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It’s 2021 WNBA Draft Day, but you should hold your excitement. Yes, it’s the 25th anniversary of the league’s 1997 inaugural season and that, certainly, is cause for cheer. But 57 women opted into this year’s draft and only 36 will hear their names called during Thursday night’s ceremony (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
With league history-makers and champions Seimone Augustus, Sue Bird, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi suiting up for their 16th, 18th, 14th and 17th seasons, respectively (and younger stars such as 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson, 2020 Finals MVP Breanna Stewart and 2019 champion/league MVP Elena Delle Donne) just nearing or peaking in their primes — roster spots are few and far between.
Players under consideration in the 2021 draft at least have a professional league to call their own. Many of the league’s early pioneers were seasoned veterans and well-known stars overseas before becoming WNBA rookies during the league’s inaugural season. Still, one feature of the draft landscape in 2021 is strikingly similar to the one that existed in 1997: limited roster spots.
Then vs. Now
Twenty-five years ago, there were just eight teams:
New York Liberty
Los Angeles Sparks
After expanding to as many as 16 teams in the league’s intervening years, for the last several, there have been the 12 that remain today:
New York Liberty
Las Vegas Aces
Los Angeles Sparks
To fill the roster spots in 1997, the newfound league went through three processes for bringing into the league:
- longtime veterans who never had the chance to play professionally in the U.S. because a league did not exist when they exited the NCAA;
- new college graduates who also had the American Basketball League to choose from; and
- stars from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics who had become household names.
Lisa Leslie (Sparks) and Rebecca Lobo (Liberty), for example, were geographically cored in Los Angeles and New York, respectively — designated as stars for what the league hoped would be marquee franchises. To fill the rest of the roster spots, two drafts were held: the 1997 Elite Draft and the 1997 WNBA Draft.
1997 ELITE DRAFT
Veterans with professional experience overseas were selected in the 1997 Elite Draft, which lasted two rounds. Dena Head, a star for the Tennessee Lady Volunteers under legendary head coach Pat Summitt, was selected No. 1 overall by the Starzz as a 27-year-old rookie. The remaining first-round picks in the 1997 WNBA Elite Draft were:
2 — Isabelle Fijalkowski, Cleveland Rockers
3 — Rhonda Mapp, Charlotte Sting
4 — Kym Hampton, New York Liberty
5 — Wanda Guyton, Houston Comet
6 — Judy Mosley-McAfee, Sacramento Monarchs
7 — Bridget Pettis, Phoenix Mercury
8 — Daedra Charles, Los Angeles Sparks
1997 WNBA DRAFT
With so much talent to choose from, veterans with professional experience overseas still maintained a presence throughout the four rounds of the league’s inaugural draft. Tina Thompson, a standout post player at the University of Southern California, was selected No. 1 overall by the Houston Comets, followed by:
— Tina Thompson (@IamTinaThompson) July 3, 2020
2 — Pamela McGee, Sacramento Monarchs
3 — Jamila Wideman, Los Angeles Sparks
4 — Ema Nemcova, Cleveland Rockers
5 — Tammi Reiss, Utah Starzz
6 — Sue Wicks, New York Liberty
7 — Tora Suber, Charlotte Sting
8 — Toni Foster, Phoenix Mercury
2021 WNBA DRAFT
There is no clear and overwhelming favorite to project as the undeniable No. 1 pick, and many in mainstream media seem to lament the lack of a Sabrina Ionescu to obsess over as they did in 2020, while others still opine the draft rules banning certain college freshmen from entering the draft.
Centering WNBA draft/age limit discussions on two recent freshmen really turns my stomach. There are SO many players, exceptional talents, ahead of them in the NCAA.
And then there are THOSE ALREADY IN THE LEAGUE who made history in college lighting it up.
— Tamryn Spruill (@tamrynspruill) April 15, 2021
And then there are sharp-shooting guards Dana Evans (Louisville Cardinals) and Aari McDonald (Arizona Wildcats), 3-ball behemoths Chelsea Dungee (Arkansas Razorbacks) and Aleah Goodman (Oregon State), sophisticated two-way hoopers DiJonai Carrington (Baylor Lady Bears) and N’dea Jones (Texas A&M Aggies), defensive menaces DiDi Richards (Baylor Lady Bears) and Unique Thompson (Auburn Tigers) and front-court game-changers Michaela Onyenwere (UCLA Bruins) and Natasha Mack (Oklahoma State Cowgirls).
Charli Collier (Texas Longhorns), a 6-foot-5 forward/center, is the projected No. 1 overall draft pick. And with versatility being the name of the modern WNBA game, it is hard to imagine that (Unique) Thompson, a forward, and Rennia Davis (Tennessee), a guard-forward, will not hear their names called in the first round.
A LIKELY 36
Ahead of Thursday night’s draft (April 15 at 7 p.m. ET on ESPN), the WNBA has named the following players a “notable prospects”:
|Janelle Bailey||North Carolina||Center|
|Kysre Gondrezick||West Virginia||Guard|
|Aleah Goodman||Oregon State||Guard|
|Ciera Johnson||Texas A&M||Center|
|N’dea Jones||Texas A&M||Forward|
|Micaela Kelly||Central Michigan||Guard|
|Natasha Mack||Oklahoma State||Forward|
|Chelsey Perry||University of Tennessee at Martin||Guard|
|Ivana Raca||Wake Forest||Forward|
|Destinee Walker||Notre Dame||Guard|
|Stephanie Watts||North Carolina||Guard|
|Aaliyah Wilson||Texas A&M||Guard|
Should they hear their names called, these lucky women will be gifted some iconic swag. The 2021 WNBA Draft player kits contain:
- Personalized letter from Commissioner Cathy Engelbert
- Fanatics-branded WNBA Orange Hoodie
- Official Wilson WNBA Game Ball
- 12 Team New Era WNBA Draft Caps (so draftees can put on their team cap when their name is called!)
- Snack pack from Mondelēz International (Belvita, Triscuit, Ritz Crackers, Chips Ahoy, Oreos, Trident, Hu Chocolate)
- Beats Flex Wireless Earphones
- AT&T phone charger and sanitation device
- DoorDash gift card
- WNBA lifestyle elements including a WNBA Count It blanket, candles and Icons book
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