Sky's the limit for Chicago's two first-round picks
CLEVELAND -- Less than 24 hours after sunshine, flip-flops and anything orange ruled a warm spring day that culminated in a national championship for the University of Tennessee, winter returned with strong wind gusts chilling the city and snowflakes falling like the confetti that blanketed the court at Quicken Loans Arena the night before.
The meteorological schizophrenia was a more fitting backdrop for the WNBA draft than the glitz and glamour on display inside the Grand Ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel. Every draft comes complete with spectacle and speeches, but the selection fate of this year's group of rookies proved as difficult to forecast as spring in the Upper Midwest.
At times on Wednesday morning, it felt like if you didn't like the latest rumor about what would happen in the first round, you needed only to wait five minutes to hear a new one.
All of which offered the appropriately named Chicago Sky, one of two teams with two picks in the first round, the opportunity to take a significant step forward if the second-year franchise could come up with the most accurate forecast for the first round.
Coming off a 5-29 record in their debut season, the Sky used the third overall pick to select Mississippi's Armintie Price and the 10th overall pick (obtained from Sacramento in exchange for Chelsea Newton) to select Vanderbilt's Carla Thomas.
This year's draft didn't necessarily include a franchise player, at least not by the standards of last year's draft with Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter and Sophia Young, or next year's prospective class with Sylvia Fowles, Tasha Humphrey, Crystal Langhorne and possibly even Candace Parker. But it wasn't the proverbial "weak" class, either, boasting instead a deep cast of potentially outstanding complementary talents.
At least a couple of players who walked to the stage to shake Donna Orender's hand will end up being stars; there was simply too much talent on hand to assume otherwise. The quandary came in accurately balancing potential with lineup needs in an effort to avoid being a team whose draft choices would eventually make someone else down the line look like a genius.
It adds up to coaches and general managers knowing far more about the players they're picking than those players know about where they're heading.
"I don't know anything," Thomas laughed about her knowledge of the Sky. "I know their record, I know that they needed some size in there and they needed some athleticism and they're looking for a lot of roles to fill, and I'm just hoping to be one of them."
The Sky scored a hit in the draft last year, watching first-round pick Candice Dupree blossom into an All-Star who led the team in scoring as a rookie at 13.7 points per game. And the dissolution of the Charlotte franchise provided them with Monique Currie, drafted three spots ahead of Dupree last year, in the offseason dispersal process. Currie struggled to provide offense for the Sting last season, shooting just 33 percent from the floor, but she came on late and earned a spot on the All-Rookie team.
With Dupree and Currie already in place, the Sky sought out players with plenty of offensive potential but even more defensive polish. Minutes will be available immediately to both rookies and nothing is likely to please first-year coach Bo Overton more than seeing the newcomers help improve a unit that allowed opponents to shoot 45 percent from the floor last season while forcing just 15.7 turnovers per game.
Just minutes after hearing her name called, Price was already talking about some of the defensive matchups she'll need to master to help the Sky survive in the Eastern Conference.
"I think it's really going to help me," Price said of her defensive abilities. "That's mostly what these coaches in the WNBA are looking for, is my defense. And hopefully I can take that to another level, being able to guard Alana Beard or Tamika Catchings. I just think me taking my defense to another level and being willing to work will help me."
Thomas may not have been the defensive phenomenon that Price was in college, but in addition to a strong offensive game, she averaged better than a block and a steal per game for the Commodores and brings much-needed versatility to the frontcourt in Chicago. After facing Thomas in conference play in the SEC for the last four years (as well as playing with her during tryouts for a junior national team two years ago), Price has a pretty good sense of what her new teammate brings to the table.
"Great energy, great work ethic," Price summed up. "She plays so hard. Playing against her, she never gave up, she was always working, trying to get the ball and trying to help her team win."
The Ole Miss star also knows something about building a team from close to scratch and talked about the similarities between her college and professional debuts. She arrived at Ole Miss the same year as coach Carol Ross and helped take a conference also-ran to within a game of the Final Four this season. Thomas' experience at Vanderbilt was slightly different, but she sounded equally comfortable with the challenge ahead.
"At Vanderbilt, you have a standard to maintain, but here at Chicago, you're setting that standard," Thomas said. "And you're showing other teams what you expect and what you want the program to become."
Price and Thomas won't be expected to be the final pieces, or even the key pieces, of the puzzle in Chicago. But if they turn out to be the right pieces, it will significantly shorten the franchise's tenure in the WNBA cellar. If not, it's a wasted year for the team and a lost year for the players whose clocks are already ticking.
Like the weather forecast each night, the draft is really only one person's or one team's best guess at what the future holds for the league's newest class of players.
But for now, with two players who can do a little of everything, the outlook for the Sky seems sunnier than it did just a day ago.
"It's a great program and somewhere I can help start it up and finish it out strong," Price said.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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