The University of Connecticut women’s basketball team doesn’t even need to be on the court to set records. The Huskies, who recently completed an unprecedented “quad-fecta” (four national titles in four consecutive seasons) set another record of sorts by owning the top three picks in the 2016 WNBA Draft held on Thursday at the Mohegan Sun Arena. When Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck were chosen 1-2-3, it represented the first time players from the same institution were selected with the first three picks in the history of major professional sports according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
Seattle owned the first pick thanks to a 10-24 performance in 2015 (second worst to San Antonio’s 8-26) and by winning the lottery. And the Storm certainly hit the jackpot when they selected ‘Stewie,’ without a doubt one of the top players in the illustrious history of UConn women’s basketball. On the Storm, she will be teammates with another UConn immortal—Sue Bird
Many people consider Stewart the best women’s college player in history. Her resume certainly supports that contention. A key player on four national champions. For consecutive Most Outstanding Player awards, indicative of the MVP of the Final Four. A three-time Associated Press National Player of the Year. And, thanks largely to a wingspan longer than a 747, Stewart this season became the first player in women’s college history to have more than 300 career blocked shots and 300 career assists. She also is a two-time MOP in the Bridgeport Regionals, having won the award in her freshman and senior seasons. But does that make her the best player ever?
“She’s got a lot of guts, Stewy does,” said UConn head coach Geno Auriemma after the Huskies eliminated the Oregon State Beavers in the national semifinals, 80-51. “And you know what we talk about on our team a lot is courage. … We’ve tried to explain to them that old saying that Winston Churchill said, ‘Courage is grace under fire.’ It’s not the absence of fear. It’s being able to do what you have to do while you’re afraid. And I think Stewy has been as good as anybody that’s ever played basketball at being able to do exactly what she has to do while being afraid.”
With the No. 2 pick, the San Antonio Stars selected Jefferson, the diminutive point guard that ran the Huskies’ offense. Jefferson, No. 2 on the all-time Connecticut list for both assists (659) and steals (353), shot 54.9 percent from the field throughout her college career (608 for 1,106), including 41.9 percent from beyond the three-point arc (159 for 379). She was selected a first-team All-American by the Associated Press, and was named the Atlantic Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
“Moriah can play at different speeds,” said Stars’ head coach and general manager Dan Hughes on his new star. “She can spread the floor with her three-point shooting, and we thought she was the best defensive player in college basketball.”
“It means the world to me to be a member of the San Antonio Stars,” said the 5-foot-7 Jefferson, a native of the Dallas suburb of Glenn Heights, Tex. “Being able to come back home and play in front of my friends and family, to come into the program and work with coach Hughes and my teammates, it’s going to be amazing.”
Sun Re-Shuffle the Deck
With the No. 3 pick, the Connecticut Sun kept things local and chose Morgan Tuck, the 6-2 forward who opted to leave UConn, even though she had one year of eligibility remaining. Tuck, a native of Grand Rapids, Mich., is happy that she is staying “home” as she embarks on the next stage of her career. The Mohegan Sun Arena is, after all, a straight pop down Route 32 from Storrs.
“I was really hoping [the Sun] would pick me up, and they did,” Tuck said. “There are going to be a lot of adjustments, but I don’t necessarily have to adjust to a whole new environment. It will be a 40-minute drive from campus. It will be great that all I have to do is drive down the road. The adjustment for me is going to be more on the court.”
Tuck averaged 13.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game for the Huskies this season, second in both categories to Stewart (19.4 points, 8.7 boards). For her career, Tuck averaged 11.3 points and 4.7 boards per game to go along with 2.5 assists. She shot 53.5 percent from the field.
The Sun weren’t done, however. Far from it. Owning the No. 4 pick, the result of trading last year’s first-round pick, Elizabeth Williams, to the Atlanta Dream, Connecticut chose sharp-shooting guard Rachel Banham out of the University of Minnesota. Banham, who shot 45.7 percent from the field (39 percent from downtown), set a Big Ten single-game scoring record when she dropped in 60 points vs. Northwestern in January. (While Banham’s three-point percentage may not seem lights out, consider this: Nearly half of the shots she took from the floor this past season (305 of 690) were from beyond the arc.
“I really wanted them to say my name,” Banham said. “I kind of said a prayer before [WNBA President Lisa Borders] said it.”
Not lost on the Sun faithful is that Banham’s selection echoes that of Lindsay Whalen, also a Minnesota native and former first-team All-American for the Gophers. Whalen was also selected in the first round—with the overall No. 4 pick, no less—by the Sun in 2004. “It’s weird, in a sense,” Banham said. “Everything worked out great for [Whalen], and I just hope that I can do the same and make an impact in this league.’’
Chances are she will. For starters, the Sun currently lack a true point guard. As a result, the offense will likely run through Banham, where she will be responsible for spreading the floor.
While Sun first-year head coach Curt Miller obviously did not invent the ball screen offense—predicated on spacing the floor, pick-and-rolls, ball movement, and getting your best shooters the ball where they can do the most damage—he is committed to bringing it to Uncasville having run it on the collegiate level at Bowling Green and Indiana, and teaching his young, talented team to work it.
“Coach [ Miller] said I’ll be at the point, but he said there will be times I can be at the two as well,” Banham said. “But he wants me to bring my scoring mentality to the league and just be fearless.”
Bringing her scoring mentality and being fearless wouldn’t seem to be an issue for the 5-9 guard, who finished the 2015-16 season as the No. 2 scorer in the nation (28.3 points per game), was named Big 10 Player of the Year, and had 60-, 52-, and 48-point outbursts during the season. She finished her college career with 3,093 points
When she isn’t shooting, Banham will be looking to get the ball to 6-3 power forward Chiney Ogwumike. The former No. 1 overall pick from Stanford missed all of last season after undergoing microfracture surgery on her right knee last January, but is reportedly at 100 percent and raring to go, Kelsey Bone and Alex Bentley. Spreading the floor—not allowing the defense to jam things up in the paint—will be a top priority for the Sun this season.
But the Sun still weren’t done. Having locked up two of the top four picks in the draft, why not go for four of the top six? Why not indeed… With the No. 6 pick, the L.A. Sparks drafted Jonquel Jones, a 6-6 C/F from George Washington University via the Bahamas. Jones was acquired for reserve guard Chelsea Gray (6.9 points, 2.3 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game in 2015) and next year’s No. 1 draft choice.
Later in the draft, the Sun went for two more guards—Oregon State’s Jamie Weisner in the second round (a pick also acquired from the Sparks in the Jones deal) and Aliyyah Hanford of St. John’s the third round. Facelift you say? With a new coach and five new players—at least three of them sure to be key contributors—plus the return of their franchise player after an entire year rehabbing a knee, this team will have an entirely new soul in 2016.
“Obviously we addressed a lot of needs,” said Miller. “We went into the draft wanting to improve our depth and the ability to space the floor for Chiney and Kelsey [in the post], and we wanted to improve our three-point shooting not only with guards but with stretch fours (small forwards). “We are excited about Morgan and we feel Rachel was the best shooter in the entire draft. And we looked at Jones as a special, special player whose upside in the league could be great.”