How 2019 WNBA draft picks could impact 2024’s champion, MVP

Napheesa Collier had no idea where she would be selected in the WNBA draft. And it didn’t bother her at all.

“I wasn’t worried about it,” Collier told ESPN, “because I knew I could do whatever the coach asked me to do.”

She has done that and more: An All-WNBA first-team honoree and a three-time All-Star forward for the Minnesota Lynx, Collier will be an Olympian for the second time next month. Why, then, was a player this talented — with a résumé befitting a No. 1 pick — taken No. 6?

Because the 2019 draft was one of the deepest in WNBA history. Five years later, the class is making a big impact on the league and could help dictate who wins the championship this season. It’s also the largest draft class currently in the WNBA: 16 players picked in 2019 are currently on WNBA rosters, and 10 of them will play Thursday across all four games on the schedule.

In light of what we now know, both Collier and Dallas Wings guard Arike Ogunbowale, who went No. 5, would have been lottery picks. They ended up finishing 1-2 in the 2019 Rookie of the Year voting.

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They meet in Dallas on Thursday, but their teams are in opposite positions: The Lynx, who beat the New York Liberty on Tuesday to win their first Commissioner’s Cup, are 13-3 and challenging for the league lead; the Wings are 3-13 and in last place.

But both Collier (20.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 3.5 APG) and Ogunbowale (23.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.8 APG) are playing well this season, with Collier in the conversation for MVP and Ogunbowale trailing only MVP front-runner A’ja Wilson in scoring average. Collier was also Commissioner’s Cup MVP on Tuesday with 21 points and 6 rebounds.

The game showcases seven 2019 draftees in all, including No. 3 pick Teaira McCowan and No. 7 Kalani Brown for the Wings, and No. 8 Alanna Smith, No. 18 Natisha Hiedeman and No. 21 Bridget Carleton — who had 23 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists Tuesday — for the Lynx.

Elsewhere in the WNBA on Thursday, the Las Vegas Aces’ Jackie Young, the No. 1 pick in 2019, faces off against No. 11 pick Brianna Turner and No. 19 selection Marina Mabrey of the Chicago Sky.

“I realized it was a good class when I was a senior [at Iowa State], but I didn’t know it would have the longevity it’s had. A lot of us have found our way,” Carleton, who was waived by the Connecticut Sun in July 2019 and has been with Minnesota since, said. “Through the ups and downs of a WNBA career, we’ve stuck with it. I’m happy to be part of a class that was so deep and has stayed in the league a long time.”

THE WNBA DRAFT was just five days away. The Final Four was about to tip off in Tampa, with Baylor set to face Oregon and UConn scheduled to meet Notre Dame in the national semifinals. But which players would be in the draft, let alone who would be the No. 1 selection, wasn’t set.

Oregon’s Sabrina Ionescu and Notre Dame’s Young were both eligible as juniors because they turned 22 in the year of the draft. Neither guard had made up her mind about leaving early; they went to the Final Four uncertain if their college careers were about to end.

Player (draft pick)Current teamJackie Young (1)Las Vegas AcesTeaira McCowan (3)Dallas WingsKatie Lou Samuelson (4)Indiana FeverArike Ogwunbowale (5)Dallas WingsNapheesa Collier (6)Minnesota LynxKalani Brown (7)Dallas WingsAlanna Smith (8)Minnesota LynxBrianna Turner (11)Chicago SkyEzi Magbegor (12)Seattle StormSophie Cunningham (13)Phoenix MercuryMegan Gustafson (17)Las Vegas AcesNatisha Hiedeman (18)Minnesota LynxMarina Mabrey (19)Chicago SkyBridget Carleton (21)Minnesota LynxKennedy Burke (22)New York LibertyLi Yueru (35)Los Angeles Sparks

Oregon lost and Notre Dame won in the semis, putting Ionescu — who was projected as No. 1 in most 2019 mock drafts at that point — on the clock first to decide. Late the following night, word came that Ionescu was staying in Eugene for her senior season.

“If we would have won the championship, maybe my decision would have been different,” Ionescu told ESPN. “But I wanted another chance to do that with my teammates.”

Notre Dame lost the 2019 NCAA final to Baylor. It was Young’s turn to choose: Stay or go?

“I had 24 hours to declare,” Young told ESPN. “I made the decision for myself and my family.”

She joined four Notre Dame seniors — Ogunbowale, Turner, Mabrey and Jessica Shepard — in the 2019 draft class. Young then moved to No. 1 in the final mock drafts.

Collier and fellow senior Katie Lou Samuelson were also at the Final Four with UConn, a program accustomed to putting players in the WNBA. Collier was perhaps the most difficult player in the first round to slot; evaluators had her everywhere from No. 1 to later in the first round.

