August 27, 2021
The Next presents: An Oakland WNBA expansion draft simulation (Part 1 of 2)
Our beat reporters set which players are off-limits
It’s been a long time since the WNBA last expanded. But the need to accommodate all the talent in the women’s game has been a subject of increasing concern for all, from players to the commissioner. And so when we saw the city of Oakland move to position itself as the 13th market in the league, a conversation sprung up among the group here at The Next: what would such a redistribution look like?
So we ran a full simulation. Here, in Part 1 of it, you’ll hear from each of our 12 WNBA beat reporters. We used the rules from the previous expansion draft, so they could protect six players, total, from their active rosters. (We ran this simulation during the extended Olympic break, so you’ll notice things like Elena Delle Donne still recovering from her back injuries. She’s since returned, but as Jenn Hatfield makes clear, it is unlikely she’d leave DC for Oakland for family reasons.)
After the protected lists were submitted, Howard Megdal, the GM of the new Oakland WNBA franchise, had a chance to negotiate with each of the other GMs. Trade offers of future assets to either leave folks unprotected, or for teams to offer Howard the chance to gain additional assets for the right not to select someone, were both on the table.
In Part 2, you’ll get a chance to see how those negotiations played out, and what Oakland’s roster looked like. But first: here are your protected lists.
Atlanta Dream (Spencer Nusbaum)
- Crystal Bradford
- Chennedy Carter
- Tiffany Hayes
- Aari McDonald
- Cheyenne Parker
- Courtney Williams
I’m just not going to let the Dream have a center this year. When Atlanta has its top three scorers (Carter, Hayes and Courtney Williams) on the floor, I’m confident in its chances against almost any team in the league. So if this doesn’t work out (and the Oakland Redacted’s take Elizabeth Williams), I can rationalize a center-less roster as a theoretical punt on this season. But Atlanta can give a playoff push the old college try with a small-ball rotation. The top four players on this list comprise a legitimate contending core (when healthy and happy), while McDonald and Bradford are on team-friendly contracts and fit well within the team’s culture. Though Hayes and Williams enter free agency in 2022, the Dream are not good enough without them — and Atlanta has the cap space to re-sign that pair if this works out.
Chicago Sky (Alison Moran-Powers)
- Kahleah Copper
- Diamond DeShields
- Stefanie Dolson
- Candace Parker
- Allie Quigley
- Courtney Vandersloot
I think it is pretty evident who the Sky needs to stay competitive in this league. Without them, the team went on a seven-game losing streak that practically derailed their chances for a comeback. If this had happened later in the season, who knows what would have happened to their playoff chances?
It was only when Parker and Quigley came back from injury that the Sky found its footing and leadership again, going on a seven-game winning streak and regaining their position as the most talented, deepest roster in the WNBA.
The Sky pulled even at 10-10 at the break. It’s hard to see how they could have done it without the chemistry between Kahleah Copper, the team’s leading scorer, and Candace Parker, as well as Parker-DeShields and their chemistry. And with Quigley, the ‘Queen of the Three-Pointers’ leading players off the bench, the Sky have their best short-term survival plan for the playoffs.
Connecticut Sun (Jacqueline LeBlanc)
- DeWanna Bonner
- Natisha Hiedeman
- Brionna Jones
- Jonquel Jones
- Alyssa Thomas
- Jasmine Thomas
I think it’s clear who Connecticut’s core group of five players is if the Sun are to win a championship sooner rather than later. That leaves one spot available for a young player to develop long-term or Briann January. January is an elite defender and a crucial piece to the Sun’s success this season, but she’s also 34 years old and in the last year of her contract. The Sun already had little cap space to work with this year and still have to sign Jonquel Jones to a new deal in the offseason, which makes the decision to not protect the vet a little bit easier from a cap-space perspective.
Natisha Hiedeman, Beatrice Mompremier, DiJonai Carrington, Kaila Charles, and Steph Jones all have had their moments off the bench this year, but the decision for the final protected slot ultimately came down to Hiedeman and Charles. Charles had a slow start to the season, but carved out a productive role in the starting lineup as a rebounding guard while Jones was away at EuroBasket. She also has two more years, plus a team option, on her rookie contract than Hiedeman — who is a restricted free agent after this season.
But Hiedeman has the most experience off the bench and her flashes of growth and potential early on this season could draw attention from Oakland. She’s proven she can be a spark plug during offensive slumps, and I think the Sun still have a chance to make a deep playoffs run if Hiedeman has to step up in case Oakland decides to draft January.
