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It is no secret that the WNBA draft is top heavy. Due to the staying power of many of the league’s stars, new spots are hard to find, and they are typically filled with highly-touted first round prospects.
With 12 teams and 12 roster spots apiece, there are just 144 spaces open. Between injuries and other transactions, that number can grow a bit in any given year. In 2019, for example, 157 different players saw the court.
Only the best of the college game and international prospects are able to last.
In 2019, eight third round draft picks played a total of 1,537 minutes, or 1.9% of all player minutes for the season. For comparison, 11 first overall picks played a total of 7,552 minutes. That figure does not include Angel McCoughtry, Breanna Stewart, or Sue Bird, all former first overall selections whose injuries kept them off the court (or Maya Moore, who skipped the season to focus on freeing a prisoner she believes was wrongfully convicted).
Even among second round picks, there were only 37 active players in 2019, for just 17.7% of the league’s total minutes. To say the least, in the WNBA, draft steals are few and far between.
To honor those who beat the odds, I’ve gone back over the past five draft classes to find the best hidden gem from each.
First, some ground rules. A “steal” was defined as a draft pick in the later two rounds who vastly exceeded outside expectations, or, where necessary, a first round pick who has done the same. Extra credit was awarded to contributions to championship-caliber teams.
Two All-Stars have come out of the 2015 draft class, the first overall pick Jewell Lloyd and fourth pick Elizabeth Williams. The steal of the draft, however, was Natasha Cloud, taken 15th overall by the Washington Mystics.
Before trading for Elena Delle Donne, the Mystics had historically built through the draft. The longest tenured player, Emma Meesseman, was the 19th pick in the 2013 WNBA Draft. In this, Cloud fits right in. The 5-foot-9 guard was the first player from St. Joseph’s to make a regular season lineup for a WNBA team since Susan Moran in 2002.
During the Mystics 2019 title run, Cloud averaged nine points, 5.6 assists and 2.5 rebounds as the starting point guard. Against New York on June 7, she poured in a career-best 26 points. In the playoffs, she turned it up and improved both her field goal shooting and 3-point shooting by five points to 44.2% and 37.8%, respectively. She also upped her scoring to 13.1 points per game and assists to 6.1 per game during the championship run. Consistently, her playoff numbers exceed those from the regular season.
Five seasons and 150 games later, Cloud’s 6.2 win shares are tied for fourth in her class. In 2019, she set the Mystics single-season assist record with 194. She was also awarded the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award.
It is difficult to imagine a draft being more top heavy than Breanna Stewart as the first overall pick. That was the situation in 2016, when Stewart and then two other UConn teammates were picked one after another.
While no one drafted outside of the top 10 has played four seasons, Temi Fagbenle has put together three consecutive strong seasons. The eleventh pick of the third round by the Minnesota Lynx, Fagbenle decided to take a year off from basketball to finish up her master’s degree at USC after coming over as a graduate transfer from Harvard.
“Then and now, I knew it was the best decision for me,” she said while fighting for a spot at the Lynx preseason camp. “Basketball has a shelf life and I thought if I can finish my education right now, just take a year off and that’s just a short period of time in the grand scheme of things. I got it done and continued to play basketball and that was great. I’m able to do this now, so hopefully I can make the most out of this situation.”
So far, Fagbenle has. As a 24 year old rookie, she not only made the roster, but won a championship in her first season. In total, she has played in 69 regular season games, averaging 9.3 minutes, 3.1 points and 1.9 rebounds while shooting 51.1% from the field.
The 2017 draft in New York City was a tough one. Just 11 players from the draft were active two years later in 2019. Only one player drafted after the first round made it to year three, Indiana Fever’s Erica McCall, selected 17th overall from Stanford. No one has become an All-Star.
Still, Brittney Sykes surprised a lot of people. Not even invited to the draft, many thought that she would be the second player taken from Syracuse after Alexis Peterson. Instead, the Atlanta Dream took Sykes seventh overall, making her the highest drafted player from Syracuse ever. Soon after, she was the Rookie of the Month in July.
