Why the 2021 WNBA draft class has struggled to make an impact

Why the 2021 WNBA draft class has struggled to make an impact

09/09/2021

    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.

The Dallas Wings had the top two picks in April’s WNBA draft, and the Atlanta Dream had the third selection. When they met twice to open September for the stretch run of the 2021 WNBA season, those games theoretically could have helped decide the Rookie of the Year award. But they didn’t.

The New York Liberty’s Michaela Onyenwere, the No. 6 pick in the draft, essentially has had that honor wrapped up since even before the Olympic break. That’s the kind of anti-climactic season is has been for the WNBA’s rookies this year. In a league with this much talent, it’s often difficult for first-year player to get much of a spotlight. This year, many have barely gotten on stage.

Is the 2021 WNBA draft class a bust? That can’t be determined in one season. Past draft classes have been underwhelming as rookies but then produced some long-lasting contributors.

We will see if that’s the case for 2021. But for now, here is why this rookie class has made so little impact so far.

No real race for Rookie of the Year

Onyenwere has started all 29 games, averaging 8.7 points and 3.0 rebounds. The 6-foot forward and former UCLA Bruin is a part of the Liberty’s turnaround from a dreadful 2-20 last-place season in 2020 to being on track for their first playoff berth since 2017. She clearly has done enough to earn rookie-award consideration.

But she has earned Rookie of the Year by default because no one has really challenged her.

Dallas had the top two picks: Texas Longhorns center/forward Charli Collier and center Awak Kuier of Finland. Collier has started 18 games and is averaging 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 12.7 minutes per game. She had one of her best games of the season Sept. 5, with 10 points and seven rebounds. However, in her four previous games, she went scoreless three times and scored two points in the other. And in Tuesday’s loss to the league-leading Connecticut Sun, she had two points and took just two shots in 26 minutes of court time.

Kuier has played in 13 games, averaging 9.2 minutes, and has shot just 28.6 percent from the field. But she had her first double-figure game Tuesday, with 10 points. The 6-foot-5 Collier, who as a junior was eligible for the draft because she turns 22 this year (Sept. 22), and the 6-4 Kuier, who turned 20 last month, both could blossom with more experience. But in terms of 1-2 picks, they were chosen for potential rather than the ability to be impact players for the Wings as rookies.

No. 3 pick Aari McDonald of the Arizona Wildcats has played in all but two of Atlanta’s games and is averaging 6.2 points and 1.8 assists in 14.5 minutes. Not a bad pro start for the guard, but again, not rookie of the year numbers. And the Dream are close to being eliminated from the postseason.

Not enough court time

Perhaps the biggest issue is that the 2021 draftees, collectively, have played so little. Onyenwere is the only rookie who has appeared in at least 10 games and averaged more than 15 minutes per game.

Two of the 12 first-round picks haven’t played at all: No. 9 pick Rennia Davis (Minnesota Lynx) is out with a stress fracture in her left foot, and No. 12 Iliana Rupert (Las Vegas Aces) was with the French national team for the Olympics, and was not expected to play this WNBA season. No. 7 pick Jasmine Walker (Los Angeles Sparks) was lost for the season to an ACL injury in just the second game on May 21.

No. 8 pick Shyla Heal (Chicago Sky) of Australia played four games with the Sky before being traded to Dallas and immediately waived. Like Kuier, Rupert and Heal were 19-year-olds from overseas when they were drafted, so their best should be ahead.

No. 10 pick Stephanie Watts — who was drafted by Los Angeles and then traded to Chicago — was waived by the Sky after six games.

Kysre Gondrezick, a surprise pick at No. 4 by the Indiana Fever, has averaged 9.1 minutes in 19 games, but did not return after the Olympic break and is on personal leave. Indiana’s other first-rounder, No. 11 pick Aaliyah Wilson –who came via trade after being drafted by the Seattle Storm — has played in just 10 games, averaging 7.7 minutes.

Dallas’ No. 5 pick, Chelsea Dungee, had played once since the Olympic break — for 1 minute on Aug. 15 — until injuries and illness gave her and the Kuier more minutes Tuesday. Dungee played a season-high 17 minutes, 29 seconds, more than double her previous game time. She’s still averaging just 4.6 minutes in 12 games.

