The first HBCU player selected in two decades, first round picks from Northwestern and Florida Gulf Coast, UConn and South Carolina waiting until the second round to hear names from their rosters called — yesterday’s WNBA draft showed us just how shaken up the college basketball world has become.
Now in its 25th year, this week’s draft was representative of a larger shift happening throughout women’s DI basketball — a sport historically dominated by a few blue bloods, whose talent often seemed leagues above the rest of the field, is starting to even out. While the level of play improves and viewership numbers quickly mount, this year’s upset- and near-upset-laden tournament demonstrated the parity that has suddenly revealed itself across NCAA women’s ball. And the league is seeing it too.
The diversity of schools in the first two rounds of the draft this year is unprecedented, as was the remarkable number of upsets in this year’s tournament — and it would be ill-advised to pretend the two aren’t connected. In 2019, of the 11 players selected from American schools, over half the field came from longtime powerhouses UConn, Notre Dame, and Mississippi State. In 2018, four of the 11 NCAA athletes came from those three schools, with a fifth coming from South Carolina. If we go back to 2017, three first-rounders came from South Carolina alone.
But in the last couple of years, the draft makeup has shifted, reflecting the same shift in the makeup of the women’s college basketball field. This year, none of the four schools listed above saw a player go in the first round of the draft. Only Baylor saw more than one pick in the first round. In the 36-player draft, UConn did eventually watch three of their athletes picked, all in the second round.
Of course, a large part of these draft numbers are dependent on the age of the athletes getting drafted. If UConn had recruited an all-starters class in 2018, perhaps these numbers would be different. But the decreasing representation of the blue bloods in the first round isn’t all that’s changing — as the 25th pick of the draft, Jackson State’s Ameshya Williams-Holiday became the first HBCU player to be drafted into the WNBA in 19 years and the second-highest HBCU draft pick of all time after JSU came this close to taking the title of the first 13-seed upset in women’s tournament history before falling in the final minutes to LSU.
And there’s more. Ali Patberg became just the fourth player in Indiana University history to get drafted, and FGCU’s Kierstan Bell became just the second player in her school’s history to be drafted, and the first to go in the first round not only from her school, but from her entire conference. Michigan’s Naz Hillman, who went at 15th, became the highest-drafted player in Wolverine history after her team made it to the Elite Eight this year. IUPUI, South Dakota, and Hawaii were all represented in the draft this year.
Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard went to the Atlanta Dream with the first pick of the draft — the Dream acquired the first overall pick from the Washington Mystics in exchange for the third and 14th picks just last week. Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith went second to the Indiana Fever, joined by Louisville’s Emily Engstler, who was picked fourth. Mississippi’s Shakira Austin went third.
Perhaps the biggest shock of the draft was South Carolina standout Destanni Henderson, projected to be a mid-first round pick by ESPN and Bleacher Report, was left on the board until the second half of the second round. The Indiana Fever used the 20th pick of the draft to sign Henderson, who had an absolutely outstanding game against UConn in this year’s national championship.
While the sport moves away from its resemblance to college football in decreasing the looming presence of powerhouses that never lose, it’s beginning to reflect CFB’s draft diversity among overlooked schools — sure, where you played college ball matters, but if you can get out there and perform on the field wherever that may be, you might just have a shot at the pros.