Underestimated? We'll soon find out

Originally Published: April 16, 2005
By Mechelle Voepel | Special to ESPN.com

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Minnesota's Janel McCarville wasn't kicking back in her chair, relaxed, just waiting for her name to be the first called.

Tan White
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty ImagesNo. 2 overall pick Tan White of Mississippi State is typically called the best player that people know the least about.

"Noooooo," she said. "I was very nervous, to tell you the truth. I was rocking back and forth, my knees were shaking."

OK, sure, she figured she probably would be one of the first THREE players picked, but going No. 1 to Charlotte was no sure thing. Then, once she was indeed the Sting's top pick, McCarville was very pleased ... but also aware that there are fans who feel some ambivalence toward this year's rookies.

This class of 2005 took a back seat in publicity to the class of 2004 when both groups were still in college. So it's not exactly a surprise that the same thing would happen with the WNBA draft.

"I think we might be underestimated a lot," McCarville said. "I consider a lot of us to be great players. Tan White can do almost anything with the ball. We've got great shot-blockers, rebounders. I think this class was overshadowed by how great last year's class was, but I think we're good, too."

Obviously, there was no clear-cut, no-doubt-about-it No. 1 pick like Diana Taurasi last season. But how many years will there be a player who comes into the draft having just been the linchpin for a team that won three NCAA championships in a row?

It's very hard to predict pro success in any sport, and women's basketball is no different. The reality is that a lot of the players drafted Saturday won't make WNBA rosters. Some will play overseas this fall and next winter and then try again. Some will move on from playing basketball and do other things.

To play very long in the WNBA takes more than just basketball skills. You have to stay in shape year-round. You have to adapt to the travel and the different "feel" there is playing professionally as opposed to in college. For some players, it's also crucial they get to the right situation with the right team.

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So nothing at all is for sure. But there's a pretty good chance the first-rounders are going to be in the league at least for a few years. Of that group, though, who might be the biggest impact players?

Again, that's very hard to project. Let's first take a quick look back at last year and recall what the speculation was at that time for the top eight picks. Why eight? It's somewhat arbitrary, but I'm selecting that because last year and this year, players among the top eight are the ones a lot was/is expected from. This is not to say picks 9-39 aren't going to be impact players, because some of them might well be. But for now, let's examine the first eight both seasons.

In 2004, Taurasi was the rare "certainty." She not only won WNBA rookie of the year, but also performed well on the Olympic team. But remember that there were question marks about the rest of the picks.

Was Alana Beard (No. 2, Washington) going to be a good-enough perimeter shooter? Was Nicole Powell (No. 3, Charlotte) going to be able to defend at a high level and fit into a "team" scheme after being "the show" at Stanford? Could Lindsay Whalen (No. 4, Connecticut) penetrate with anywhere near as much success as she did in college, and could she play adequate defense?

Would Shameka Christon (No. 5, New York) hold her own inside? Would Nicole Ohlde (No. 6, Minnesota) handle physical play well? Would Vanessa Hayden (No. 7, Minnesota) get back into shape in the requisite time after rehabbing an injury? Could Chandi Jones (No. 8 Phoenix, traded to Detroit) come close to replicating her college scoring prowess in the pros?

The answers: Beard did struggle for part of the season, but became more comfortable and confident. She did well in Chamique Holdsclaw's absence, and the Mystics went to the playoffs.

Things did not click for Powell in Charlotte; she has been traded to Sacramento so we'll see if there's a significant change for her there. Whalen had a predictable learning curve, had some tough defensive matchups but overall did exactly what coach Mike Thibault wanted. And the Sun made the WNBA Finals.

The jury is still out on Christon; she averaged just 5.8 points and 2.1 rebounds. But it was an odd, uncomfortable year for the Liberty, with a coaching change and the Becky Hammon experiment at point guard.

Ohlde was a great fit for the Lynx, starting every game and showing she was more than capable of handling the demands inside. Hayden was never 100 percent last season, but she displayed flashes of how powerful she could be on the low block. Jones didn't shoot very well, but really never got into much of a rhythm, playing 12.8 minutes per game. She did show some other elements of her game, though, including her passing. Again, jury is still out.

Now ... let's look at this year's top eight.

