Sports Take: Top 2021 WNBA draft prospects

SAN ANTONIO, TX - MARCH 29: Baylor takes on UConn in the Elite Eight round of the NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 29, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

By Harper Mayfield | Sports Writer

Once Stanford was crowned champion in the 2021 NCAA women’s basketball season, all eyes turned to the WNBA draft. Due to WNBA eligibility rules, the draft will be full of familiar faces from the past few seasons.

WNBA draftees stateside are required to be either 22 years of age or graduated from college. International prospects, on the other hand, need only be 20. The newest group of prospects is a very promising one, and they’ll no doubt make an immediate impact on the league. So, let’s get to know some of the year’s most famous faces.

The NCAA Superstar – Charli Collier, 6-5 C, Texas

UT post Charli Collier has been the clear-cut No. 1 in the 2021 draft for some time now, and nothing has been done to change that. Collier put up monster numbers in Austin all year, finishing the regular season averaging 20 points per game with 12.2 rebounds. Collier is incredibly gifted offensively and has shown potential as a threat from beyond the arc. Before she expands her offensive repertoire to include three point lands, Collier is going to continue to dominate around the rim. She’s great at getting in position down low, which leads to a lot of easy baskets in the paint.

When you spend that much time at the cup, you’re going to see some contact, and Collier handles it very well. She attracted a foul on almost 20% of possessions this season, good for second in the nation. Additionally, her seven free throws a night put her in the top 20. And when she’s on the line, Collier is a threat. A lot of post players struggle from the stripe, but Collier converts over 80% of her charity attempts.

As evidenced by her 12.2 rebounds per game, Collier is a force on the glass. She grabbed over 35% of Texas’ total rebounds, including a 20 board performance against TCU.

As strong as Collier’s resume is, she does come with some concerns. Collier has struggled against elite competition a number of times this year, most notably against Baylor. In her two matchups with the Lady Bears, Collier totaled five points and six rebounds. Naturally, this becomes an issue when trying to project what Collier will become at the next level. In the NCAA tournament, she also struggled to produce at her usual level. In Texas’ blowout loss to South Carolina in the Elite Eight, she finished with just four points, four rebounds and three personal fouls. While Collier may take some time to adjust to the level of the WNBA, she has more than enough talent to become a star at the next level.

The Tournament Hero – Aari McDonald, 5-6 G, Arizona

In many drafts, a player experiences a meteoric rise as a result of a strong performance in the NCAA tournament. This year, it’s Arizona guard Aari McDonald who made the jump. McDonald is a do-it-all guard, averaging 20.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 4.5 assists a night on the way to Arizona’s first appearance in the national championship game. In her red-hot tournament year, McDonald never scored less than 17 points and posted 30 on two separate occasions.

The ‘clutch gene’ is coveted in basketball today, and McDonald has it in spades. She starred in a number of key wins over the course of the season, most notably the Wildcats’ take down of a juggernaut UConn team led by Paige Bueckers. A lot of offensively gifted guards struggle to defend at a high level — not McDonald. She won the last two Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year awards, a testament to her strong perimeter defense. That defense shows up in the box score too, as McDonald had six steals in four games this season. Looking at advanced stats, McDonald was ranked No. 13 in defensive win shares nationally. At the professional level, ‘3-and-D’ players continue to be all the rage. With the shooting McDonald showed this season, she could be one of the league’s best in that role. McDonald’s shooting percentage from the three took a huge leap this season, hitting over 34.5% of her attempts from deep.

The question with McDonald, though, is how real that shooting improvement is. McDonald has been a streaky shooter her whole collegiate career, but her world-beating tournament run would suggest otherwise. McDonald never hit more than 30% of her threes until this season, and has been about average from the free throw line. That doesn’t necessarily bode well for her shooting prospects as a pro, but it also isn’t the end of the world. McDonald is a phenomenal two-way player and has earned her place near the top of draft boards.

The International Phenom – Awak Kuier, 6-4 F, Finland

There are few things as intriguing to a team as a talented foreign player. For this class, that’s Finnish star Awak Kuier. Kuier has a chance to be a very special player in the WNBA and is likely to come off the board within the first few picks. Currently playing in Italy, Kuier can do a little bit of everything. She’s averaged almost nine points and seven rebounds per game for Ragusa, an Italian club. She also averages 1.5 blocks a night.

Kuier’s size and length bode well for her prospects as a WNBA defender, as does her eye-popping athleticism. Kuier can get off the floor in ways that very few players can and has dunked in-game multiple times this season. That presence at the cup is combined with her ability to stretch the floor at an impressive level. On the year, Kuier has hit 14 triples, a promising number for her WNBA career.

For as many positives as there are about Kuier, there are just as many unknowns. It’s always tough to evaluate overseas prospects, even more so in a year where travel is virtually nonexistent. Still, the success of international players in both the WNBA and NBA will keep Kuier at the top of draft boards across the league. Her combination of size, skill and athleticism could turn her into an unstoppable two-way force in the league in the mold of Breanna Stewart, A’ja Wilson or Elena Delle Donne. Despite a lack of knowledge of Kuier, expect her to come off the board early.

The Perennial Powerhouses (aka the Lady Bears) – DiJonai Carrington and DiDi Richards

Baylor has a long history of productive WNBA players, and their most recent graduates look to be no different. Carrington and Richards both had strong years in Waco, helping lead the Lady Bears to the Elite Eight before a crushing loss to UConn. While the loss put a damper on the season, it did nothing but help the pair’s draft prospects.

Carrington, a graduate transfer from Stanford, took over down the stretch in the tournament, showcasing her scoring ability and physicality. At 5-foot-11, she’s tall for a guard, giving her an advantage on offense and defense. She’s also been taught by some of the best in the business, first in Palo Alto, with Stanford coach Tara VanDerveer, then at Baylor, with head coach Kim Mulkey. Carrington’s experience showed late in the tournament, as she remained poised even in tense moments. In the pros, Carrington projects as a late first round pick, the third Lady Bear in as many years to get picked in the first.

While Richards may not be a first round selection, she definitely has a home in the WNBA. Richards is just one year removed from being selected as the National Defensive Player of the Year, and her perimeter defense was just as strong this season. Richards also made the shift to point guard this year, a far cry from her original role as a wing player. That versatility will translate well to the pros, as will her passing ability. In her time as Baylor’s primary ball handler, Richards showcased a knack for passing, averaging a career high 6.4 assists per game. Richards was a big part of what made Baylor go, and her importance was especially evident in the Elite Eight matchup with UConn, where Richards sustained a hamstring injury.

While there were no lasting effects to Richards’ health, Baylor fell apart without her in the game. Her presence on both ends of the court was significant for the Lady Bears, and she’s more than capable of doing that at the next level. Wherever Carrington and Richards land, they’ll surely be strong contributors for a long time to come.

The WNBA will hold its 2021 draft virtually on April 15 at 8 p.m. The draft will air on ESPN.