Draft Prospects to Watch in the 2021 NCAAW Tournament

With the upcoming tournament, it is a great time to watch some players who could be playing in the WNBA in the next few years. Rather than solely focus on players eligible for this year’s draft, I am going to take a slightly different tack and focus on two players from each class who it is worth watching. The relative strength of different draft classes plays a role in team building, as a first round pick in 2022 might be worth more than one in 2023 and so forth. 2021 is a weak draft, particularly with Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter already in the W. But there are players in each class worth paying attention to. 

The goal is to focus on players who there are questions about and who do not get a lot of attention, so apologies to Rhyne Howard, Paige Bueckers, and Aliyah Boston, but I am trying to spread the attention around. Other than Evina Westbrook, who I know is eligible this year, I am including players in their draft class if they stay until their senior year. 

2021 Draft:

Jasmine Walker F Alabama

Walker was the last spot on my draft board and is the player most likely to fall out of the top 10. Her main skill that will get her drafted is her shooting. Shooting is only becoming more valuable in the WNBA and a player who takes over 7 threes a game and makes 40% of them has value. 

While I would not have traded the #1 pick for Katie Lou Samuelson, there’s a reason Seattle did it. Walker is a similar level shooter and better rebounder. If Alabama can beat UNC, a second round matchup with Maryland would be an excellent test of Walker’s all around game. Alabama would also need her to shoot until her arms fell off to keep up with Maryland’s high powered offense.

Evina Westbrook G UConn

Westbrook is only a junior, but she is draft eligible this year, so I am going to include her here. Westbrook on the right night looks like a surefire WNBA prospect. While she has slipped to 31% from 3, she has shot better in prior years and has a well rounded game, with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 2 steals per game.

The issue for her has been showing up in the biggest games against the best talent. For UConn to win the championship they will likely need at least one other player to show up on the offensive end and be able to score against a set defense. Paige Bueckers is unable to do it all herself. Westbrook in theory has the size and skill, but has not shown it this year. 

A good tournament could vault her into the first round, and with a much stronger class coming out next year, it would make sense for her to at least consider leaving, like Megan Walker did last year.

2022 Draft

NaLyssa Smith  F Baylor

There is no question if Smith is a WNBA level talent. The question becomes where she fits in the first round. As high as 2, right after Rhyne Howard? Or more towards the middle? Going for Smith is she may be the most explosive athlete in all of college basketball, with a developing skill level to match. The player she is today is very good, but it’s who she might be in three or four years that would get her drafted second overall.

The flip side of so much potential is that it is unclear what her position will be in the WNBA. A 6’2” forward who does not shoot 3s, at least not yet, who does not playmake for others, nor blocks many shots, might be a tricky fit at the next level. Keeping an eye on how she matches up when/if she goes against players who can at least almost match her in size and athleticism will be instructive. As would any hints at developing shooting range, even if only from long 2. 81% from the free throw line as a junior is a very good sign.

Rae Burrell G Tennessee

While Rennia Davis will get the attention as a likely first round pick in this draft from Tennessee, Burrell also deserves attention as a potential WNBA player. The big part of her game that she could improve on, and Tennessee could use from her, is her playmaking. She has a good handle, and looks like she knows what to do, but a negative assist to turnover ratio is not a good sign. 

Her shooting, on the other hand, is a good sign. She has improved from every area of the floor each year at Tennessee, and assuming that is real, should be able to give her a chance to make the end of the first round in next year’s draft. Wings who defend and shoot 3s are among the hardest position to come by in the W. 

2023 Draft

Kierstan Bell G 

Probably the player I am most excited to watch. FGCU’s matchup with Michigan will be the first time Bell has played a Power 5 team this year.  She is someone who overwhelms mid-major opponents with her size and athleticism. How will she match up with a team with much better size? A 35% shooter from 3, she is clearly more than just size and athleticism, but this will be a good test to see where she should be considered going forward.

Charisma Osborne

While Michaela Onyenwere has been the engine of UCLA this season, Osborne is clearly the team’s second best player. At 5’9” she is borderline between the one and the two. There is a good chance she ends up the best of both worlds, someone who can run point when needed, but also shoots well enough from 3 to play off ball. 36% from 2 is concerning, so her finishing in the paint will be something to watch.

2024 Draft

Cameron Brink C Stanford

A thought experiment I like to consider is where would various players be drafted if every player in college basketball could be drafted. For Brink, the question is other than Aliyah Boston, how many other centers in college basketball would you definitely take over Brink? It took her less than half the season to beat out Fran Belibi for the starting center spot, no small feat.

Brink can shoot 3s, pass from the high post, defend down low, and move her feet on the perimeter. Her major weaknesses are the most fixable for young bigs, a lack of strength and sky foul rate. The lack of strength partially explains the foul rate. Stanford has good centers behind Brink in both Belibi and Ashton Prechtel, but for Stanford to in the championship, they will need Brink to bring her best.

Diamond Johnson PG Rutgers

Two other freshman point guards who are knock down shooters get all the attention, but Johnson at 45% from 3 on 6 attempts per game is a heck of a shooter already. Two questions to watch for her going forward. Why is she only averaging 2.5 assists per game? Yes the team  runs a lot of their offense through senior Arella Guirantes, but it is still something to watch. And at 56% from 2 she seems to be able to follow in Crystal Dangerfield’s steps of small guards who can still finish in the paint, but worth keeping an eye on.