-most lottery chances after its 7-27 season, had finished fourth Wednesday, there might not have been much grousing. That the Mercury won the "Griner Sweepstakes," though, guarantees there will be some irritated coaches/GMs throughout the league (even if they won't say so publicly) and some flat-out furious opposing fans.

The WNBA hasn't necessarily had a "villain" team since the Shock left their Bill Laimbeer identity behind when the franchise relocated from Detroit to Tulsa. And the Los Angeles Sparks -- who used to have an air of the villain about them, too, because some folks enjoyed hating on the now-retired Lisa Leslie -- are currently pretty darn likable to many fans. So are the Lynx, in spite of their recent success.

[+] EnlargeElena Delle Donne
Evan Habeeb/US PresswireElena Delle Donne might be a better fit for Phoenix's up-tempo style of play, but it's hard to see the Mercury passing on Brittney Griner.

It's kind of fun for the league to have a "bad guy," and that's how the Mercury will be perceived by a lot of WNBA followers now. Do you think that will bother Taurasi? Of course not. She'll love it. She revels in shutting up boobirds and hecklers.

And Griner certainly has heard more than her share of caustic remarks during her time in college. Her skin has gotten quite thick out of necessity. She's not going to be the least bit rattled by that in the pros.

Gaines didn't say for sure that the Mercury will take Griner, but it's practically unimaginable that they won't. The 6-foot-8 center runs the floor exceptionally well for her size and is an outstanding defender. Phoenix plays a very up-tempo, fast-break style, and some centers would have a difficult time fitting into that. But Griner won't.

"I don't see any problem at all," Gaines said of the potential of Griner playing Mercury-style basketball. "The main thing about the system is you have to rebound, because you need the ball to run. Another way you get the ball is defensive stops. And I think she's a great rebounder and defender."

DeWanna Bonner transitioned into the starting lineup and carried an enormous load for Phoenix this season, so her confidence should be very high for 2013. The Mercury also broke in a rookie point guard, Samantha Prahalis, this season, and she had a trial by fire without many veteran stars around her.

Candice Dupree and Charde Houston both had surgeries during the summer and came back near the end of the season. Gaines said that to his knowledge, Taylor's knee rehab is on schedule.

If the Mercury, who won the WNBA title in 2007 and '09, are physically sound in 2013, they could be a really tough team to handle and make an already strong Western Conference even stronger.

"It could be an exciting time," Gaines said. "We have a solid core."

Meanwhile, the Mystics have anything but that. Washington finished first in the Eastern Conference in 2010 but parted ways with coach Julie Plank and general manager Angela Taylor after that season. Their departure dismayed a lot of Mystics fans who felt the organization had finally turned a corner in its oft-tortured existence.

The past two seasons, the Mystics have been a combined 11-57 under coach/GM Trudi Lacey, who was let go Monday. Whoever replaces her will be the 13th coach in Mystics history, which started in 1998.

Washington was hoping to get at least one of the top three draft picks, which perhaps could have helped the franchise in its search for a coach/GM.

Will the Mystics hire one person for that job or two? This much is certain: The team is desperately in need of someone with very good GM skills now. Because there is a lot of salvage work to be done and there are not many parts on hand to do it with.

Some might suggest the Mystics try to trade to get Delle Donne. The problem is, Washington has little value to offer in trade beyond the franchise's best player, post Crystal Langhorne.

Washington and New York are the closest franchises to Delle Donne's native Delaware. And while geographic proximity to home isn't much of a concern for most pro athletes, it is a factor to consider for Delle Donne.

She has a disabled older sister to whom she is very close. And her reticence to be far from her sister was a major factor in Delle Donne's changing her mind about going to UConn for college and instead staying close to home with the Blue Hens.

Whether Delle Donne is prepared to leave the East Coast to compete professionally is a question she'll likely need to answer for Chicago or Tulsa if Phoenix does indeed take Griner.

The Sky started as an expansion franchise in 2006 but have yet to make the playoffs. Chicago coach/GM Pokey Chatman would have preferred the postseason this year to the lottery, but she had positive things to say about all three expected top prizes in the draft.

The Sky drafted a point guard, Gonzaga's Courtney Vandersloot, in 2011. She averaged 8.9 points and 4.2 assists this season, starting 27 of 34 games. Chatman said she thought it would have benefited Vandersloot to work more with veteran point guard Ticha Penicheiro, who came to the Sky as a free agent for this season. But Penicheiro, who recently announced her retirement, played in just 19 games because of injuries.

The biggest keys to the Sky's success in 2013 and beyond will be the health of guard Epiphanny Prince and Olympic center Sylvia Fowles, both of whom dealt with injuries this season. Chatman is optimistic about the improvements she has asked Prince, in particular, to make in regard to overall fitness. She thinks Prince can be a hugely successful scorer long term for the Sky at shooting guard. Fowles, when she's 100 percent physically or close to it, is one of the top players in the world.

So if Chatman feels Diggins could step in as a rookie and be an effective floor general, she might take the Irish's popular standout and perhaps look to deal Vandersloot. (Although it's not exactly a bad thing to have good depth at point guard.) There is also the fact that Diggins is a native of South Bend, Ind., and might well bring some Notre Dame fans with her to the Sky.

Tulsa had the No. 2 (Liz Cambage) and No. 7 (Kayla Pedersen) picks in the 2011 draft, and had No. 4 (Glory Johnson) this year, plus got Riquna Williams at No. 17. Cambage hasn't blossomed yet in the WNBA; she didn't play at all in the league this season. Pedersen has had her moments, but she missed time this season with a staph infection. Johnson (11.5 ppg, 6.8 rebounds per game) and Williams (10.5 ppg) had good rookie years, and should continue to be contributors for the Shock.

Some wonder whether the Shock could find better value in trading the 6-8 center Cambage than in retaining her. There also has been speculation Pedersen might be a better "cog" in another team's system.

It would seem Tulsa will get either Diggins or Delle Donne, but maybe the franchise will be thinking about deals to be made that include its draft pick. These are decisions coach Gary Kloppenburg and the Shock brass will need to think about for the 2013 season.

Obviously, Tulsa absolutely would have loved to have gotten Griner. The reality, fair or not, is that not every WNBA player is amenable about going to Oklahoma. But Griner, a native of Texas who has played in the Big 12, likely would have been very comfortable in Tulsa.

Instead, it certainly looks like she'll relocate to Arizona next summer, and help make the Mercury into a championship contender again.

And the Mystics? Well, there's always next year's lottery.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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