The first round of the WNBA draft was taking shape as the college season wound down. But right after the Final Four, UConn's Azurá Stevens shook things up.
Stevens bypassed her final season of eligibility and entered the 2018 draft. She didn't leave school "early" -- she was in college for four years, two at Duke and two at UConn, sitting out the 2016-17 season as a transfer -- but her decision surprised some people.
How will it affect WNBA teams' draft picks? We'll find out Thursday as the three-round draft takes place at Nike's New York headquarters in Manhattan. The first round will be telecast on ESPN2 starting at 7 p.m. ET, followed by the second and third rounds on ESPNU.
South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson, the consensus national player of the year, seems a lock at No. 1 by Las Vegas, which also picked first last year (Washington guard Kelsey Plum) when the franchise was still in San Antonio.
Indiana has the No. 2 selection, and was projected to pick Ohio State guard Kelsey Mitchell, who finished her college career with 3,402 points, second to Plum (3,527) on the NCAA all-time scoring list. The Fever, who need an offensive boost, might still go that way. But Indiana coach/general manager Pokey Chatman acknowledged that the Fever at least have to think about selecting Stevens.
"Azurá was probably a little more surprising than others in the past," Chatman said of Stevens' draft entry. "She's a quality player. She has the length. She'll need to continue to get a little bit stronger.
"She was asked to play around the basket a little bit more at Connecticut. Did well. We can sit here and talk about every rookie that's going to be drafted in terms of their defense. That's always something that they have to work on."
But Stevens has the tools to be impactful on both ends of the court. A 6-foot-6 power forward, she mostly came off the bench this season for the 36-1 Huskies, who lost in the national semifinals to eventual NCAA champion Notre Dame. She started only eight games but averaged 14.7 points and 7.4 rebounds, while leading UConn in blocked shots with 76.
Stevens also led the Huskies in shooting percentage at 60.6, but that included going 9 of 51 from 3-point range. She shot 67.3 percent on two-point field goals.
Stevens left UConn without a national championship; the Huskies lost in the national semifinals in 2017, too, when she was with the program but sitting out. She clearly wanted an NCAA title, but there were reasons to make the move to the pros now.
Would her game get significantly better with one more season of college play? Especially with so much of that in the American Athletic Conference, where UConn has yet to lose a game? Probably not.
And while this year's draft is very solid in the first round, next year's looks even deeper. Stevens' chance to be a lottery pick -- in the first four selections -- seems better now than in 2019.
That would mean just a little more money in her rookie contract; the top four picks this year are slated for $52,564 their first season. Picks 5-8 get $48,638, and the remaining picks $43,404. Over the course of a standard three-year rookie deal, that would mean about $12,000 more total.
It also might add a bit more negotiating power in regard to playing overseas. That earning potential is still the greatest draw for a player starting her pro career. And there's also the worst-case scenario prospect of injury in college next season diminishing Stevens' 2019 draft status or even delaying her WNBA debut to 2020.
Stevens probably weighed all that and opted to go pro now. She was the only player eligible for the draft who still had college eligibility and elected to bypass it. There were some true juniors this past season who had the opportunity to leave early -- which a player can do if she turns 22 in the year the draft is held -- but none did.
Last year, South Carolina guards Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis were in a similar position to Stevens. They'd been in college four years, yet had a season of eligibility left because they sat out a year for transferring. But they opted to leave South Carolina after its 2017 NCAA championship season, and both were drafted by Dallas in the first round. Gray, the No. 4 pick overall, was the 2017 WNBA rookie of the year.
While this year's draft appears deeper in talent than last year's, there is no guarantee for anyone, no matter where she is picked, to make a WNBA roster. There are 12 teams with 12 players each.
"If you're a smart basketball player, and you get put in the right situation, you're going to have a chance," Las Vegas coach/general manager Bill Laimbeer said. "But it's a difficult league even for first-round picks to get a spot."
That shouldn't be a problem for Wilson. She was the consensus national player of the year, averaging 22.6 points and 11.8 rebounds this season for the Gamecocks, who lost in the Elite Eight to UConn. Laimbeer did not confirm he would select Wilson, but he had a lot of positive things to say about her.
"She can attack the basket with one dribble and cover a tremendous amount of ground," Laimbeer said. "It says something when you have a player of her size take the ball out of bounds all the time, where the trust factor is there for her to make the right pass.
"She's also the player who comes back to get the ball and is the outlet pass to start -- whether it's a press break or get the ball in -- because she's going to make the right decisions. Those are the intangibles you look for in a player."
Chatman said she expected Mitchell, with her scoring ability, to have plenty of "showtime" moments, although offensive consistency can be a challenge for any rookie. The Fever have two first-round picks, at No. 2 and No. 8, and both could be valuable for a team that missed the playoffs last season for the first time since 2004.
"We won nine games last year," Chatman said of her inaugural season with the Fever, who started the post-Tamika Catchings era 9-25. "We have a lot of needs to address."
If Wilson and Mitchell go 1-2, then Stevens would be available for Chicago, which has both the No. 3 and 4 picks. The Sky could take both Stevens and Diamond DeShields, a big guard at 6-2 who left Tennessee last summer and spent the winter playing overseas in Turkey. Chicago coach/GM Amber Stocks has made it clear that shooting guard is one of her draft priorities.
Gabby Williams, UConn's 5-11 forward, is the player who might have the biggest range of where she could be taken in the first round. Before Stevens' entry, it seemed more likely that Williams could be one of Chicago's selections. With Stevens in the mix, Williams could drop out of the lottery picks.
Seattle might go for a point guard at No. 5, probably UCLA's Jordin Canada. Then Williams could go at No. 6 to Dallas, which needs the defensive upgrade Williams could provide. But the Wings threw a curveball last year in taking Kentucky post player Evelyn Akhator at No. 3, so they might surprise everyone again.
Wherever Williams goes, WNBA coaches expect her to do well. UConn players -- three Huskies, including guard Kia Nurse, are expected to go in the first round -- have a track record of success in the WNBA.
"She'll teach herself some better perimeter shooting," Laimbeer said of Williams. "I think she'll be a solid player for a long time in the WNBA."
There is also one player who did not play collegiately in the mix as a first-round pick this year: 6-4 Russian center Maria Vadeeva, who is 19 and has played professionally in her home country the past few years.
Laimbeer said while he would not select Vadeeva at No. 1, he expected her to be a first-round pick. Chatman concurred.
"She's surrounded by talent abroad and is playing well," Chatman said. "But you always have to guard against taking a player with such a high pick, just because of [Vadeeva's Russian national team] commitment. Of course, she'll be on everyone's board."