Checking in on the 2021 WNBA Draft Class

This year’s rookie class has not made much of an impression yet on the WNBA. This was expected before the draft and has so far proven out. This is no grand statement on the overall state of young talent in basketball, just a quirk of birthdays. The best players in the class of 2021 could and did leave as juniors, Satou Sabally and Chennedy Carter. The best players in the class of 2022, NaLyssa Smith and Rhyne Howard, were not old enough to leave early. While the W should lower the age for players to join the W, there would still be drafts of differing quality.

Still there will be some players from this class who contribute in the W. Below I look at the players who have actually played and thus have given us a read on their games. I tend to think without strong evidence otherwise a player who has not earned playing time is simply not good enough to do so. More often than not as an outside observer trusting coaches whose livelihood is on the line makes sense. Questioning judgements on the margins is where the fun is but a player who never plays is generally not playing for good reasons.

Players can and do develop while not getting playing time, of course. Myisha Hines-Allen is a good example of a player who developed on the bench and overseas and turned out to be quite good, so there is hope for the rookies who have not played yet. More for the ones who are stuck behind good players as MHA was, than those like Kysre Gondrezick who can’t crack a rotation on a team going nowhere. To be fair maybe Gondrezick would have played had she not disappeared from the Fever after the Olympic break, but who knows.

Then some accountability at the end on a couple of players I was too high on in my draft board to see what can be learned for future drafts. All stats per Basketball Reference.

Michaela Onyenwere

The 6th pick and favorite for rookie of the year, she is the only rookie to get significant playing time throughout the entire season, even as she did not start the Liberty’s most recent game. My concerns going into the season were she was stuck between the 3 and 4, without the size to be a 4 nor the shooting or passing to play the 3. After a hot start from 3, her percentages have fallen, but she has been able to remain fairly productive on offense.

She is at 32% from 3 on 3.6 attempts per game, so not terrible and definitely promising given she hardly shot at all in college. Getting it up to 35% is definitely a possibility. Rounding out the rest of per perimeter skills is the next step. For example, she has nearly twice as many turnovers as assists

Defense has been a struggle at the 4 and even with the inevitable defensive improvements that young players make it is unlikely she will be a plus on that end at the 4, given her lack of height and length. Even with her explosive athleticism, she gets relatively few steals and blocks. But she is not a disaster either on defense. If she can improve her perimeter skills to play some 3 that would help her on defense as well. All in all, a promising rookie year and if we were to do a redraft she undoubtedly would go higher than 6, maybe as high as 2 or 3. 

Aari McDonald:

McDonald has had a solid rookie year at point guard, the hardest position on offense to learn in the pros. Her defense has been as advertised as a point guard defender. Something to watch will be if she can use her strength and speed to guard bigger guards. Her ability to guard point guards is valuable, but if she is only a one position defender, the impact will be somewhat limited. Being able to guard shooting guards will be especially helpful if she is next to Chennedy Carter, who has the tools to be a decent defender but has not been particularly good at that end yet.

On offense the story has been a lot more uneven for McDonald. 33% from 3 on 3 attempts per game is fine, if not the kind of shooting we saw in the NCAA tournament. Concerns that she was drafted high off a small stretch of hot shooting were not unwarranted, but so far her shooting from 3 has been good enough, if not to the level it was in that tournament run.  An assist turnover ratio of nearly 2 to 1 is good as well.

Where McDonald has lots of work to do is her ability to finish inside the arc. Having a 2 point percentage, 32%, that is lower than your 3 point percentage is not good. Her lack of touch on floaters and runners coming out of Arizona concerned me and has been an issue. To be a starter in the W, she will need to be able to figure out how to finish against W size and length. Kelsey Plum should be the role model. Plum was a more accomplished scorer coming into the W, but she also had to work to improve her finishes and McDonald can absolutely do the same.

The folks who had Aari McDonald as the better prospect than Dana Evans, like the Dream, are looking good. A lot of the Dream season has not gone to plan, but McDonald as the third pick has looked perfectly reasonable. Evans has been ok and I will get to her later, but McDonald has been better.

Charli Collier

Nothing that we have seen from Collier has convinced me that I was wrong to be skeptical of her as the number 1 pick in this draft. She can still be a solid W player in time. I had her fifth on my board so it is not like I expected her to be out of the league quickly. While I mentioned that rookies getting playing time correlates to their quality often, Collier is the exception. She seemed to get a lot of playing time as the #1 pick, even if the team was better with Bella Alarie, Izzy Harrison, and even Awak Kuier instead.

