Commentary

Sky, Wings, Fever and Aces earn top marks in WNBA draft grades

Updated: April 13, 2018, 5:29 PM ET
By Mechelle Voepel | espnW.com

The WNBA draft is a night of glitz and fun. But in five weeks, the WNBA season will begin with all of the draftees knowing how hard it is to make a roster. Because a great many of them won't.

The WNBA has 12 spots on 12 teams, so it's difficult to get and keep a job. The draft brings fresh talent in every year, and most classes have at least a handful of players who stick for multiple seasons. This year appears to have more talent than some recent classes, but that remains to be seen on the court.

When it comes to grading the draft, a big part of the grade comes simply from opportunity. Some franchises, such as defending champion Minnesota, didn't have a first-round pick and might not have improved their roster in a way that's readily obvious. By contrast, there's a team such as Chicago, which had two lottery picks and should benefit a lot from this draft.

Drafts are never properly graded until well after the fact, when we have actual results by which to judge. But here are espnW's draft grades as the clock ticks toward opening day on May 18.

The 'A' list

Chicago Sky
No. 3 Diamond DeShields, 6-1, SG, Tennessee
No. 4 Gabby Williams, 5-11, SF, UConn
No. 28 Amarah Coleman, 5-11, SG, DePaul

The Sky got exactly what they wanted. It helps when you have the No. 3 and No. 4 picks, which coach/general manager Amber Stocks helped set up with a trade last season. The bottom line in how this draft is evaluated long term is DeShields' performance. She has the ability to be one of the league's stars, and a go-to scorer the Sky need. She has to fit in chemistry-wise, though, which is something she says she understands.

Williams has the athleticism and competitiveness to fill in a lot of gaps because she's willing to do whatever she's asked. If Coleman makes the roster, she'll be a local grad like veteran Sky guard Allie Quigley, also of DePaul.

South Carolina's Alaina Coates, the No. 2 pick in last year's draft, feels like part of this class, too, because she didn't play in the 2017 WNBA season as she dealt with ankle injuries. Coates competed overseas, but she recently lost her father to a heart attack. We'll have to see how Coates deals with what is certain to be a very emotional time while trying to establish herself in the WNBA.

Dallas Wings
No. 6 Azura Stevens, 6-6, PF, UConn
No. 18 Loryn Goodwin, 5-9 PG, Oklahoma State
No. 30 Natalie Butler, 6-5, C, George Mason

The Wings maximized each pick they had for where it came in the draft. They couldn't be sure that Stevens would fall to sixth, but when she did, that was great for Dallas. With 6-foot-8 center Liz Cambage returning to the WNBA and now paired with Stevens, Dallas goes from a team that was soft in the middle to one that has two high-level rim protectors. That's an enormous and needed defensive improvement for the Wings, who allowed the most points in the WNBA last season.

And if Butler makes the team, that's another big body inside; she spent her senior year at George Mason after previously playing at UConn and Georgetown.

Goodwin was even more traveled, playing at four colleges, but she had an excellent senior year with Oklahoma State. She's a point guard who can score, and, if she makes the roster, Goodwin conceivably could prove a solid backup to Skylar Diggins.

Indiana Fever
No. 2 Kelsey Mitchell, 5-9, SG, Ohio State
No. 8 Victoria Vivians, 6-1, SG, Mississippi State
No. 14 Stephanie Mavunga, 6-3, PF, Ohio State

Here is another team that got what it wanted: scoring , scoring, scoring. Mitchell is second on the NCAA's career scoring list to Kelsey Plum, who was last year's No. 1 pick. When Vivians was bypassed at No. 7 by Washington, she was available to add to the Fever's offense, too. Vivians at this point is a more accomplished defensive player than Mitchell, but that's something the former Buckeyes star can improve.

Had Vivians not been available, the Fever might have opted for point guard Lexie Brown, and that's a spot where Indiana is lacking some depth and experience after trading Briann January. Mitchell played a lot of point guard at Ohio State, and Sky coach/GM Pokey Chatman can use her there, as well.

