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2020 WNBA draft features virtual picks but very real emotion

Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu is introduced before the championship game of the Pac-12 Conference tournament on March 8, 2020, in Las Vegas.
Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, shown March 8, was selected first overall in Friday’s remotely held WNBA draft.
(Ethan Miller / Getty Images)

Prospects traded green rooms for living rooms. General managers turned kitchen islands into draft centrals. Cathy Engelbert presided over Friday’s virtual WNBA draft from her New Jersey home, where the commissioner used a sweater drying rack, placed carefully out of the camera frame, to hang jerseys.

The WNBA, forced to use a virtual format for its draft because of the coronavirus outbreak, got creative to honor its newest rookie class, headlined by former Oregon star Sabrina Ionescu, who went No. 1 overall to the New York Liberty.

Despite the lack of traditional celebration opportunities, prospects relished the chance to have at least one dream come true after the COVID-19 pandemic robbed them of their postseason.

Loyola Marymount asked Los Angeles residents to name their favorite athlete and favorite team. Who finished just behind LeBron James and the Lakers?

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“Even though it was difficult, I think we found peace and happiness throughout it all,” No.7 overall pick Tyasha Harris said.

Harris, South Carolina’s all-time assists leader, will team with No. 2 pick Satou Sabally and No. 5 pick Bella Alarie as the Dallas Wings controlled the early part of the draft with three picks in the top seven.

Sabally, a junior forward from Oregon, was one of three former Ducks selected Friday, along with Ionescu and forward Ruthy Hebard.

Hebard, an All-American who was named the nation’s top power forward, went eighth to the Chicago Sky, where she could team with UCLA guard Japreece Dean, the 30th overall pick who went to the Sky.

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Hebard, who watched the draft from her home in Fairbanks, Alaska, nearly had her long-awaited draft moment spoiled by the virtual format. When the ESPN cameras cut to her living room after Engelbert announced her name, Herbard, her parents, brother and grandfather sat motionless on the couch. They hadn’t heard the selection yet due to video delay.

About a minute later, cameras captured Hebard’s family embracing. They laughed the delayed reaction off, Hebard said.

Sparks assistant general manager Michael Fischer said the virtual draft was an experience he’ll never forget. With social distancing regulations limiting not only the draft, but also its lead-up, Sparks coach Derek Fisher said the research process was “much more connected and collaborative.”

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“That enhanced our ability to still have a good night even though we didn’t necessarily have a high number [of picks],” the second-year head coach said.

Without a first-round pick, the Sparks selected Miami forward Beatrice Mompremier with the 20th overall pick, Germany’s Leonie Fiebich with the 22nd pick and West Virginia guard Tynice Martin with the 34th.

Sparks coach Derek Fisher is shown during the 2019 WNBA playoffs.
Sparks coach Derek Fisher, seen here during the 2019 WNBA playoffs, said the research process was “much more connected and collaborative” ahead of Friday’s WNBA draft that had a virtual format.
(Jessica Hill / Associated Press)

Mompremier was a first-round prospect in mock drafts, going as high as No. 8 in CBS Sports’ projection, but slipped Friday because of a foot injury that limited her to 17 games as a senior.

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Getting the 6-4 forward who averaged 16.7 points and 12.2 rebounds as a junior was like “a Christmas gift in April,” Fisher said.

The L.A. Sparks selected Miami forward Beatrice Mompremier on Friday with their first pick in the 2020 WNBA draft, the 20th overall selection.

Even before the Sparks nabbed promising rookies to compete for spots on a veteran roster, Fisher knew the draft would be a “special night” because the WNBA had plans to honor his former teammate Kobe Bryant, Bryant’s daughter Gianna and Gianna’s teammates Payton Chester and Alyssa Altobelli, who were among the nine people killed in a January helicopter crash.

Along with announcing the Kobe and Gigi Bryant Advocacy Award, which “will recognize an individual or group who has made significant contributions to the visibility, perception and advancement of women’s and girls’ basketball,” Engelbert honored Gianna, Payton and Alyssa by announcing the 13-year-olds as honorary draft picks at the beginning of Friday’s event.

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Kobe and Gianna Bryant honored during WNBA draft Friday. Gianna and two of her teammates that died in the helicopter crash with them were honorary draft picks.

Vanessa Bryant, wearing an orange WNBA hoodie that belonged to her late husband, recorded a tearful message for the broadcast, saying being drafted into the WNBA “would have been a dream come true for [Gianna].”

“She wanted to be one of the greatest athletes of all time,” Vanessa said, “just like her daddy.”

Vanessa will present the Kobe and Gigi Bryant Advocacy Award to its first recipient during the 2021 NBA All-Star break.

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2020 WNBA draft picks:

First round

1) New York: Sabrina Ionescu, Oregon, G

2) Dallas: Satou Sabally, Oregon, F

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3) Indiana: Lauren Cox, Baylor, F

4) Atlanta: Chenneday Carter, Texas A&M, G

5) Dallas: Bella Alarie, Princeton, G

6) Minnesota: Mikiah Herbert Harrigan, S. Carolina, F

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7) Dallas: Tyasha Harris, S. Carolina, G

8) Chicago: Ruthy Hebard, Oregon, F

9) New York: Megan Walker, UConn, F

10) Phoenix: Jocelyn, Willoughby, Virginia, F

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11) Seattle: Kitija Laksa, Latvia, G

12) New York: Jazmine Jones, Louisville, G

Second round

13) Atlanta: Kylee Shook, Louisville, F

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14) Indiana: Kathleen Doyle, Iowa, G

15) New York: Leaonna Odom, Duke, F

16) Minnesota: Crystal Dangerfield, UConn, G

17) Atlanta: Brttany Brewer, Texas Tech, C

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18) Phoenix: Te’a Cooper, Baylor, G

19) Seattle: Joyner Holmes, Texas, F

20) SPARKS: Beatrice Mompremier, Miami, F

21) Dallas: Luisa Geiselsoder, Germany, C

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22) SPARKS: Leonie Fiebich, Germany, G

23) Connecticut: Kiala Charles, Maryland, G/F

24) Washington: Jaylyn Agnew, Creighton, F

Third round

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25) Atlanta: Mikayla Pivec, Oregon State, G

26) New York: Erica Ogwumike, Rice, G *

27) Atlanta: Kobi Thornton, Clemson, F

28) Indiana: Kamiah Smalls, James Madison, G

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29) Phoenix: Stella Johnson, Rider, G

30) Chicago: Japreece Dean, UCLA, G

31) Seattle: Haley Gorecki, Duke, G

32) Chicago: Kaliah Gillespi, Florida State, F

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33) Las Vegas: Lauren Manis, Holy Cross, F

34) SPARKS: Tynice Martin, West Virginia, G

35) Connecticut: Juicy Landrum, Baylor, G

36) Washington: Sug Sutton, Texas, G

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* draft rights traded to Minnesota


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