At the start of this past college basketball season, WNBA general managers and coaches were preparing for a rather pedestrian draft with few players around whom franchises could build for the long term.
Then, over several days early this month, the draft landscape changed dramatically when Minnesota’s Amanda Zahui B. and Notre Dame’s Jewell Loyd, in that order, announced they would relinquish their remaining college eligibility to turn professional. Loyd was a finalist for national player of the year this past season, and Zahui B. won Big Ten player of the year.
The Seattle Storm, which owns the first and third overall selections, figures to have the most to gain from the addition of two first-team all-Americans in Thursday night’s draft pool, which also includes Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, the NCAA’s all-time leader in three-point field goals who helped Connecticut win its third straight national championship.
“I think there’s a 100 percent chance we’ll take one of them at one,” said Jenny Boucek, the Storm’s first-year coach who as a college player helped Virginia to three appearances in the NCAA tournament’s regional final. “And at number three, we’re really exploring a lot of options with that pick.”
Loyd’s decision caught many in the sport off guard, especially with the Fighting Irish bringing back a loaded roster capable of reaching the national championship game for the third straight year. The 5-foot-10 guard would have been the centerpiece as a senior, but the enticement of becoming the No. 1 pick apparently outweighed the pursuit of Notre Dame’s second NCAA title.
Another variable may have been more assurance of being drafted first overall this season without the best college player in the country on the board. Connecticut’s Breanna Stewart, a two-time national player of the year, will return to school for her senior season, after which she is considered a lock to be the top selection.
Loyd stands to earn in the neighborhood of $50,000 if she’s the top overall pick but could get many times that playing overseas. Maya Moore, for instance, was the No. 1 selection in the 2011 draft and made $47,000 with the Minnesota Lynx but reportedly earns $600,000 in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association.
Zahui B., meanwhile, is projected to go second overall to the Tulsa Shock. The 6-5 Swedish forward-center became the first all-American for the Golden Gophers in a decade after averaging 18.8 points, 12.9 rebounds and 4.1 blocks as a sophomore, including one game with 39 points and 29 rebounds.
“I have to say Zahui B., that wasn’t a huge shock,” said Connecticut Sun Coach Anne Donovan, whose club owns the fourth overall pick. “She’s an international player already. She’s a little bit older already. But Jewell Loyd, I’ll be honest, I was very surprised. I just didn’t think coming from Notre Dame that we were going to see that jump anytime soon.”
Loyd was eligible to declare early based on WNBA rules stipulating a player doing so must have had or will have her 22nd birthday during the calendar year of the draft. The eligibility requirement for international players such as Zahui B. is reaching her 20th birthday during the draft’s calendar year. Zahui B., who is 21, has been eligible since last season.
Their decisions were rare for women’s basketball but not without precedent. Tennessee’s Candace Parker in 2008 and Texas A&M’s Kelsey Bone in 2013 both declared for the WNBA draft after redshirt junior seasons, and Parker became the No. 1 overall pick of the Los Angeles Sparks. Bone went fifth overall to the New York Liberty.
“The draft got a whole lot better last week,” said Mike Thibault, the Washington Mystics’ coach and general manager. “I’m sure [the league], ESPN, everybody is happier. I don’t know if it’s actually going to change what we’re thinking about doing.”
That’s because the Mystics have the eighth pick in the first round following a second straight playoff appearance since the hiring of Thibault three years ago to rebuild the franchise. Washington also picks third in the second round (15th overall) and eighth in the third (32nd).
The Mystics’ most glaring need is at small forward after Thibault elected not to re-sign free agent Monique Currie, the starter at that position for most of the last seven seasons. Currie instead signed with the Phoenix Mercury, which will be without Diana Taurasi for the year because her Russian Premier League team is paying the nine-time WNBA first-team selection to sit out.