- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Last September when the WNBA draft lottery was held, Washington president/managing partner Sheila Johnson couldn't hide the look of frozen horror when the Mystics got the No. 4 pick. Fourth was the "tough-luck" spot in a draft where there were perceived to be three prizes.
Washington's woes were not Mike Thibault's worry that day. He was still coach of Connecticut and focused on the playoffs. But almost seven months later, the No. 4 pick doesn't look as bleak as it did last fall, and now it's Thibault's choice to make.
The Sun fired Thibault after the postseason, and Washington -- which has made its share of ding-a-ling moves in the past -- did not drop the ball this time. The Mystics brought Thibault aboard in December, and now he's perhaps the most interesting player at the 2013 WNBA draft poker table.
"That's going to dictate the whole thing," said New York coach Bill Laimbeer, in his second go-round in the WNBA. "Whoever Mike picks."
Thibault joked about that during a conference call Thursday that also included Laimbeer, Tulsa's Gary Kloppenburg and Indiana's Lin Dunn. Thibault said that he had the first selection of the "other" draft -- the nine picks in the first round after the "Big Three" of Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins are chosen, as expected, by Phoenix, Chicago and Tulsa.
The order of Delle Donne and Diggins as 2-3 remains under some debate, as there are folks who think Chicago will go with the South Bend, Ind., native Diggins. I think the Sky can't afford to pass on a player of Delle Donne's more rare skill set at her size. Regardless, though, we know the first three players who will be selected.
Then we're out of the realm of the supposed sure things. So the fulcrum for how the rest of the first round plays out is, indeed, Thibault: Who will he pick at No. 4?
It seems likely to be one of these three players: Ohio State's Tayler Hill, Maryland's Tianna Hawkins or Texas A&M Kelsey Bone.
If Thibault decides his biggest need is a scoring guard, Hill probably is his choice. She was out of the spotlight more than many of the other first-round prospects because Ohio State struggled at times and didn't make the NCAA tournament field. But Hill averaged 21.1 points per game this season, was first-team All-Big Ten for the second time and on the league's all-defensive team a third time.
If Thibault instead opts for a post player, Hawkins is a 6-foot-3 forward who led the nation in shooting percentage her junior season (62.3). With the injuries the Terps had to deal with this past season, Hawkins had to do more with less-experienced guards. She still averaged 18.0 points and 9.7 rebounds, shooting 54.3 percent from the field.
Then there's Bone, a 6-4 physical presence inside. She's the traditional, back-to-the-basket, low-block kind of offensive player. She averaged 16.6 points and 9.3 rebounds this season.
Bone, who started her career at South Carolina, and then transferred to Texas A&M, did have one year of college eligibility remaining. But after being in school for four seasons, she was able to enter the draft and decided, as she put it, that the best way to learn how to be a pro … was to be a pro.
All three players could help the Mystics, who had the league's worst record at 5-29 last season.
"The [first] debate is between a post or a wing," Thibault said of his choice. "The second debate is you sit there and say … 'There are going to be two good drafts in a row. There are players that have the potential to be a star within a couple of years, be a really, really big impact player.' And that's our debate this weekend. We've narrowed it down to three or four players. We're going back and forth as a staff, and that's the decision we have to make."
Laimbeer's Liberty have two first-round picks, at Nos. 5 and 7. He acknowledges needing help in the post, and so it looks like either Hawkins or Bone will end up in New York with his first selection. And the second?
"Will probably be the best player to fill the slot that we need that's available at that time," Laimbeer said.
Gee, hard to believe he'd give away so much info, huh? That's about as revealing as saying that with the No. 7 pick, Laimbeer will select a basketball player.
That's the deal with coaches and the draft, though: There's only so much they can or will talk about publically, wanting to play it close to the vest and protect their own research, opinions and strategies.
And after the Mystics felt and looked pretty helpless last fall at the lottery, now the narrative has turned a bit. Washington actually doesn't seem to be in such a horrible position.
Sure, Thibault would prefer a top-three selection, but that won't happen. Instead, he'll get the first choice of the best-of-the-rest, and whatever he does, the dominoes then will fall.
As Laimbeer put it, "Mike's driving the bus right now."
Sure, we all know which three players will be drafted first Monday. But it's actually Washington's No. 4 pick that will dictate how the rest of the draft plays out.