Dallas Wings (Arie Graham)
- Charli Collier
- Allisha Gray
- Isabelle Harrison
- Marina Mabrey
- Arike Ogunbowale
- Satou Sabally
This protection list was difficult due to the depth of the team. Arike Ogunbowale must be protected at all costs. She has infused energy back into this franchise. She the leading scorer that is improving on defense. I believe Ogunbowale, Satou Sabally and Allisha Gray could put on an offensive clinic if given enough time to practice and develop together. Dallas also needs size and No. 1 draft pick Charli Collier has been thrown into the fire in her first season, but the ceiling is high. Isabelle Harrison is versatile, can rotate in and out as the center and she can continue to be a veteran leader for the team. I am protecting Marina Mabrey because she is scrappy and is an offensive spark off of the bench. This lineup could easily find themselves in the playoffs if they can hold up defensively. This leaves Awak Kuier, Chelsea Dungee, Tyasha Harris, Moriah Jefferson and Kayla Thornton unprotected. Dallas needs consistency at the point guard position. It is Jefferson’s injury history that left her unprotected. Kuier needs time to be stronger so she will not be dominated by the other bigs in the league. Dungee, Harris, Alarie and Thornton are all valuable trade assets. If the Wings need size, why not protect Alarie and Kuier? If Dallas wants to win now, it needs a veteran center. Harris and Dungee are not protected simply because the team is guard heavy.
Indiana Fever (Ben Rosof)
- Kysre Gondrezick
- Bernadett Hatar
- Jantel Lavender
- Kelsey Mitchell
- Teaira McCowan
- Danielle Robinson
Indiana seems to be all-in on maintaining a healthy balance of young players and veterans on its roster, one that has recently led to three straight wins leading into the Olympic break. The above list reflects that balance, though it should be noted that the veterans have much looser holds on their spots than the more inexperienced players included.
Mitchell must be retained at all costs — she is the unquestioned franchise player in just the fourth year of her career, and has led the team in scoring during the 2019, 2020 and, thus far, 2021 seasons. When the Fever lose, she clearly takes it the hardest, unafraid to use words such as “tough,” “frustrating” and “sucks” with the media to describe letting how it feels to disappoint the fanbase. Leaving a positive impact on the Indiana basketball scene clearly means something to Mitchell, and that shouldn’t go unnoticed in relation to her stats.
McCowan, though inconsistent, is also a young franchise cornerstone to build around going forward. Right now, she’s the most reliable big the Fever have and must be protected.
The recent emergence of Danielle Robinson has arguably been the number one key to the Fever’s surprising recent winning streak, as she’s exhibited a ton of aggression offensively in addition to her savvy, reliable playmaking ability. Lavender also provides a solid veteran presence that can stretch the floor from the four position.
Gondrezick was protected because of her position as a pick in the 2021 draft (fourth overall), though the Fever have recently shown an impatience with high draft selections that are slow to develop. Hatar has also shown flashes of promise when she’s been available.
Las Vegas Aces (Sydney Olmstead)
- Liz Cambage
- Chelsea Gray
- Dearica Hamby
- Kelsey Plum
- A’ja Wilson
- Jackie Young
With one of the deepest teams in the league, how do you pick just six players to protect? Straight out of the gate, you’ve got Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson doing what the Aces do best: dominating the paint and protecting the basket. The reigning MVP’s numbers speak for themselves (19.4 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 3.1 apg and a whopping 91.3 FT% in 138 trips to the line). She simply hasn’t let up, and it says something that she’s still standing out on a team as deep as Vegas. Wilson is the face of the franchise and the chemistry she creates around her is irreplaceable. Then there are Dearica Hamby and Kelsey Plum coming in off the bench to breathe fresh energy back into the game and push the pace. I’ve been saying it all year… the aggressive spark on both sides of the ball that Hamby and Plum bring off the bench is absolutely crucial to the Aces’ success. They’re simply not a championship-level team without it. Mix in Chelsea Gray throughout the game — passing dimes and hitting clutch shots when it matters most. It took a few games for her to settle into the new system, but now she’s a key part of it by keeping her team cool and collected while making sure the right person always has the ball in her hands. Meanwhile, Jackie Young is having her best season so far and her ceiling is still high. The 2019 No. 1 pick is versatile and can be cycled in and out as needed. Not to mention she’s improved multiple aspects of her game in her third season in the W, from shooting (12.6 ppg, 49.3%) to rebounding to ball handling and even blocking.
This leaves 11-year veteran Angel McCoughtry (who is recovering from injury), JiSu Park, Kiah Stokes, Riquna Williams and rookie Destiny Slocum unprotected. While cases can be made for each of these players, the 6-woman core I’ve selected is what will take the Aces to the trophy they just missed last year.
