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WNBA begins its 25th season with a second virtual draft

Texas forward Charli Collier battles Texas Christian forward Yummy Morris.
Texas forward Charli Collier battles Texas Christian forward Yummy Morris last season.
(Ron Jenkins / Associated Press)

Cathy Engelbert hosted the most-watched WNBA draft in 16 years from her home in New Jersey last year. Now the WNBA commissioner will see what she can do with a whole ESPN studio at her disposal.

The WNBA will host a virtual draft for the second consecutive year on Thursday at 4 p.m. PDT on ESPN, hoping to build on the league’s momentum as teams return to home markets for the league’s 25th season.

The league’s motto for its milestone year is “count it.” It celebrates not only achievements on the court over 25 years but how the WNBA has grown culturally. Though most sports leagues suffered from diminished viewership during last year’s pandemic, the WNBA celebrated a 68% increase. Viewership for the ESPN-televised WNBA Finals increased 15% from the previous year.

When it started, the WNBA was just hoping to survive in a crowded market. A quarter-century later, the league is taking its next steps.

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“We’re in a thrive mode now,” Engelbert said.

Here’s what to expect Thursday as the league welcomes its newest members:

Who will be the No. 1 pick?

With few opportunities to make a roster and modest earning potential for WNBA rookies, it’s rare to see players leave college early to enter the WNBA draft, even if they meet the league’s age requirement of turning 22 in the year of the draft.

Texas’ Charli Collier is an exception.

“When you look at Charli, she looks like a WNBA player,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said during a conference call.

The L.A. Convention Center will play host to the Sparks’ first 11 home games because Staples Center is overrun with delayed NBA and NHL games.

The 6-foot-5 center averaged 19 points and 11.3 rebounds as a junior last year and declared for the WNBA draft early in March, taking advantage of a weaker draft class. The highly touted prospect is likely the top pick going to the Dallas Wings, who own four of 12 first-round selections.

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What about other prospects?

The Wings, who will pick first, second, and fifth on Thursday, could follow the Collier selection with another versatile big. Finland national team member Awak Kuier is just 19 years old, but her potential is “off the charts,” Wings president Greg Bibb said on a call with reporters.

The 6-foot-4 Kuier’s skill with the ball is exceptional for someone of her size and age, Bibb said, and her above-the-rim athleticism gives her the look of a future franchise player. Playing in Italy’s top professional league, Kuier averaged 8.9 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.5 blocks this season.

Arizona guard Aari McDonald’s draft stock surged after her standout NCAA tournament performance, leading the Wildcats to the national championship game while averaging 24.8 points on 47.2% shooting in the tournament. The Pac-12 player of the year and two-time conference defensive player of the year is almost assured to go in the top five, despite being listed at 5-foot-6.

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What local players are being considered?

UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere is in line to become the fifth UCLA player drafted in the last four years after finishing her career with 1,888 points — fourth-most in program history — and two Associated Press All-American honors.

UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere in action against Washington.
UCLA forward Michaela Onyenwere brings the ball up court against Washington during a game last season.
(Ted S. Warren / Associated Press)

The forward was a possible top-five pick early in the year but has dropped to the late first round in mock drafts from Bleacher Report (10th to the Sparks), ESPN (11th to the Storm) and CBS (12th to the Aces). As a 6-foot forward, Onyenwere doesn’t quite have the skill of a guard but lacks the size for a post player at the next level. What makes her an intriguing prospect is her athleticism and work ethic.

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“She could be one of if not the best athlete in the draft,” Lobo said. “I think she can be impactful not only in her rookie year, but I think she is one of the players who can be impactful for her team in years to come.”

What are the Sparks looking for?

The Sparks are entering a new era without Candace Parker and Chelsea Gray. They rebuilt during free agency by picking up guard Erica Wheeler and forward Amanda Zahui B., but head coach and general manager Derek Fisher isn’t stopping there.

On Wednesday, the Sparks traded for the seventh pick in the 2021 draft and a 2022 second rounder, sending the team’s 2022 first round selection to Dallas. The Sparks will now pick seventh and 10th Thursday along with two second-round picks and a third-round selection.

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“Our goal is to continue to build a roster that emphasizes versatility, athleticism and players who can make plays for others and defend multiple positions,” Fisher said in a statement.

With WNBA rosters capped at 12 players and talent in college only improving, making the final cut in the league gets harder and harder. The Sparks already have 14 players on their roster before the draft, including the last piece of their dismantled “Big Three” that will drive personnel decisions going forward.

“This is a team that needs to continue to create space and opportunity for Nneka Ogwumike to really shine and do what she can do,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said.


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