“The intel we were getting was that Phee was not highly thought of because she was an undersized [power forward] who didn’t shoot the 3,” Minnesota coach Cheryl Reeve told ESPN.

Ogunbowale, whose shooting heroics had led Notre Dame to the 2018 national championship, was thought to be the third guard on the draft board behind Young and Louisville’s AD Durr.

Like Collier, Ogunbowale said she didn’t have any preconceived thoughts about where she might go.

“I didn’t feel like I had to be in the lottery pick or think it was a snub if I wasn’t,” she told ESPN. “I was just excited to be drafted. I felt like wherever it was, I would make it work. Anywhere I would have gone, I would have given my all.”

In ESPN’s final mock draft that year, the day before the real thing, Young was No. 1, Ogunbowale No. 6 and Collier No. 7. Today, they would be 1-2-3, although the order might be different depending on who was picking.

The way it went? Young No. 1 to the Aces, Durr No. 2 to the Liberty, McCowan No. 3 to the Fever, Samuelson No. 4 to the Sky.

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Brian Agler, then the Wings coach, was sure he wanted Ogunbowale and was thrilled to get her at No. 5. Next up were the Lynx. Reeve said they had tried to trade to get two of the top six picks. That fell through. Collier’s agent then called the night before the draft and said she felt sure Collier would be available at No. 6. Would the Lynx take her?

“We said we really liked her, and there was a strong possibility,” Reeve said. “We were sure hoping the agent was right.”

Now, Collier to Minnesota looks like one of the great draft gets of all time, but Reeve acknowledged even the Lynx didn’t know how well it would turn out.

“Phee hit on every analytic model there was,” Reeve said. “But I go back to her training camp — she was not slated to be a starter, but we had an injury and threw Phee into the small forward spot and moved to our inverted offense.

“I’ve got to tell you, the training camp wasn’t stellar. We weren’t like, ‘We’ve got ourselves a gem.’ Then she had 27 points in her first game. I was asked, did I see that coming? I said, ‘No, because Phee didn’t score 27 points the entire training camp.’ But that’s the coolest thing about Phee, she’s so understated.”



Bridget Carleton is hyped after draining her 6th triple

Bridget Carleton has the crowd on its feet after knocking down her sixth 3-pointer of the game.

FEW DECISIONS CAN impact an entire league, but that’s what happened in the 2019 draft.

It’s hard to imagine Collier or Ogunbowale anywhere but the two franchises they have spent their careers with so far. But could Young have gone with her home-state Indiana Fever? How about Ionescu in Vegas? Either of these scenarios could have happened.

Had Young opted to stay for her senior season, and Ionescu had decided to leave early, Ionescu might have been the top pick in 2019 for the Aces. (Even though the 2020 NCAA tournament was canceled amid the COVID-19 pandemic, Ionescu said “I made the right decision” about staying for her senior year.)

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Had both decided to stay for the 2020 draft, Young might have been taken No. 3 by the Fever behind Ionescu and No. 2 Satou Sabally.

As it was, Young played out of position at point guard for Las Vegas as a rookie in 2019. In the offseason, she re-tooled her shot mechanics and in 2021, the Aces added a premier point guard in Chelsea Gray. Young has flourished in the years since; a big part of two Aces championship teams, she is headed to her second Olympics.

Young was a success as a No. 1 pick. The rest of the 2019 draft lottery picks had more challenges.

The Liberty never could have guessed an injury and then long-haul COVID-19 would afflict Durr, who didn’t play in the 2020 or 2021 WNBA seasons and has been limited to 79 games overall with the Liberty and Atlanta Dream. She is not on a WNBA roster this season.

The 6-foot-7 McCowan seemed like a strong pick for the Fever at No. 3 as they needed post play. But after three seasons, she was traded to Dallas. Samuelson was an unexpected choice at No. 4 to Chicago, and it didn’t work. She’s now on her fifth team (Indiana) in her fifth year in the league — she missed last season on maternity leave — hoping this is the right fit.

The 2019 draft had other players who could have gone higher, such as No. 12 Ezi Magbegor (Seattle Storm), No. 13 Sophie Cunningham (Phoenix Mercury) or No. 19 Mabrey (drafted by the Wings, now with the Sky), all of whom have been, or currently are, starters.

“I knew it was a really good draft class,” Ogunbowale said. “Especially seeing some of my Notre Dame teammates like [Mabrey and Shepard] going in the second round. Because I knew how good they were. We’ve had some great players and even elite role players. So I’m super proud of everybody in the 2019 class.”

Collier thinks it all ended up like it was supposed to, at least for her and the Lynx.

“This was the right place for me. I’m really happy here. It’s such an elite franchise and organization. I got really lucky in that regard. Some of my draft classmates didn’t,” she said. “I was afforded an opportunity to start as a rookie, and that just depends on the team you’re on. Everything aligned perfectly for me to make me the most successful player I could be.”

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