Los Angeles Sparks (David Yapkowitz)
- Arella Guirantes
- Nneka Ogwumike
- Brittney Sykes
- Jasmine Walker
- Erica Wheeler
- Maria Vadeeva
A healthy mix of veterans and young players make up the protection list for the Sparks. For a team like Los Angeles, who has shown themselves to be competitive this season despite a rash of injuries, but has also struggled mightily, they need to be prepared to head in either direction. A core trio of Ogwumike, Sykes and Wheeler ensure that the team has enough talent to remain a formidable team on both ends of the floor. Ogwumike goes without question, Sykes is one of the league’s premier defenders, and Wheeler has emerged as one of the top point guards and clutch players. The latter trio of Guirantes, Vadeeva and Walker give the Sparks some options if they ever decide to hit the reset button. All three are potential building blocks for the future that you just cannot give up. Guriantes has lottery talent and has shown flashes of being a productive player both offensively and defensively. Vadeeva hasn’t played in the league in almost two years, but in 2019 she had a real low post game while expanding her range out to the three-point line. While Walker wasn’t able to show much due to her season-ending injury, the talent is there and her versatile skill-set is very well suited to today’s game.
Minnesota Lynx (Alyssa Graham)
- Bridget Carleton
- Napheesa Collier
- Layshia Clarendon
- Damiris Dantas
- Sylvia Fowles
- Kayla McBride
Last year’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Sylvia Fowles, and 2019 Rookie of the Year, Napheesa Collier are no-brainers for this list. Bridget Carleton is the most efficient and dynamic player coming off the Lynx bench. Kayla McBride is thriving in the Cheryl Reeve system. With Fowles threatening the paint, the Lynx need a perimeter shooter with height to compliment her and that’s what they have in Damiris Dantas.
It’s extremely hard to not have players like Crystal Dangerfield and Aerial Powers on this list. We just haven’t had the production expected of Dangerfield this year and Layshia Clarendon has proved time and time again that they belong on this Lynx roster. It sucks that we’ve missed out on a healthy Powers this season and honestly the only reason I can’t put her on this list. Here’s to hoping Dangerfield and Powers fly under Oakland’s radar and the Lynx have the chance to keep them.
I’m assuming that in this GM role, I am also inheriting head coach and general manager Cheryl Reeve’s expert drafting abilities. Yes, this protected group has a high median age, but drafting in rookies to learn, grow and step up in their roles is what the Lynx do.
New York Liberty (Jackie Powell)
- Bec Allen
- Natasha Howard
- Sabrina Ionescu
- Betnijah Laney
- Kylee Shook
- Sami Whitcomb
While the New York Liberty are the second-youngest team in the league, that doesn’t exclude them from also being one of the deeper teams. What makes them deep is simply the amount of players that can function properly in the way New York wants to play basketball, something the Liberty just didn’t have a year ago in the Wubble. Amid injuries and international commitments, New York has learned in 2021 who can step up when given the opportunity. The players I selected to protect are those who encompass either a) a style of play that represents New York’s identity, b) this team culture that was built up from the ground or c) skills that aren’t found anywhere else in the league. (Note: Jocelyn Willoughby and Marine Johannès would have both been considered if either were able to play this season. There isn’t enough of a sample size on Han Xu and Marine Fauthoux—although that’s what Tokyo is for—to be able to determine if how WNBA ready they are.)
Beginning with the backcourt, Sabrina Ionescu is the Liberty’s franchise player. She’s their number one draft pick and their future. Walt Hopkins’ entire style of play was based on what she does best, and when she’s not healthy, New York has struggled this season. The skillsets of both Sami Whitcomb and All-Star Betnijah Laney allow for Ionescu to come off the ball, freeing up space on the court to not only find her own shot, but find the best look for her teammates. Also, this season Whitcomb and Laney are co-captains and have used their voices to set team cultural precedents in a very young locker room. The final three I elected to protect in Allen, Howard, and Shook all have skillsets that most players in this league do not possess. Allen is a three-level scorer and defensive stopper who can play in both the frontcourt and the backcourt. Hopkins’ system utilizes her skills and hard work in ways Katie Smith and Bill Laimbeer failed to. Natasha Howard, similar to Ionescu, is a building block to what the Liberty want to be about now and in years to come. While she missed the majority of the first half of 2021, the spurts we could see of Flash proved why a four-year super-max deal for Howard was worth it.