Her shooting on offense was always more theoretical than actual and so far has remained so. She has yet to take a 3 in the W and her ability to occasionally hit a midrange 2 is not going to make up for her middling finishing in the paint. She still has time to adjust to the size in the W, but Sylvia Fowles she likely is not in the paint. More likely to be Elizabeth Williams level around the rim.

However, unlike Elizabeth Williams, Collier has not been able to make much of an impact defensively. Defense, particularly defending in space, is the hardest thing for young bigs to learn and Collier will improve. But she is so out of position as a help defender and lacks the lateral speed to make up for it that the odds of her anchoring a top 4 defense seem long.

To get back to offense, passing for a center is not the most important skill, however for a number one pick with hopes of stardom, it does matter. Her lack of passing in college has improved minutely in the pros, but is still a concern. She has 6 assists on the season for a rate of .6 per 36 minutes. That is similar to the assist rates for both Williams and Fowles as rookies. Both of them made a real leap in their second year, so Collier’s passing will be something to watch in year 2.

Awak Kuier

Nothing I have seen has dissuaded me from the view from before the season that Awak’s ceiling is the highest of any of the players in this draft. Taken second by the Wings after her teammate Collier, Awak has earned more playing time than Collier as the season has gone on. While she is more flashes of potential than actual production at the moment, there are have been sufficient flashes to dream big going forward.

To compare her to her teammate Collier, Awak has more assists in half as many minutes. She has twice as many blocks and the same number of steals. She has struggled to score compared to Collier.

Her scoring has been an adventure, with atrocious shooting percentages from everywhere except the free throw line. The optimistic take is that her 3 point shot looks confident and finishing inside should come with added strength and experience. She has decent touch. She just needs to not be able to be knocked over by a strong breeze.

The biggest thing going for Awak is that she is still very young. She turned 20 a month ago. For perspective, she is 2 months older than Paige Bueckers and 3 months younger than Haley Jones. To already be able to play in the W with some success is a great sign for her going forward.

Revisiting my 2021 Draft Board:

Three players, Natasha Mack, Dana Evans, and Arella Guirantes, who I was high on went in the second round of the draft, so it is worth looking at how they have fared and what to takeaway from teams differing in their evaluations from me. I am basing this on what limited playing time these players have received and so understandably my perspective is inherently limited. But I still think it worth walking through.

Natasha Mack I had as the best center prospect in college. She went 16th to the Sky and is now out of the W after getting some looks from the Sky and the Lynx. She seems to have been hurt by one factor I discounted too much, her lack of offensive polish, and one factor I did not consider before the draft, the increased difficulty of non-star centers making teams. I wrote about the challenges of non-star centers earlier this season. I still think Mack has a chance to make it back into the league as she figures out how to turn her length and speed into consistent defensive impact, but she will also need some luck as her lack of offensive feel will make her fit tricky.

Dana Evans I had top 5 and she went 12th to the Wings. She was then traded to the Sky. While I was likely a bit too high on her, as stated before McDonald has shown herself to be the better prospect so far in the W, I was closer with her than either Mack or Guirantes. In many ways her rookie year has looked like McDonald’s, but with more extremes. Her 3 point shooting has been better than McDonald’s and a legitimate asset for the Sky at 41% on the season. She can actually dribble and pass in the W, no guarantee given some of the other choices the Sky have used as backup point guard. On the other hand she has struggled even more than McDonald inside the arc with a ghastly 23% from 2. Her shooting may cool off a bit from 3, but she has enough craft I think she can get that 2 point percentage to at least respectable for a backup.

Arella Guirantes’ draft position differed the most between my board and the draft itself as I had her as a top 5 pick and she ended up going to the Sparks with the 22nd pick. On the one hand she has not done that much with her time on the Sparks but the fact that as 22nd pick she is still on the Sparks and receiving playing time means she is doing something right. Stephanie Watts was selected 10th by the Sparks, then was cut by the Sky after a trade, and has not been heard from since. The issue for Guirantes in the W is her lack of athleticism. She struggles to create separation on offense and is vulnerable to being blown by on defense. I thought she had the skill, strength, and length to overcome that. Defensively she has not been a disaster, but offensively it has not worked so far. Shooting 27% from the field is not going to get it done. In particular looking to shoot 3s quicker and not stop the ball and let the defense recover would be one adjustment for her as she adapts from college star to W role player.