“I think we had 12 of the [first] 13 first draft picks nailed,” said the first-year Sun coach in a MSR post-draft phone interview Thursday night.
As expected, Connecticut teammates Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck went 1-2-3 to Seattle, San Antonio and Connecticut respectively, in Thursday’s WNBA Draft, the first time in league history that one school produced the first three picks. Then after the Sun selected Tuck, the team chose Rachel Banham out of Minnesota.
“Without a question I think she is one of the prolific shooters in this year’s draft,” said Miller of the 5-8 sharpshooter who can shoot off the dribble and after catching the pass — two skills that can aid her as she transitions into the pros. Miller coached against Banham during his time at Indiana: “I’m a big fan of Rachel’s game.”
“I had a good indication [after] meeting the coach” that she might be selected by Connecticut, said Banham to the MSR, the second consecutive year a Gopher was a top-five WNBA draft pick. She admitted before her name was called Thursday night, she acted like Dionne Warwick: “I said a little prayer that I end up here,” said recalled, “and it worked out.”
Both Banham’s parents were there with her as WNBA President Lisa Borders summoned her to the draft night podium in the arena where her first pro home is located — the Mohegan Sun [Connecticut] Casino. “Of course, my mom was crying — she’s always emotional, in tears immediately. My dad had a huge smile and [was] very excited. I know they are both proud,” said Banham.
“Drafting Rachel, the premier shooter in this year’s draft was a no-brainer,” noted Miller, in spite of some who expressed pre-draft concerns over Banham’s possible defensive shortcomings. “As a coach, I always prided myself to evaluate what players can do and not what they necessarily can’t do.”
He continued, “I don’t think she ever will be all-WNBA [on defense], but I certainly think we can put her in position to be successful at that end of the floor. It’s ultimately my job to put her in position to be successful at the defensive end.”
Jonquel Jones was selected sixth by Los Angeles, who later traded her to the Sun for guard Chelsea Gray, two later second round picks and Connecticut’s 2017 first pick. Kahleah Copper (Rutgers) was seventh to Washington, and South Florida guard Courtney Williams at eight by Phoenix. Indiana took Tiffany Mitchell of South Carolina at nine; Chicago got Imani Boyette of Texas tenth; Bria Holmes (West Virginia) at 11th to Atlanta, and Adut Bulgak of Florida State by New York at No. 12.
Without a first-round pick, Minnesota used its first pick, No. 14 to select Jazmon Gwathmey of James Madison, then later traded her to San Antonio for Jia Perkins, a 12-year veteran guard where she has played for the past five seasons. Lynx President Roger Griffith said later that this was a pre-arranged draft and swap between them and San Antonio.
“She’s been an All-Star, another great team player who fits in with our team,” he said.
The Lynx’s second pick in the second round was Bashaara Graves, a 6-2 forward from Clarksville, Tenn. who played at Tennessee. She said during a post-draft phone interview with the local press, including the MSR, that she’s never been to the Land of 10,000 Lakes “but I know everything about the team [and] of them winning the championship last year,” admitted the Lynx hopeful.
“I am graduating this May” with a sociology degree, said Graves excitedly when asked by the MSR. “I am only taking one class this semester.”
She continued, “I was very excited [and had] overwhelming emotions waiting for my name to be called. She said that Lynx Assistant Coach Shelley Patterson talked to her before the draft and called her shortly after she was selected by the team. “They could have picked someone else. I am thankful they picked me.”
Graves said nonetheless she is looking forward to sharing the court with the likes of Sylvia Fowles and Maya Moore among others. “I watched them play as I grow up,” she recalls. “I’m excited to get the chance to play with them.”
WNBA legend Lisa Leslie served as a model as she developed as a player. “When I first started playing basketball,” Graves told the MSR, “I looked up to Lisa Leslie because she was a big thing when I was growing up. I always wanted to play like her and had hoped to be a lot bigger and a lot taller because I was taller than the rest of the players I was around. I wanted to be just like Lisa Leslie, but I wasn’t blessed with her height.”
Graves said, “I think my rebounding, being strong and athletic in the post, and being able to take posts off the dribble and getting offensive rebounds have been my game throughout college.”
Despite all her individual accolades — All-American and all-SEC honors — Graves regretfully did not play on a national championship squad, an annual goal at Tennessee. “Every year that’s our goal. If we don’t get that goal of the national championship game, it’s not considered a bad season. That is what I wanted to do and I didn’t achieve that goal. But my four years at Tennessee was exciting and prepared me for the next level.”
Minnesota’s final selection was the next to last overall draft pick USC forward Temi Fagbenie at No. 35. She graduated from Harvard, where she was a three-time All-Ivy League selection, then went to Southern Cal for her final season of eligibility while pursuing her master’s degree.
As a result of her studies, Fagbenie will not join the Lynx until the 2017 season.
In addition to selecting Tuck and Banham, the Jones acquisition, a 6-6 shot blocking forward from George Washington; guards Jamie Weisner of Oregon State (No. 17) and St. John’s Aliyyah Handford (No. 27) are important additions as well, said Sun Coach Miller: “We wanted to establish great culture in our locker room. We were bound and determined to draft great character kids. That is really important for us,” he concluded.
Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.