Besides Ionescu, Shook is the only other member of the 2020 draft class that I decided to protect. Why not All-Rookie Jazmine Jones or ROY front runner Michaela Onyenwere? Shook, like Allen and Howard has developed and proven her improved skillset, which is also difficult to find in the league. Shook has filled in for Howard starting at the five for the majority of 2021 and while she’s not the superstar talent that The Flash is, Shook has the ceiling to be. Besides Howard, where are the other stretch bigs in this league who can shoot over 35 percent from three, can play off pick and roll, have the basketball IQ to make well-informed passes, and value defense? Emma Meesseman, Breanna Stewart and Candace Parker are names who come to mind. Also, Shook currently is the Liberty’s best on-off player and has the lowest Net Rating on the Liberty.
While Onyenwere and Jones know their roles and play them well, both haven’t proven to be building blocks of the franchise. There are more players around the league who embody both of what Jones and Onyenwere can do. The same can’t be said about Shook. As for DiDi Richards, Reshanda Gray and Leaonna “Neah” Odom, all three have filled gaps for New York when their intangibles on defense and overall toughness have faltered. While Gray has been a pick-and-roll understudy for Howard while she heals from her sprained MCL, her developing perimeter skills in addition to that of Richards and Odom haven’t proven yet to the Liberty that they ought to be more indispensable.
Phoenix Mercury (Alex Simon)
- Skylar Diggins-Smith
- Brittney Griner
- Kia Nurse
- Diana Taurasi
- Brianna Turner
- Megan Walker
Well, this is perhaps the easiest protection list to make across the league. Phoenix’s entire starting five, plus the player that is both the youngest and under team control for the longest in Walker. Out of the five left unprotected, two (Shey Peddy and Kia Vaughn) are veterans that I assume are unlikely to be selected, two (Sophie Cunningham and Alanna Smith) are players the Mercury already declined their fourth-year options on (though I wonder if there is some regret for doing that on Cunningham) and the fifth, Bria Hartley, is returning from a torn ACL and makes a considerable salary that I don’t mind leaving available, in case Oakland really likes her. I will say, this might be a harder decision on Nurse than I am giving credit for, given her restricted free agency coming up this offseason and how that could get crazy on my cap space, but her big final game before the Olympic break showed what she can bring to this Phoenix team and I’m willing to ride out her restricted free agency.
Seattle Storm (Em Adler)
- Sue Bird
- Mikiah Herbert Harrigan
- Jewell Loyd
- Ezi Magbegor
- Mercedes Russell
- Breanna Stewart
There’s five no-brainers and then… somebody else. We’ve got a handful of contributing role players in Katie Lou Samuelson, Epiphanny Prince, Stephanie Talbot and Jordin Canada left to choose from. In order of my concern about Oakland drafting them: Canada’s an RFA who’s not a long-term-viable starter in Seattle and could very well receive an offer this winter that I don’t want to match; Prince will be 34 next season; and Samuelson and Talbot are both relatively young players with ceilings as valuable role players but have a long ways to go in getting there. And then there’s Mikiah Herbert Harrigan. We spent a late first-rounder to get her to the Pacific Northwest, and though she’ll come into 2022 with almost no domestic experience since the SEC tournament in March 2020, she remains a first-round-pedigreed stretch-4 with length, athleticism, defensive hands, a jumper from 15 to 23 feet and slashing potential. Given that there’s about four true wings hitting unrestricted free agency next year, I might have to make some handshake deals ahead of the draft in order to retain a wing…
Washington Mystics (Jenn Hatfield)
- Ariel Atkins
- Tina Charles
- Alysha Clark
- Natasha Cloud
- Myisha Hines-Allen
- Leilani Mitchell
OK, let’s start with the name that is conspicuously not on the list: Elena Delle Donne. She’s trying to recover from three herniated discs in her back as well as stenosis, a spinal condition that has ended several athletes’ careers. But more importantly, she forced a trade several years ago to DC to be near her family, including her older sister Lizzie, who is deaf and blind and can only communicate with others in person. As a result, Elena is extremely unlikely to ever play for Oakland (or any other team far from home) and would be a bad gamble for the franchise.
The first five players on my protected list were locks, representing both the present and the future of the franchise. The last spot came down to Mitchell, Delle Donne and Theresa Plaisance, a forward who is having a strong season for the Mystics. But aside from Plaisance’s own history of back trouble, the Mystics need to protect both of their point guards, Mitchell and Cloud, more than they need to protect another forward. Steady ballhandling will be crucial to the Mystics’ postseason aspirations, both in preventing turnovers and in unlocking their best players offensively in Charles and Atkins.