Mavunga is from Indianapolis, and her sister-in-law, Jeanette Pohlen-Mavunga, is a Fever guard. Plus, she was teammates with Mitchell at Ohio State. So there should be a lot of comfort level for her if she makes the squad; she could help Indiana on the boards.

Will this draft be enough to get the Fever back into the playoffs after missing the postseason last year for the first time since 2004? It could, depending on how quickly these rookies mature.

Las Vegas Aces
No. 1 A'ja Wilson, 6-5, PF, South Carolina
No. 13 Jaime Nared, 6-2, G, Tennessee
No. 25 Raigyne Louis, 5-10, SG, LSU

Obtained in trade with Minnesota: No. 17 Ji-Su Park, 6-4, C, South Korea; No. 24 Kahlia Lawrence, 5-8, SG, Mercer

It seems fitting that A'ja is an Ace. Wilson was Las Vegas' top target all along, and it was the perfect alignment of the best player in the draft playing the position most needed by the team picking No. 1. She should make an impact right away and is the obvious front-runner for WNBA Rookie of the Year, an award won by her former South Carolina teammate Allisha Gray last season for Dallas.

Wilson is pro-ready offensively and defensively, and in Bill Laimbeer she will have a coach as demanding but also as direct in communicating as South Carolina's Dawn Staley. Wilson also has the personality to be a face of the organization in a new city for the WNBA.

Laimbeer also had the first pick of the second round, and Nared also fits the profile of what the Aces need in a good-sized wing player. She struggled at times with her shooting percentage at Tennessee, so Laimbeer will work to make sure she's taking the right shots.

Louis is a strong defender, which could help her make the roster despite being a third-round pick. Park and Lawrence, whom the Aces traded for, potentially fill needs if they make the roster.

The 'B' list

Atlanta Dream
No. 15 Monique Billings, 6-4, PF, UCLA
No. 16 Kristy Wallace, 5-11, PG, Baylor
No. 27 Mackenzie Engram, 6-2, PF, Georgia

The Dream didn't have a first-round pick and did most of their upgrading in the offseason via free-agent signings, but the draft was a success. Atlanta traded Bria Holmes, who will miss this season because of pregnancy, to Connecticut (her home state) for the No. 15 pick. With that, they got Billings, who some thought would go in the first round. She should help with rebounding and defense, and she runs the floor well.

They also looked to the future with Wallace, who will miss this season after suffering a torn ACL near the end of her senior season but could step in as a solid playmaker and 3-point shooter next season. And if Engram is able to make the squad, she could provide more depth inside.

Phoenix Mercury
No. 12 Maria Gulich, 6-5, C, Oregon State
No. 20 Tyler Scaife, 5-9 SG, Rutgers
No. 21 Raisa Musina, 6-3, PF, Russia
No. 26 Imani Wright, 5-9, SG, Florida State

Nobody seemed to elevate her stock in the last month or so of the college season more than Gulich, the center out of Germany who became an all-around leader for Oregon State. She has good mobility for her size and, as she adjusts to the pace and physicality of the WNBA, could do well backing up Brittney Griner.

Musina plays for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia for Olaf Lange, husband of Mercury coach Sandy Brondello, and she is Griner's teammate there, too. So there's already familiarity between her and the Mercury, undoubtedly a key in their selecting the 20-year-old.

Scaife and Wright have scoring ability from the perimeter, and, although it's possible neither will make the roster, one of them might.

Seattle Storm
No. 5 Jordin Canada, 5-6, PG, UCLA
No. 29 Teana Muldrow, 6-1, SF, West Virginia

The Storm, now being coached by veteran WNBA mentor Dan Hughes, got their primary target: a young protégé at point guard to learn from legendary Sue Bird. Canada knows she needs to get stronger. And that's another area where she can benefit from being around Bird, who has become as knowledgeable about diet and fitness as anyone in the WNBA. Having gotten guard Jewell Loyd in 2015 and forward Breanna Stewart in 2016, both as No. 1 picks, the Storm now add another potential piece in their quest to return to being a championship force.

And Muldrow just might be a steal near the end of the draft, if she can make the roster. She seems like a Hughes-type player. West Virginia coach Mike Carey rated Muldrow as "the most unselfish player I've seen" for her willingness to move around to fill holes for the Mountaineers, playing every position except point guard.

