Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, April 14, 2017

WNBA Draft 2017: SEC Via SC Dominates the First Round

By Mike Siroky

The Southeastern Conference, the greatest college  basketball  conference for women, did just fine in the WNBA draft.

The players all know this is not where money will be made – that’s reserved for real seasons in Europe, Asia and Russia – but this is where reputations are enhanced.

After the obligatory pick of the consensus player of the year for the top pick, the SEC had the next three players chosen.

As the only All-American in the conference remains in college, none of them were All-American.

The guards were not first team all-conference by rival coaches. But all can surely play at the next level.

Alaina Coates of South Carolina was No. 2.

She missed the endgame of her team’s championship season, the conference tournament onward, with a severely sprained ankle.

Coates went to a rebuilt Chicago team which traded away Elena Della Donne for former UConn All-American center Stefani Dolson. They have a new coach, Amber Stocks, who had been an assistant with the WNBA champion Los Angeles Sparks. This was her first draft pick.

Evelyn Akhator of Kentucky was No. 3, the first UK pick since 2015.

She had a splendid two-year career after junior college and was All-SEC. New teammates, and former foes,  Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis  are also headed to Dallas.

Gray was a one-year wonder at national champions South Carolina, after sitting a year out as a transfer from North Carolina.

Her declaration to go pro as soon as she became eligible was undeclared as late as her announcement to join Coates at the draft site 10 days ago, not even known to her school’s sports information department.

At No. 10, the Wings reconnected Gray with SC’s other hired gun, Kaela Davis, also a one-year impact player after transferring in from Georgia Tech and also undeclared to the end.

Both of these guards were eligible for another year of college, but also eligible for the draft as four seasons had passed since high school. Neither earned a degree. But SC can claim three first-round picks nonetheless, another accolade for the national champions and a first in conference.
It reshuffles next season’s SEC season, of course, vaulting Mississippi State to the top of that heap.

The next two rounds are almost all about publicity as opposed to an actual WNBA career. Most of these players will get to a camp or two but most WNBA teams are drafting one-year rights to a player as emergency backups.

Foreign nationals who have not played in US college also begin to be selected as hunches.

In the second round, Tennessee’s Jordan Reynolds, a 5-11 guard, went to Atlanta. Hot shooting Ronni Willams of Florida went to Indiana. At  6-foot, she is a projected guard having played forward this season at depleted Florida.

In the final round, seldom-used 6-3 center Schaquilla Nunn of Tennessee went to San Antonio.

Makayla Epps, an All-SEC 5-10 guard from Kentucky, went to Chicago.

The Players

Coates is a burly center, one of the most feared “bigs” in the college game. When she and A’ja Wilson were together, the inside game was dominated by the Gamecocks.

Despite missing the tournament, Coates said she is blessed to have had four seasons at SC.

“Perfect your craft,” she said, “and show that you can be a really good teammate on and off the floor. How you play is a key factor, but at end of the day, they don’t want to deal with a top-of-the-line player that has a terrible attitude.

“So definitely make sure your style of play is consistent, and that you know how to act on and off the floor, especially for seniors.”

She drank in the entire draft experience.

“It’s really exciting, because I haven’t been to New York before,” she said.

“When the draft is over, my family and I are going to make a trip out of it. I really want to see the Statue of Liberty. For me, when I think of New York, it’s the Statue of Liberty.

“I can’t even lie – coach Staley spoiled us. So I’m probably going to miss that. But also the student section, and all of Gamecock nation, because they’ve just been super supportive.

“You kind of bring some of the old fan base with you wherever you go, but you do get attached to some people and get used to seeing the same people at every game. I think I’m going to miss that the most.”

Akhator, from Nigeria, is a 6-3 post player more suited to forward. She is an outstanding rebounder, dueling with Coates for best in the SEC.

After her apprenticeship at Chipola Community College, Marianna, Fla., she had her pick of the  major colleges after they won the national JC title.

At Kentucky, she stayed with her commitment even as six teammates fled after her junior year and was voted All SEC by the coaches.

She averaged a double-double (15.9 points, 10.8 rebounds), the  best in the SEC in rebounds and 11th nationally. She was fifth in national field goal percentage.

She was first encouraged to play at age 14. Her mom died in 2013, but her youth pastor and high school coach convinced her to play in honor of her mom and the path of life winds on.

 Gray was a home state girl who ended college back in South Carolina (though she attended high school in Georgia, where injuries eliminated her senior season).

At 6-foot even, she is a true guard and will not have the chance to slash and burn as much as she did in college. She thrived in the four-guard offense once Coates went out.

She hit 59 percent from the field in the NCAA eliminations, 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds in the six games. Was all-regional and all-Final Four.

She has admired WNBA players for years.

“My favorite player is Diana Taurasi,” she said. “I’ve been watching her since her Connecticut days, and I’ve always just admired her work ethic and the way she can shoot the 3. I’m just honored to make it to this level. I view people like her as legends of the game.”

Her advice to players in college: “Listen to everything your coaches say. You may not see it now, but once you make that decision to leap to the next level, you’ll look back and see that you should definitely listen to your coaches. They know the game, and they teach you a lot.”

Davis, the No.10 pick, is a 6-2 guard who can slash and dash with the bigs.

She is from basketball-mad Indiana. At Georgia Tech, she was all-ACC as a sophomore and had already scored a program record with more than 1,000 points in 52 games.

Her dad, Antonio, played 13 NBA seasons and is an ESPN analyst. She dominated several games down the stretch for the Gamecocks. She and Gray are the first two transfers to win the NCAA title in their first years of eligibility at new schools and leave after one season.

Each were drafted well ahead of the self-proclaimed best guard in the NCAAs, a player from Notre Dame.

 “This year’s team was really special,” Davis said. “We got hit with a lot of different things, a lot of adversity and we found a way to pull it out and win the national championship. So just being part of that amazing group is something I’ll forever cherish.

“It’s a great time to be in women’s college basketball, and I think it’s definitely something I’ll miss.”

Of the WNBA players she admires, she said, “Candace Parker is my god sister, so to have her around is obviously all the influence you need. To grow up and just watch her, just seeing how she came from high school to being as successful as she is in the league, it’s definitely inspirational. She’s a great role model to have.”

She also said the draft visit to New York City was familiar to her.

“My dad played here for a year, so we’ve been here back and forth. I also have some family that lives here, so I’ve been here a few times. I still want to see the Empire State Building.”

Overall, she has an appreciation  of top-level athletes.

“Somebody I’ve always enjoyed following is Michael Phelps,” she said. “His kid is adorable. He lives this amazing life.

“It feels like he’s somewhere different every day, but he’s also someone that enjoys giving back.

“I also follow Elena Delle Donne, and I have a Great Dane as well, so it’s awesome to see how our dogs compare and stuff like that. Her dog is way calmer than mine, which I envy.”