Surprise entries add zest to WNBA Draft

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One is currently a Gopher sophomore

Is there a “franchise-changing” player in Thursday’s WNBA Draft? A Maya Moore, Brittney Griner or Elena Delle Donne, perhaps, three former high picks that transformed their respective clubs in their rookie summers?

Experts and analysts mainly saw this year’s draft as “point guard heavy,” but all that changed literally a few days ago when two early entry draftees — Minnesota sophomore Amanda Zahui B. and Notre Dame junior Jewell Loyd — brought a rare pre-draft buzz among non-WNBA media types. League rules are “strict” about players leaving early — frankly, it isn’t worth it, since the average minimum NBA salary is higher than a WNBA rookie salary.

Jewell Loyd
Jewell Loyd

Zahui B. and Loyd are the first players to leave school early to turn pro since Candace Parker left Tennessee after her junior year in 2008. The two aforementioned players are eligible because they will turn 22 during the draft’s calendar year.

“To have two players that have eligibility remaining to decide to head to the league is something that we haven’t seen before,” stated ESPN Analyst LaChina Robinson, “especially two players that change the draft dramatically.”

Robinson and fellow analyst Carolyn Peck talked to reporters, including the MSR, on the April 10 pre-draft conference call. “It started out as a unique draft and turned into a very special draft,” added Peck.

Amanda B. Zahui
Amanda Zahui B.

As a result, if selected Thursday by Seattle, Zahui B. will become the first Black player at Minnesota to be selected overall in a pro basketball draft. “I know it was going to become a big thing [when she made her intention to leave school] since I’m only a sophomore,” said the Swedish native.

Her now former college teammate Rachel Banham on Sunday told us, “I think everyone was a little surprised, but everyone felt she could leave as well and go into the draft and go high.”

“I watched her play in high school, and I recruited her,” recalled Pam Borton, the former Gophers coach, in an MSR phone interview last week. “We always knew she’d be a special player.” Borton now will have coached three WNBA lottery picks — Lindsay Whalen (2004), Janel McCarville (2005), and Zahui B.

SB Nation’s Nate Parham last week presented his case for top pick on both Zahui B. and Loyd:

“You know you’re doing something right when you’re been mentioned in the same breath as All-Stars like Tina Charles, Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner,” wrote the West Coast-based writer on Zahui B. On Loyd, he notes, “I watched more of her games than anyone else’s. She’s the full, almost unflawed package that is destined for perennial All Star status.”

“I think that she can have an impact,” noted Peck on Zahui B. “But I think it depends on which team she goes to and what’s she’s surrounded by.”

Added Robinson, “I’m very impressed with Amanda Zahui B. and where her game has grown.”

Zahui B. became Minnesota’s all-time blocks leader in two seasons and joined the 1,000-point club. She set Big Ten and school single-season rebounding records in consecutive seasons and set single-game marks this season with 29 rebounds, 12 blocks, and connecting on all 11 of her shots.

“Everything she did this season was not surprising,” said Borton. And this includes her former center’s decision to turn pro. “This is obviously something she has been talking about ever since she was in high school” and was a prime reason for her leaving Stockholm to play college ball in the States.

Reshada Gray
Reshanda Gray

The MSR last week asked Zahui B., Cal’s Reshanda Gray, and Elizabeth Williams of Duke on their thoughts as draft day looms.

“Just keep calm and be reminded how blessed I am to be in this position,” said Amanda.

Elizabeth Williams
Elizabeth Williams

“I think, for me, stay calm. Just being around my family will calm me down,” said Williams.

“I’m just trying to finish the semester strong, because I graduate in May,” said Gray. “…My attentions are going towards more than worrying about the draft, because I really can’t control anything at this point.”

All three players are expected Thursday to be early first-rounders.

“I will be watching from afar,” concluded Borton. “Amanda is like my daughter… I’m proud of all of my players. I’ve coached them and recruited them. I love them all whether they were drafted or undrafted.”

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com.