WNBA Draft Lottery: Cause For Excitment

Kelsey Mitchell was the Indiana Fever’s highest draft pick since 2005 and never in club history had the Indiana Fever ever made two selections among the top eight picks in the WNBA Draft.

Following a 6-28 season, Indiana enters the draft lottery again, for the second time in as many years, but still just the third time since 2005. Now though, with the likelihood of another top-two draft pick, the Fever may be poised to rise again in 2019 and certainly by 2020.

Sports are cyclicle. Sports franchises frequently encounter the ebb and flow of success that comes when wins and losses are your measuring stick. The Fever are at the bottom of that measuring stick currently, but a bit of late-season momentum combined with the looming possibility of another productive draft – plus the franchise’s upcoming 20th anniversary season in 2019 – all have Fever offices abuzz.

Has a corner been turned? Probably not yet. But there is light and there is enthusiasm. Less than a week after a six-win season, that’s saying something.

Before identifying early prospects for the 2019 draft, let’s examine two positives from 2018: a late-season surge and continued support.

  1. Indiana was 4-7 during its final month of play, with other close calls along the way. On-court progress was tangible and should continue as the youthful Fever roster matures.
  2. Attendance. Yes, attendance, even despite a drop of more than a thousand spectators per game. Despite its small-market stature and despite just six victories, the Fever still finished seventh in the WNBA in average attendance, and three of the club’s largest attendance figures came during July and August, well after the club was in last place. Support of a dedicated fan base, particularly as the franchise approaches its landmark 20th season, will help fuel excitement for the draft and the 2019 season.

So let’s discuss that draft. What piece or pieces can be added for 2019?

Indiana enters next Tuesday’s lottery (ESPN2 at halftime of WNBA semifinal game) with the best odds of cultivating the No. 1 pick in the draft, a coveted prize the Fever have never owned. Indiana has a 44.2 percent chance of landing the top overall pick, followed by Las Vegas at 27.6 percent, Chicago at 17.8 percent and New York at 10.4. The Liberty and Fever are the only teams in league history never to boast the coveted top pick.

Indiana’s needs, still, are plentiful, meaning that the team’s direction in making that pick is not academic. In 2018, Indiana sorely needed a post player and A’ja Wilson was far and away the top-rated pick as a premier, pro-ready power forward. Indiana didn’t have that top pick so Wilson was never a true consideration.

This year, the need for size remains evident at all positions, and a post player certainly still fits those needs. A long, athletic, dynamic inside-outside threat (i.e. Breanna Stewart, Elena Delle Donne, Seimone Augustus, Angel McCoughtry) would also meet a need that doesn’t reside on the Indiana roster. If Tamika Catchings fit that bill for 15 years on the Fever roster, it still is a void needing to be filled. Higher percentage shooting is another trait on which Indiana needs to improve.

Whether at guard, forward or center, Indiana can benefit from size. The Fever are pretty well stocked at both guard positions though, so candidates who can have impact at the 3, 4 and 5 positions will surely draw high attention.

Instant attention will be paid to a pair of 6-7 centers: Teaira McCowan at Mississippi State and Kalani Brown at Baylor. Both are athletic, both play an elite, nationally ranked schedule. McCowan teamed with Vivians in guiding the Bulldogs to a pair of appearances in the national championship game and she set the NCAA Tournament single-season rebounding record. She had 21 points and 25 boards in a win over Louisville in the national semifinal game. Like McCowan, Brown has been nothing short of dominant. She was a double-double machine for the Bears, averaging 20.2 points and 66 percent shooting, leading the nation for much of the 2018 season.

Also sure to keep the Fever’s attention through the 2018-19 college season are Connecticut scoring leaders Naphessa Collier and Katie Lou Samuelson.

Samuelson, listed as a 6-3 guard/forward, might bear the greatest comparison in this draft, size and position-wise, to the 6-5 Delle Donne or 6-4 Stewart. A true combo player, she led the Huskies with 18.4 points per game last year and led the country with 48 percent shooting beyond the arc. Collier, listed as a 6-1 forward, has a greater interior presence and was UConn’s second-leading scorer with 15.5 points per game. As a sophomore, she averaged 20.4 points with 67 percent shooting.

Those are four players on the radar instantly.

Collier and Samuelson can help stretch the floor by themselves, with dynamic play that requires constant attention by opponents on both ends of the floor. A bigger and more athletic interior presence from McCowan or Brown would instantly amplify the production of current Fever star Natalie Achonwa. Indiana’s current stable of guards – Pondexter, Johnson, Wheeler, Mitchell, Mitchell and Vivians – would benefit from a potent target in the paint, as well as finding more space to create with defenses forced to more heavily defend the Indiana interior.

In a completely informal survey of national media who cover the women’s game, nine participants ranked McCowan (5 votes) and Louisville guard Asia Durr (6 votes) as the most worthy top-two picks in next year’s — regardless, on August 21, the knowledge of specific teams doing the drafting. (Collier drew 3 votes with Brown and Samuelson each collecting 2.)

Durr, the high-scoring (18.8ppg) ACC Player of the Year, is considered by many as the most pro-ready player in the draft. The other guard listed among top-two candidates by the informal media panel was 5-8 Notre Dame sensation Arike Ogunbowale (4 votes), the star of last year’s Final Four and Fighting Irish national championship. She scored 20.8 points per game and certainly has a champion’s pedigree. But do the 5-10 or 5-8 guards fit within the Fever’s existing framework?

Eight months remain before the Fever will be “on the clock” and the trade-and-free-agency season could play a hand in determining the direction of Indiana draft efforts. For now, Tuesday night reveals the first clue: where will the teams pick?

Indiana, of course, hopes its top odds produce a top pick.