April 15, 2004

WNBA draft is loaded with talent
The Kansas City Star

A year ago, the WNBA draft was delayed while the league and the players' union negotiated a labor deal. Then, when that was secured, the draft took place but lacked buzz because the senior class wasn't very compelling or deep.

This year, things are quite different. This group of seniors is among the best ever, and the expectations for them are very high.

The WNBA holds its draft Saturday in Secaucus, N.J., and for the first time the first round will be shown live on ESPN, starting at 11 a.m. Central time. The first pick, unless the Phoenix Mercury does something completely unexpected, will be Connecticut's Diana Taurasi.

She just won her third NCAA title with the Huskies, and currently is with the U.S. national team on its three-game exhibition tour with Japan. There had been questions throughout the season about nagging injuries for Taurasi, but her star power and championship mentality are much needed in Phoenix.

Then again, the Mercury needs just about everything after an 8-26 finish last season. The team announced Tuesday that longtime assistant Carrie Graf, an Australia native, will take over as head coach. Brian Agler, former head coach of the Minnesota Lynx, was hired as a Mercury assistant. Agler was previously a head coach in the now-defunct American Basketball League and at Kansas State.

Phoenix fans have proven they'll show up to watch a good team, which the Mercury hasn't been the past three seasons. Taurasi brings instant credibility and name recognition. And Phoenix has used her for marketing purposes even before actually drafting her.

This past Friday, the team took out an ad in the Arizona Republic newspaper saying, “Congratulations, Diana Taurasi... We'll see you soon.” For a franchise that some think has gone to the well too often for international players whom fans have no connection to, Taurasi is as close to a perfect pick as there could be.

After her, though, things get murky. Duke guard Alana Beard won most of the major individual honors this season, including the Wade Trophy and Wooden Award. Beard is a pro-level defender and her athleticism is major-league, as well.

A question is whether she can consistently hit perimeter shots. Also, will she go to a team that will try to make her into a point guard? Duke used her at the spot early in her career out of necessity, but it never seemed to click for her.

Beard may get a boost, though, just from having the weight of her national-championship quest over. Her Duke career didn't end well; the Blue Devils lost in the Elite Eight to Minnesota. Despite Duke being a No. 1 seed all four of her seasons, Beard never got to an NCAA title game.

But now the thing she most dreaded — not winning the biggest title in college — has happened. So at least she doesn't have to dread it anymore. And with the pressure off as she begins her pro career, Beard could be very effective.

With their NCAA Tournament performances, both Stanford's Nicole Powell and Minnesota's Lindsay Whalen solidified their status as top-five picks. The Minnesota Lynx desperately would love to have home-state hero Whalen, but she won't be around for them to take with the No. 7 pick. Minnesota's only hope is to pull off a trade in the next few days to get ahead of No. 4 Connecticut, which also wants Whalen very much.

Powell, at 6 feet 2, could play anything from point guard to power forward. As for Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde, she will show her new coaching staff what she showed Deb Patterson: Tell her to do something, she does it. Ohlde is as coachable as they come, and one WNBA scout projected she will be especially effective as she finishes “growing into” her 6-foot-5 frame.

Ohlde seems certain to be the first Big 12 player picked and might well be the only one from the league to go in the first round. Texas A&M guard Toccara Williams and Texas center Stacy Stephens are possible picks for the late first round or the second round.

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