It’s hard to improve when you just don’t get much game time.

Beyond the first round

Sometimes the second and third rounds produce solid players even as rookies. That was the case in 2020, when Minnesota guard Crystal Dangerfield became the first second-round player to win WNBA Rookie of the Year.

This year, New York’s DiDi Richards (No. 17 overall) is the second-round pick who has made the most impact. It’s no surprise to anyone who watched her for the Baylor Bears that her defense can be a game-changer. Richards has played in 28 of the Liberty’s 29 games, averaging 11.3 minutes, 2.4 points and 1.1 rebounds.

Chicago’s Dana Evans, Los Angeles’ Arella Guirantes and Connecticut’s DiJonai Carrington are the only other second-round picks who have played at least 20 games. They are all averaging 3.3 points or less.

We knew this was coming

The 2021 draft wasn’t expected to be strong; WNBA coaches and general managers all but guaranteed that when asked about it before the draft. One reason was that three juniors who were draft-eligible in 2020 went pro then, which weakened the 2021 field: No. 2 Satou Sabally (Dallas), No. 4 Chennedy Carter (Atlanta) and No. 9 Megan Walker (New York, now with Phoenix). Two were lottery picks as juniors; all three might have been if they had been drafted this year.

Another factor is the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on training, preparation and mindset for this year’s draftees. The 2020 draftees were robbed of the NCAA tournament, but for most of them, their seasons up until March 2020 were pretty normal.

The 2020 spring and summer and last college season were anything but normal — which Indiana general manager Tamika Catchings said has affected this year’s WNBA rookies.

“I think the biggest challenge for this class is you’ve got to get in the gym and work,” Catchings said. “I know it’s been hard with COVID. But how committed are they?

“After getting through this season, a lot of these players will go overseas. You can’t really make a judgment on what this class could be until they have time overseas, which hopefully will happen. They have about a year to figure out what they want to be.”

Hope for the future?

Some rookie classes have depth of talent. Others have a couple of franchise-changing players. Still others have both. Some don’t really have either.

Among the best classes, look at 2008. Five rookies from that class who have had very good WNBA careers: Crystal Langhorne, Erlana Larkins, LaToya Sanders, Leilani Mitchell and Allie Quigley. The latter two, in fact, are still playing in the WNBA. But as rookies, none of them averaged more than 4.8 PPG and weren’t in the top 10 in scoring among their fellow first-year players. That 2008 class had both depth and two players who were superstars then and still are now: No. 1 pick Candace Parker and No. 2 Sylvia Fowles.

Another of the greatest draft classes was 2006, which had five rookies average in double-figure scoring, led by Rookie of the Year Seimone Augustus at 21.9 PPG. The 2009 draft class also has proven to be legendary, with standouts such as Angel McCoughtry (ROY), DeWanna Bonner, Briann January, Kristi Toliver, Kia Vaughn and Shavonte Zellous all still active players in the league. (McCoughtry is out this year with a knee injury.)

It’s hard to gauge rookie performances in the WNBA’s first three seasons, since so many players who had been longtime pros came into the league in its early days and weren’t “real” rookies. If we start in the fourth WNBA season, 2000, all but two rookie classes have had at least one player who averaged in double figures her first season. The exceptions are 2005 and this year.

Onyenwere is on pace to become just the third Rookie of the Year to average in single digits. The others were in 2005 (Temeka Johnson, 9.3 PPG) and 2007 (Armintie Price, 7.9 PPG). No. 1 pick Lindsey Harding averaged 11.7 PPG in 2007, but an injury shortened her season to 20 games and she didn’t win ROY honors.

Not surprisingly, the 2005 and 2007 drafts, along with 2003, are generally considered the weakest in WNBA history, even though all three eventually did have players — Johnson, Price and Harding among them — who had good WNBA careers.

So we will find out if the 2021 draft class ultimately redeems itself. Their future is in their hands — but there are also eager players in the coming drafts ready to make their mark.

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