By VIN A. CHERWOO, AP Sports Writer
Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins are expected to be the top three selections in this year’s highly touted WNBA draft. After that, it’s anybody’s guess.
Phoenix has the envied No. 1 pick in the draft Monday night and it’s anticipated that the Mercury will select Griner, the 6-foot-8 Baylor standout who averaged 23.8 points _ third-best in the country _ and 4.14 blocked shots as a senior. The two-time AP women’s college basketball Player of the Year finished her career as the No. 2 scorer in NCAA history with 3,283 points and set records with 748 blocks and 18 dunks.
“She’s no doubt going to be an impact player right away,” Tulsa coach Gary Kloppenburg said on a national media conference call. “Defensively, great shot-blocking, just clogging the lane even with the new (defensive 3-second) rule she’s mobile enough she’s going to be able to understand the two-point line, getting in, getting out.
“Offensively, you really have to double-team her and she’s so skilled down there with all her array of shots. Her passing ability has improved so much, she’s going to really tilt that team with that low-post presence.”
Griner, who is expected to bolster a Mercury team that finished 7-27 a year ago, gained national attention as a high school player when videos of her dunking went viral on the Internet. She went on to a dominant college career while drawing new fans to the women’s game and helping the Bears win the national championship in 2012.
Washington coach Mike Thibault, entering his first season with the Mystics after spending the previous 10 in Connecticut, also praised Griner’s skills while disputing the notion the high-scoring Mercury will need to alter their high-speed offense to accommodate the defensive stalwart.
“I strongly disagree,” he said. “I think she will enhance the way they play. People think they have to slow down for her. How many better outlet passers are there going to be in our league than her to start the break with a rebound and an outlet pass? She may not get across half court before they take the shot, but the break will get a good start.”
New York coach Bill Laimbeer, back in the league after a nearly four-year absence, believes the biggest adjustment Griner may have to make is to the physical play in the WNBA especially after Louisville played her tough defensively in a win over Baylor in the NCAA tournament’s round of 16.
“That’s everyday business in the WNBA,” Laimbeer said. “It’s a physical league, they’re grown women. They’re much bigger and stronger than the college ladies out there.”
Chicago is likely to take Delaware’s Delle Donne with the second pick, followed by Notre Dame star Diggins going to Kloppenburg’s Shock at No. 3.
The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne, who can play all three positions, was second in the nation in scoring (26.0 ppg) and averaged 8.5 rebounds. She ended her career with 3,039 career points _ fifth all-time in NCAA history.
“We haven’t seen a player like her come into our league,” Kloppenburg said of Delle Donne’s versatility. “I guess the comparison is to Lauren Jackson, but in a way she’s got a greater skill set than even Lauren with her ability to put the ball on the floor.”
Though Delle Donne is most likely headed to the Sky, a team that last season finished one game out of reaching the playoffs for the first time its seven-year history, she’s prepared to play in either Chicago or Tulsa.
“I’m going to be thrilled wherever I end up,” she said. “I’ve heard Chicago is an amazing place to live so I’d really be excited moving to the city. That’s a very talented team and I think it would be an awesome opportunity to really take (that) team to the next level.”
Diggins also had a strong senior season, averaging 17.1 points, 6.1 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 3.1 steals while helping the Irish reach the Final Four, where it lost to eventual champion UConn.
“She’s a great player and has those intangibles,” Kloppenburg said. “I think she’s one of those that can impact our league right away and we know she’s an extremely hard worker and will put the time in to get better.”
Other players expected to be taken in the first round include guards Alex Bentley (Penn State), Kelly Faris (UConn), and Tayler Hill (Ohio State), forward Tianna Hawkins (Maryland) and center Kelsey Bone (Texas A&M).
“The talent is spread throughout the positions,” Diggins said. “There’s a lot of players that have the potential to come in and make an immediate impact and be franchise players for their teams. I’m happy to be a part of it.”
After the big three are taken, Washington will begin the uncertain portion of the draft with the fourth pick, and New York has two of the next three selections _ with Seattle in between at No. 6. San Antonio will pick eighth, followed by defending champion Indiana, Los Angeles, Connecticut and Minnesota to complete the first of three rounds.
“The joke around here is I have the first pick in the other draft,” Thibault said with a laugh before acknowledging a Mystics team that finished a league-worst 5-29 last season has plenty of holes. “We’ve narrowed it down to three or four players. We’re going back and forth as a staff and that’s the decision we have to make.”
Laimbeer said the Liberty will be looking for a post player with one of their first-round picks, most likely at No. 5, and then the best available to fill a need with the other selection.
“Mike’s driving the bus right now,” he said. “It’s a matter of who’s there and we won’t know that until Mike picks and sets off a chain of events.”
Training camps open May 5, with the league’s 17th season set to being on May 24.
Follow Vin Cherwoo on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/VinCherwooAP
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