Skipping her final year for UConn women's basketball, Stevens' early entry into WNBA draft creating plenty of intrigue

Published on Tuesday, 10 April 2018 21:18
Written by CARL ADAMEC

JOURNAL INQUIRER

A WNBA general manager who came to scout the UConn women’s basketball team this season was asked what seemed to be a simple question: What do you do if Gabby Williams is available at your pick in the first round of the draft?

The GM threw their hands in the air.

And that was before Azurá Stevens put her name in the draft last week, giving up her final year of college eligibility.

Much of the intrigue in the first round of Thursday’s WNBA Draft being held at Nike Headquarters in New York surrounds the two former Huskies. Then there’s Kia Nurse, who is projected as a late first-round choice.

“I don’t think it’s a spectacular draft. I don’t think it’s a bad draft,” Las Vegas Aces coach and president of basketball operations Bill Laimbeer said last week. “It’s just a middle-of-the-road quality draft. There’s no particular position standing out over any of the other ones. So it’s about what each person wants. They’re going to be able to find something in the draft.”

The Aces hold the No. 1 pick and will likely take South Carolina’s A’ja Wilson, the consensus national Player of the Year.

After that, a lot of coaches/GMs are throwing their hands in the air. The Indiana Fever own the No. 2 pick.

“My expectation, until Azurá Stevens entered the draft, they would for sure go with (Ohio State’s) Kelsey Mitchell,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “But now with Stevens in the draft, I wouldn’t be surprised if they went with Stevens.

“Both players bring so much. Both fill a need for Indiana. In my mind it was going to be Mitchell, but I think Stevens has affected even the thinking at the second pick.”

As a redshirt junior for the Huskies (36-1), the 6-foot-6 Stevens averaged 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds, and 2.1 blocked shots. She was named the American Athletic Conference Newcomer of the Year and the Sixth Man Award winner, as well as the Most Outstanding Player of the AAC Tournament. She had 19 points, eight rebounds, and three blocks in the Final Four loss to Notre Dame.

Pokey Chatman is the Fever’s coach.

“Azurá is a quality player. She has the length,” Chatman said. “She’ll need to continue to get a little bit stronger. We know her face-up game from her time at Duke. She was asked to play around the basket a little bit more at Connecticut and did well. We can sit here and talk about every rookie that’s going to be drafted in terms of their defense.

“We won nine games last year. We have a lot of needs to address. Anytime someone that has quality like Azurá is in the draft, you sit back and rethink things.”

Chicago Sky coach and general manager Amber Stocks will make the third and fourth picks and may have Stevens and Williams to look at.

“Obviously Azurá’s presence provokes movement on all of our draft boards, but especially us up top,” Stocks said. “Pokey just spoke well to her ability to impact the game and impact each roster differently.

But for us specifically at Chicago, yes, she is a player that is going to garner attention and we’re going to spend time evaluating her and seeing if she’s the right decision.”

If Stevens is one selection, could Williams be the other?

The two-time All-American averaged 11.2 points, 7.4 rebounds, 5.3 assists, and 2.4 steals as a senior and was the MOP of the NCAA Albany Regional. She and Maya Moore are the only UConn players to finish with 1,500 points, 1,000 rebounds, 400 assists, 300 steals, and 100 blocked shots.

But at 5-11, she is undersized to play on a WNBA frontline and her willingness to take the 15-foot jump shot has some concerned, but not all. Laimbeer compares Williams to Connecticut Sun all-star Alyssa Thomas.

“Gabby Williams is the same mold,” Laimbeer said. “She’ll teach herself some better perimeter shooting. You watched her in the playoffs, pretty big foul-line jump shots. She’ll get better, especially if she gets a coach working with her. I think she’ll be a solid player for a long time in the WNBA.”

“Alyssa Thomas is a fabulous comparison and what Pokey previously mentioned, the heart, taking into account how important heart is, ” Stocks added. “And as Bill said, half the game’s played on the defensive end. So those are two valuable assets that she brings regardless of her ability to hit a three or nail a free-throw line jumper.”

Following the Sky will be the Seattle Storm, Dallas Wings, Washington Mystics, the Fever’s second selection of the first round, the Sun, the New York Liberty, Los Angeles Sparks, and Phoenix Mercury.

As well as the No. 9 pick in the first round, Connecticut - which finished 21-13 a year ago and advanced to the playoffs for the first time since 2012 - has the third selection of the second round (No. 15) and the ninth choice (No. 33) in the third round. A combination guard could fill a need.

Enter Nurse?

The Hamilton, Ontario, native played the shooting guard spot for most of her UConn career but runs the point for the Canadian national team. She averaged 13.5 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 2.8 assists as a senior and was the AAC and WBCA national Defensive Player of the Year. She improved her outside shot in Storrs, making 46.2 percent of her 3-point tries as a junior and 44.3 percent of her attempts as a senior.

The Nurse family also has a history with Sun coach and general manager Curt Miller, who coached Nurse’s older sister, Tamika, at Bowling Green and tried to recruit Kia to Indiana University five years ago.

Former UConn player Natalie Butler, who used her final season of eligibility at George Mason and was the Atlantic-10 Player of the Year while leading the country in rebounds and double-doubles, has been projected as a late second or third-round pick in a number of mock drafts.



Posted in Newington Town Crier, UConn on Tuesday, 10 April 2018 21:18. Updated: Tuesday, 10 April 2018 21:20.