McCarville is unanimously acclaimed as the best passing big woman in college, so that's a skill that probably translates very well to the pro game. There are questions about her defense, but she can handle physical play. At least the "physical" part of that. Emotionally, she's going to have to be ready to take a lot and dish out when she can get away with it.

McCarville was once thought of as too much a hothead. Will she keep her cool in the WNBA?

"I'll have some adapting to do," she said. "But I'm looking forward to playing that kind of physical game. I've come very far, and it's a tribute to playing with great teammates. Plus, [Gophers coach Pam Borton] has helped me so much. I owe them a lot of credit."

No. 2 pick Tan White is typically called the best player that people know the least about. Mississippi State hasn't played in the NCAA Tournament the last two years, so that's part of it. She led Division I in scoring this season and can create her own shot.

White has versatile skills ... however, she's probably not very versatile in terms of where she'll play. She says she's pretty much 100 percent a shooting guard, which is fine, because Indiana needs more scoring.

No. 3 pick Sandora Irvin should be a good fit for Phoenix. TCU coach Jeff Mittie says it has really been in the last year and a half that Irvin has mentally and emotionally matured into a big-time player. Irvin grew up preferring defense, so offensively she has some more growing to do. But she should be able to play both the 4 and the 3 spots, Mittie said. To the degree that a first-round draft choice can be somewhat comfortably "under-the-radar" on her team, Irvin will be able to develop without a ton of pressure. Having Taurasi around -- a player who radiates confidence in the best way because she gives it to her teammates -- will be a huge help to Irvin's development.

No. 4 Kendra Wecker fills several needs for San Antonio. This is a team that, after a 9-25 record last year, has nowhere to go but up. Coach Dan Hughes takes over this season and had the 5-foot-11 Wecker targeted as the player who could do a lot right away for the Silver Stars. She played power forward for Kansas State, and she'll have some adjustments -- more on defense than on offense -- with a move to the small forward spot.

Hughes loves Wecker's strength; she's ahead of the game in that area as a rookie coming into the WNBA. And she'll benefit from playing with a backcourt of Shannon Johnson and Marie Ferdinand.

Sancho Lyttle, picked No. 5 by Houston out of the University of Houston, was a surprise to a lot of people who thought the Comets would go after the highest-impact guard available. Lyttle has a lot of development ahead of her, though, and Comets coach Van Chancellor perhaps thought if he could get that package of potential now, why pass it up?

No. 6 pick Temeka Johnson for Washington ... OK, she's not going to wake up and be 5-9 someday. She'll always face the "short" question. At 5-3, she knows there are inherent challenges in the WNBA.

People will point out that Debbie Black survived a long time in pro ball at that same size. But a big part of how Black did that was defense: She was the consummate pest. She played every second like it was her last. Johnson will need to bring the same mentality that Black did.

And now we come to an enigma, No. 7 pick Kara Braxton for Detroit. She had a son in January, and someone actually asked her in the post-draft news conference if that made her more "mature" than some other players.

I thought, "You've got to be kidding." Look, let's be realistic. Having a child instead of playing your senior season is not a sign of "maturity." Braxton's tumultuous career at Georgia didn't suggest that trait, either.

That said, let's hope for the best for this young woman. She's a mom now, and there are certainly top players in the WNBA who also are mothers and will tell you that did make a big difference in how they learned to accept responsibility. It's a tough road to take -- and not one to be "recommended" -- but it's where Braxton is and she seems ready to make the best of it.

She appears genuinely grateful that she has this opportunity to make things right in terms of her basketball career. She's not in good shape now and was the first to admit that. But at 6-6 and with a lot of skills, she has the chance to fulfill the potential in the pros that she did not in college.

Then, at No. 8 was the tallest woman picked Saturday, and one who certainly got a boost with her Liberty team's Sweet 16 appearance last month. Connecticut took 6-8 Katie Feenstra, then traded her to San Antonio for Margo Dydek and a future draft pick.

Feenstra is a true low-block player who had some really good performances against top Division I teams this season. She's a hard worker who understands how to maximize her size advantage, and she might see a lot of time at San Antonio. Hughes thinks the fresh attitude Feenstra brings is what the rebuilding Silver Stars need, and she is the type of personality who will take the hard knocks a rookie faces -- especially inside -- and grow from them.

So there are the top eight. Are they underestimated? Overestimated? We'll start finding that out pretty soon.

Mechelle Voepel of the Kansas City Star is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel@kcstar.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.

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