Los Angeles Sparks
No. 11 Maria Vadeeva, 6-4, C, Russia
No. 23 Shakayla Thomas, 5-11, SF, Florida State
No. 35 Julia Reisingerova, 6-4, PF, Czech Republic

This evaluation comes down to Vadeeva. If she ends up playing regularly in the WNBA and evolves into the force some think she can, the Sparks will end up with a retroactive A-plus, and everyone will wonder why she slipped all the way to No. 11. Also pluses: that she plays overseas with Sparks star Nneka Ogwumike for Dynamo Kursk and that she will have some time to develop at the WNBA level.

Thomas is a tweener, and that often isn't a recipe for success in the WNBA. But she has superb athleticism. Reisingerova is not well-known, but she's a young player with size, and coach Brian Agler has done well in the past in finding foreign players who can fit a role well and are good for team chemistry.

The 'C' list

Connecticut Sun
No. 9 Lexie Brown, 5-9, PG, Duke
No. 33 Mikayla Cowling, 6-2, SF, Cal

This grade isn't a reflection on Brown but on the fact that the Sun might not feel a huge impact from this draft this season -- and might not need to. The Sun are a still-young team that started to put the pieces together last season. In Brown, they get an accomplished playmaker who can score and might really blossom at the next level. Like most third-round selections, Cowling faces uphill odds in making the team, but she would bring good size and shooting skills if she does. Using the No. 15 pick in a trade to get Bria Holmes is a move toward the future when she returns after pregnancy.

New York Liberty
No. 10 Kia Nurse, 6-0, SG, UConn
No. 22 Mercedes Russell, 6-6, C, Tennessee
No. 34 Leslie Robinson, 6-0, SF, Princeton

This is also not a knock on Nurse, who should be a good addition to the New York perimeter, particularly if she can be effective in midrange shooting as well as from behind the arc. The Liberty have been trying to get over the hump for a while now in regard to the playoffs, and they might need a bigger offensive force inside to complement Tina Charles to do that.

Maybe Russell can help fill that role, but the fact that she dropped this low despite her size is an indication that WNBA coaches aren't sold on her motor, nor on the reliability of her offense. Robinson is the niece of Barack and Michelle Obama, and she had a good career at Princeton. But finding a place with the Liberty will be tough.

Washington Mystics
No. 7 Ariel Atkins, 5-11, SG, Texas
No. 19 Myisha Hines-Allen, 6-2 PF, Louisville
No. 31 Rebecca Greenwell, 6-1, SG, Duke

This was the hardest grade to give. Maybe we should know by now not to second-guess Mystics coach/GM Mike Thibault in talent evaluation. He might end up having the last laugh, because he has before. But he provided the biggest surprise of the night in picking Atkins at No. 7. Her stock seemed to be rising coming into the draft, but most didn't see her going this high. Her size, ability to defend and 3-point percentage were all positives, but will she prove a better fit for the Mystics than other players who were available, including Victoria Vivians?

If so, this will be another of those retroactive higher grades. Getting Hines-Allen, who was a double-double force for Louisville, could provide a boost inside with Emma Meesseman missing this season. Greenwell has size as a 3-point shooter, but it will be a question of whether she makes the roster.

The 'D' list

Minnesota Lynx
No. 36 Carlie Wagner, 5-10, SG, Minnesota

Obtained in trade with Las Vegas: No. 32 Jill Barta, 6-3, SF, Gonzaga

This grade is mostly about the Lynx not having the opportunity to do much based on where they picked. But they did have No. 17 (Ji-Su Park) and No. 24 (Kahlia Lawrence), whom they traded to Las Vegas for Barta and the Aces' 2019 second-round pick. In what might be an even deeper draft next season, that second-rounder might be more valuable than what the Lynx saw was available this year. Coach/GM Cheryl Reeve thought it was worth it.

Barta is more a perimeter-based player despite her size, and if she makes the roster it would be because of her ability to stretch the defense. It's also an uphill climb for Wagner, the Gophers grad, to find a spot with the Lynx, but it made sense as the final pick of the draft.

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women's basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

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