Looking beyond the top three picks
PALM HARBOR, Fla. --The top three picks in Wednesday's WNBA draft should make history. Candace Parker, Sylvia Fowles and Candice Wiggins all possess the physical skills and mental motivation to push women's basketball to new heights. But at least in that sense, they are not really so different from Lindsey Harding, Cappie Pondexter, Cheryl Ford, Lauren Jackson and dozens of others who preceded them.
Whether this year's draft goes down as a chapter heading or a footnote in the ongoing history of women's basketball will have at least as much to do with the 40 picks who followed.
"The game hasn't arrived -- I don't think the game will ever arrive, because we're constantly trying to grow the game," Parker said after being selected first by the Sparks. "But I think every little bit helps. Now it's our class' responsibility to raise the bar, and I think this class is capable of doing that. I mean, we raised the bar in college drastically."
And so for all the talk about the talent at the top, the group's professional legacy ultimately hinges as much on players like Tamera Young and Amber Holt and coaches like Marynell Meadors and Mike Thibault, who gambled on the roulette wheel of their potential.
"You can bet they were going to be stars in the league," Thibault said of the top three. "Everybody after four has potential to be, but you don't know that. You can't write it in the book. They have strengths; they maybe have some flaws. For example, I use [Crystal] Langhorne as an example, who was a high pick. Everybody knows she was a great college player. Does her size translate to the league? Don't know for sure. Probably, but don't know."
Picking eighth and ninth, respectively, the Atlanta Dream and Connecticut Sun were right in the middle of that treacherous territory.
Meadors is the coach of the Dream, the newest entry in the league. And even for a team that has yet to play a game in the WNBA, there were obvious needs that needed to be filled when its turn came to pick on Wednesday.
"If anybody looked at our roster, we have seven players that are playing the 4 and 5 position, so I was definitely looking for guards," Meadors said. "And I was looking for guards that were athletic and guards that could score. And that's how I came up with Tamera Young. I just fell in love with her when I started watching her play a couple of years ago. And she just continued to get better and better and better."
A 6-foot-2 wing player who averaged 19.4 points per game as a senior for James Madison, Young struck Meadors as someone with the right frame and game for the WNBA, even if she didn't play in one of the college game's power leagues. Points are usually at a premium for expansion teams in any sport, and Young scored nearly 2,000 of them in her career in the Colonial Athletic Association.
"Even though she had played in a smaller conference, a mid-major conference, that didn't bother me any, because I just saw athleticism, I saw a powerful 2-guard or 3-guard," Meadors said. "She can play two positions, and I like that about her. She just is a leaper; she's a runner. We want to push the ball up the court -- with the 24-second clock, I think she can really push the ball. She handles the ball really well. So if she's either leading on the break or being the recipient of the pass from the break, she's a good finisher around the rim."
Much of the debate entering the draft, at least before Wiggins made any other decision impossible with her postseason performance, centered on whether she was the best fit for Minnesota with the third pick. The consensus was that she would be the best and most proven talent available. But the Lynx already had Harding, Seimone Augustus and Anna DeForge on the perimeter and didn't have much to brag about beyond Nicole Ohlde in the post. In this case, Wiggins' rare ability turned out to be the exception that proved the rule in a draft that featured teams scrambling to fill roles.
Wiggins was less the best available player than simply one of the best players. Subsequent teams didn't have such luxuries.
"I think you have to address specific issues for your team," Thibault said of his general draft philosophy. "In football, you can sometimes take the best player available, because you're trying to fill a myriad of positions. In our game, you better be covered in every area."
One pick after Young came off the board, Thibault made the first of the Sun's two picks in the opening round. After trading Katie Douglas to Indiana earlier in the offseason and losing Nykesha Sales to a year's sabbatical, the Sun had a clear need for talent on the wing to replace two longtime starters. But in picking former Middle Tennessee State star Amber Holt, the Sun hoped to balance pragmatism and potential.
"She has a chance to be a star," Thibault said of Holt. "She might just be good, but she has a chance to be a star. And that was our assessment, was to take a kid that we know is already good and try to project her into what she can be. She filled need and potential."
Like everyone else in the league, Thibault would have loved to open the season with Parker, Fowles or Wiggins on the court. To that end, the Sun tried their best to move up to the third pick to get Wiggins away from the Lynx. Much as Minnesota had once coveted Lindsay Whalen, only to see the Sun keep the pick, Connecticut couldn't find a taker for an offer of three first-round picks and a player for the chance to take Wiggins.
The consolation was making two first-round picks, and three of the first 23 picks, in a draft supposedly deep enough to produce almost that many contributing players.
"I think about the draft our first year in the league -- and with less teams -- and it's like night and day," Thibault said.
Wearing draft day's familiar smile, a grin one part dazed, one part ecstatic and one part proud, Young soaked in the sights and sounds of the festivities at the Innisbrook Golf and Country Club. For a kid whose friends teased her for being so devoted to basketball that she would be the first female player in the NBA, the reality now is living up to the expectations of a coach, front office and franchise that invested a part of its future in her.
"It's a job," Young said. "I mean it's a dream for many people and only 40 out of so many people get selected. So it's not more that you're choosy about where you're going; it's just exciting and happy to be able to be on a team in the league."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.