At 11.3 points per game in her career, she has been the leading scorer in her class, even ahead of Kelsey Plum, the NCAA all-time leading scorer taken first overall. She also shares the WNBA record for most points in a quarter — 22 — with Diana Taurasi, who set the initial record in 2006. Russell scored 22 in the third quarter against Phoenix on July 7, 2019.
In the off-season, Sykes came over to the Los Angeles Sparks, where she has a shot at the starting small forward position according to head coach Derek Fisher. For her career, she has started in 57 of 97 regular season games, including the final 24 games of the 2019 season, as well as all five postseason games with Atlanta in 2018.
Mercedes Russell was the tenth pick of the second round by the New York Liberty, and the 22nd overall selection. In 2019, Russell’s 1.3 defensive win shares were 22nd in the entire league. The path there was a little less than linear.
In just two regular season games with the Liberty in 2018, Russell averaged 2.5 points and 1.5 rebounds in 16.2 minutes. Then she was cut and signed by the Seattle Storm. During the 2018 championship season, she was a relative afterthought, averaging 4.6 minutes, 1.6 points and 1.4 rebounds off the bench.
That changed in 2019, when the injury bug bit the Storm hard. Russell appeared in all 34 regular season games and started 30. In 25.6 minutes per contest, Russell contributed 7.5 points and 6.1 rebounds per game while shooting 51.7% from the field. Those numbers put Russell in the top 50 in the entire league in player efficiency rating.
On June 14, she notched her first career double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds at Washington and then on July 3 scored a career-high 19 against New York. Seattle lasted just two games in the 2019 playoffs, but Russell started both and averaged 11.5 points and 8.5 rebounds shooting 76.9% from the field.
The 6-foot-6 center from Tennessee had her NCAA title aspirations cut short, but soon after became a WNBA champion. In a class with three All-Stars, Russell was the biggest steal.
There has been just one season during which to evaluate the 2019 class, but early signs point to Natisha Hiedeman as the steal of the draft. The sixth pick of the second round by the Minnesota Lynx, Hiedeman became the first Marquette women’s basketball player to earn an in-season contract in the WNBA. But it wasn’t with the Lynx.
The Lynx had already secured Napheesa Collier from UConn, who won Rookie of the Year and was named an All-Star, and Notre Dame’s Jessica Shepard by the time Hiedeman was selected. So the Lynx traded Hiedeman’s draft rights to the Connecticut Sun. With nine returning players from 2018, and Bria Holmes returning from pregnancy, spots were limited. The Sun’s own draft picks, Kristine Anigwe at nine and Bridget Carleton at 21, made the roster ahead of Hiedeman, who was the team’s last cut.
From there, Hiedeman signed with the Atlanta Dream as a EuroBasket replacement for Alex Bentley. By the time Bentley returned, Hiedeman had yet to make an appearance, and was once again waived to make space. Without a team once again, the Sun called her back after Layshia Clarendon suffered a season-ending ankle injury.
“I’d just been back and forth, back and forth,” Hiedeman said. “But, being cut actually helped me a lot because it just helped me accept failure and want to work harder to get to where I want to be.”
Debuting in the second quarter of a game against the Dream, Hiedeman scored 10 points before halftime to re-introduce herself to her team.
FORRRR THREEE!— Connecticut Sun (@ConnecticutSun) July 10, 2019
Hiedeman has 10 this quarter! pic.twitter.com/zvIR1Lw0bb
On the season, Hiedeman appeared in 20 regular season games, collecting 3.7 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game for a team that reached the WNBA Finals. Her player efficiency rating was fourth-highest in her draft class and 45th-best in the league, and the 1.9 win shares per 48 minutes is sixth in the class. 45th-best PER.
In seven games in the WNBA Playoffs, Hiedeman shot a combined 60% from the field, 66.7% from beyond the arc and 100% from the line. Twice in the playoffs she scored eight points in nine minutes, first against Los Angeles in the semifinals and later in the fourth game of the WNBA Finals.
Teams had to trim their rosters this week to get under the salary cap. That meant a lot of rookie players were cut without ever getting a chance to train in front of their coaches. Once again, the WNBA is proving to be one of the toughest professional leagues to crack.
Still, as the players above show, there’s always hidden gems. And while it might take a few years to determine who will be the steal of this year’s draft, don’t be surprised if it’s someone you never saw coming.
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