- Chris Hansen, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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The 2011 WNBA draft is of major importance, and not just for the Minnesota Lynx, whose trade activity netted the team the first and fourth picks. Tuesday's draft is important because the 2010 version, at least after one season, really lacked pop.
Last year's draft produced just seven players, out of the 36 drafted, to earn 10 or more minutes per game. Of those seven, just three -- Tina Charles, Monica Wright and Kelsey Griffin (the first three players taken in the draft) -- cracked the 20-minute mark.
In contrast, the 2009 draft resulted in 14 players netting double-digit minutes as rookies, including six averaging 20 minutes or more.
One of the biggest surprises for many not on the West Coast was the sudden rise of Arizona State point guard Briann January. She blew up during the 2009 NCAA tournament, leading the Sun Devils to the Elite Eight and catapulting herself up to the sixth overall pick two years ago.
It's no wonder that here in 2011, the player garnering the most buzz is another point guard from out West. If you watched any of the NCAA tournament's first two weekends, you were inundated with coverage of Courtney Vandersloot. But the Gonzaga senior's rise was more unprecedented than that of January as she didn't play in a power conference and wasn't heavily recruited, although ESPN HoopGurlz did rank Vandersloot (Kentwood High School in Kent, Wash.) as one of the top 100 players in her recruiting class.
Part of Vandersloot's success at Gonzaga, leading Kelly Graves' program to its Elite Eight this season, is her tremendous ability to focus on the task at hand while ignoring just about everything else.
But Graves let Vandersloot know that solidifying her draft status was directly related to the team's success in the tournament, even mentioning January before the team hosted the first two rounds of the tournament on the school's Spokane campus.
Even now, with media from across the country fawning over the 5-foot-8 point guard, she has very little intel on which teams like her more than others, even though WNBA scouts and coaches have been aware of her since her sophomore year.
"Right close to the tournament I knew coaches were coming in," Vandersloot said. "I never asked about that so Coach Graves never told me. I told him I didn't want to focus on that."
During the 2008-09 season, Gonzaga knocked off then-No. 15 Virginia to win the WBCA Classic championship, without the services of Vandersloot. Despite the team's point guard not facing Debbie Ryan's Cavaliers, Graves received huge praise from Ryan on Vandersloot, with a comparison to Dawn Staley at the same age, but with a jump shot.
Vandersloot has been so focused in the moment, she blocked out the fact that every team in the WNBA had sent at least one pair of eyeballs to see her play at least once in each of the past two seasons. She isn't too interested in projections because she knows anything can happen. But that anything can happen now includes going as high as fourth in Monday's draft.
From the time she hit the college recruiting circuit in high school, Vandersloot has heard all the reasons she wouldn't be successful at various levels. She'll never say it -- she's too humble -- but those doubters that missed and dismissed her should get a glass of water to rinse down the crow they should already be eating.
The "knock" on her game was supposed to be her size. She isn't the pipe dream, new age 5-10 point guard. Vandersloot's game is decidedly old school but isn't lacking the flavor to be as entertaining as she is effective. There is nothing small about that.
Despite posting huge numbers throughout her career, the unwillingness to buy in continued. Critics have questioned the competition in the West Coast Conference, forgetting the Zags actually scheduled up their nonconference opposition in her first three seasons. And there's that other unavoidable discussion: her performance in the NCAA tournament, in which scheduling is out of her school's control.
But Iowa, UCLA, Louisville and Stanford, four teams from the traditional power conferences -- all experienced what it meant to be 'Slooted. Gonzaga beat the first three in the NCAA tournament before falling to Stanford in the Elite Eight.
Still, the height question gets asked as Vandersloot and the rest of the Class of 2011 inch toward the professional ranks.
"I don't let it get to me," Vandersloot said, in a way that makes you believe it. "I've been this size my whole career. I don't think if my size is a question I would have had the success I've had."
Some also question her defense, yet she averaged 4.5 steals per game in the NCAA tournament this year while amassing 366 steals in her career.
Vandersloot has always won. She has the intangibles and leadership that are missing from even the most physically impressive prospects. She would be a fantastic understudy to Sue Bird in Seattle, and though Indiana could use some depth at the position, Lin Dunn is so certain that Vandersloot will be off the board when the Fever draft at ninth, that she signed Shannon Bobbitt in February.
Vandersloot heads the short list of players who have shot up a draft board that is pretty top heavy with size, length and athleticism.
Most of the big risers are guards because size and athleticism are so coveted in the WNBA that players with disappointing postseasons often are still drafted on the apparent premise that you can't teach height and perhaps the team can tap into unrealized potential.
Sydney Colson: The Texas A&M point guard isn't a statistical marvel but she scores effectively, distributes and, best of all, defends at an elite level. She posted a 1.6 assist-to-turnover ratio and was rock solid throughout the tournament. Few will forget her jet-powered sprint with the ball to set up Tyra White's game winner against Stanford, a play that is a tribute to her moxie as a point guard as well as her tremendous speed. She might not get a sniff in the first round, but don't be surprised if she is that late-rounder who makes a roster and finds a way to contribute. Some question her scoring ability, but that is more an issue of taking statistics out of context. Colson's job was to feed Danielle Adams, one of the nation's best scorers, and to keep White involved and engaged. If her knee injury of 2008 left questions, Colson's part in winning a national championship should have answered them.
Victoria Dunlap: This Kentucky forward averaged 18 points and 8 rebounds, pretty much as expected. Everyone knew coming into the tournament that she is one of the best athletes in this class' frontcourt. Her shot-blocking prowess is also well documented, and she backed it up with her tenacity on the offensive glass. She has been good historically but showed that she can get scoring in the WNBA where she isn't likely to get as many back-to-the-basket touches, at least early in her career.
Liz Repella: The combo guard label is rarely used appropriately. Usually it's an undersized shooting guard that teams hope can play some point guard in a pinch. West Virginia's Repella is the true definition. She filled in admirably at the point when teammate Sarah Miles (take a flyer on her, too) was injured. She proved in the tournament that she could score under pressure, averaging 27.5 points in her two games. Her range is legit, too. Repella doesn't get mentioned in the Angie Bjorklund realm among 3-pointers, but Repella shot 7-of-12 from beyond the arc in the tournament. Before the season, she was thought to be a bubble player, but it seems unlikely she will fall beyond the second round unless the draft falls into taking post projects.
Angel Robinson: She put Marquette on her back and reminded the country how important it is to create offense. While doling out five assists per game, she also scored 19 points. At 5-8, she has adequate size, and a team that values a player who can create her own offense, even against the length and athleticism of Tennessee, will think hard about Robinson before all is said and done.
Recent draft stats
• Of the 24 players selected in Rounds 2 and 3 of the 2010 draft, only six players logged minutes during the regular season and just four played in 20 or more games.
• In the 2009 draft, four players made rosters and played in more than one game as rookies from the second and third rounds. Of those four players, three managed to repeat that feat in their second year in the league.
• Statistically, Shalee Lehning is the most productive pick outside the first round. The Atlanta Dream point guard hasn't missed a game in two seasons and has averaged more than 20 minutes per game in both seasons.
Chris Hansen is the national director of prospects for ESPN HoopGurlz and covers girls' basketball and women's college basketball prospects nationally for ESPN.com. He is a member of the McDonald's All-American team selection committee. Hansen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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