WNBA draft — Who is the best all-time No. 1 pick?

10:15 AM ET

Mechelle VoepelESPN.com

CloseMechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women’s college basketball, and other college sports for espnW. Voepel began covering women’s basketball in 1984, and has been with ESPN since 1996.

Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu is projected to be the No. 1 overall pick in the WNBA draft on Friday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App). The New York Liberty is one of the league’s original eight teams but has never selected first in the draft. For any franchise in any sport, having the No. 1 pick can be franchise-changing.

The top spot in the WNBA draft has produced some amazing talent. Ranking the top five No. 1 picks in history, in fact, was an exercise in splitting hairs. And the next five aren’t far behind at all; superstars who have more than lived up to the hype of being chosen first.

The other challenge with such a list is how to rank the more recent draftees, who haven’t had much time to establish themselves. Given more seasons, they might move up, perhaps a lot. And it will interesting to see where Ionescu ranks one day.

1. Diana Taurasi, G, Phoenix Mercury, 2004Diana Taurasi’s WNBA career stats: 19.6 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 4.3 APG. Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images

This is no knock on all the talented teammates she has had. But when you think of the Mercury, you think first and foremost of Taurasi. She is the face of the franchise in a way few athletes are. She gave the Mercury their swagger and identity, which has influenced everything about the organization — from the passion of the X factor fan base to the way teammates such as Brittney Griner, also a No. 1 pick, credit her with shaping them as pros. Taurasi is also a three-time WNBA champ and the league’s all-time leading scorer.

2. Maya Moore, F, Minnesota Lynx, 2011Maya Moore’s WNBA career stats: 18.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.3 APG. David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

It was the perfect pairing of a pro-ready pick to a franchise that was one piece from a championship. Moore’s Lynx career has been nearly immaculate: six trips to the WNBA Finals in eight seasons, with four championships. Moore’s MVP season in 2014 actually came in a year when Minnesota lost to Phoenix in the semifinals, but she was transcendent, averaging 23.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game. However, Moore stepped away for the 2019 season to focus on social justice in general, and to help a prisoner she felt was wrongly convicted fight for a new trial. Moore, who will be 31 in June, said she won’t return this season, and hasn’t projected beyond that. But even if it ends at eight seasons, it’s a Hall of Fame career.

3. Tina Thompson, F, Houston Comets, 1997Tina Thompson’s WNBA career stats: 15.1 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.6 APG. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Thompson was overshadowed a bit by older Comets teammates Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper, but make no mistake: Houston would not have won its four championships without her. The Comets set the tone for excellence in the WNBA’s first four years, so Thompson’s success was crucial not just for Houston (the franchise dissolved in 2008) but for the league. She was the first pick in the first college draft, and by the end of her 17-year career was the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer. Only Taurasi has since passed her.

4. Lauren Jackson, C/F, Seattle Storm, 2001Lauren Jackson’s WNBA career stats: 18.9 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.8 BPG. Ray Amati/NBAE/Getty Images

For 10 seasons, she was an unstoppable force on offense and defense, and became part of a dynamic duo with Sue Bird in winning two WNBA championships. Her 2007 season might be the best individually in WNBA history: 23.8 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.0 BPG and nearly a 50/40/90 shooting percentage from the field, 3-point range and foul line. She was brilliant while earning her third MVP in 2010 as the Storm took the title, but that was her last full season in the league. Injuries piled up and she played just 28 more games in a Storm uniform. But when Jackson was healthy, there was no one better in the WNBA.

5. Sue Bird, G, Seattle Storm, 2002Sue Bird’s WNBA career stats: 12.1 PPG, 5.6 APG, 1.3 SPG. Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY Sports

We know, we know — how can Bird be fifth? Well, we said it was splitting hairs. Just as her friend and former UConn teammate Taurasi has been the face of the Mercury, Bird has filled that role for the Storm. She was the consistent presence for all three of Seattle’s championships, and she has not only been a great ambassador for the Storm, but also for the league. And at age 39, she continues to set a standard for fitness that sets the tone for her teammates.

6. Candace Parker, F/C, Los Angeles Sparks, 2008Candace Parker’s WNBA career stats: 17.0 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.9 APG. Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

The only player to win Rookie of the Year and MVP in the same season, Parker took the handoff from Lisa Leslie — whom she played alongside for two seasons — as the signature player for the Sparks. Parker has incredible gifts and has made some breathtaking plays over the years. But the one thing she wanted most was a championship, and she got that in 2016, the same year she lost her beloved college coach, Pat Summitt, and was left off the U.S. Olympic team. It was a season that defined Parker’s mental toughness.

7. Seimone Augustus, G, Minnesota Lynx, 2006Seimone Augustus’ WNBA career stats: 15.9 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 2.4 APG. David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

It was a shocker when Augustus signed this year as free agent with Los Angeles, because she was another player who was iconic to a franchise. Augustus was there in the lean years for Minnesota, setting the stage for the coming dynasty. She could have been territorial about her scoring opportunities when Moore came aboard in 2011, but instead was the consummate teammate in welcoming her. No matter the uniform she wears to end her career, Augustus will always be a Lynx legend.

8. Nneka Ogwumike, F, Los Angeles Sparks, 2012Nneka Ogwumike’s WNBA career stats: 16.3 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 1.9 APG. Jon SooHoo/NBAE/Getty Images

She has been consistently strong her entire career, but her 2016 MVP season was amazing. Always efficient, Ogwumike took that quality to the hilt that year, averaging 19.7 PPG and 9.1 RPG while shooting 66.5% from the field. It was fitting that her putback shot after a block was the basket that won the Sparks the 2016 title. She has also been a player who kept the Sparks together with her upbeat personality, and that had a lot to do with their championship season as well.

9. Tina Charles, C, Connecticut Sun, 2010Tina Charles’ WNBA career stats: 18.1 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 1.0 BPG. AP Photo/Jessica Hill

She went from UConn to the Sun. Things were lining up perfectly in 2012 as she was MVP and Connecticut was a game away from the WNBA Finals. But the Sun lost their series to Indiana, coach Mike Thibault was let go, and after one more season in Connecticut, Charles wanted to go home to New York. She has been the Liberty’s stalwart the past six seasons, but at age 31 is still looking for her first WNBA title. Might Ionescu be an asset in that pursuit?

10. Angel McCoughtry, G, Atlanta Dream, 2009Angel McCoughtry’s WNBA career stats: 19.1 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 3.0 APG. Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

The face of the expansion-team Dream for nine seasons, she suffered her first major injury late in 2018. She wasn’t able to help Atlanta in the playoffs, where the Dream fell a victory short of the franchise’s fourth trip to the WNBA Finals. McCoughtry played a key role in the first three, but Atlanta wasn’t able win a game in any of them. Always a dynamic scorer, McCoughtry now has moved on to Las Vegas to try to continue pursuing a championship.

11. Breanna Stewart, F, Seattle Storm, 2016Breanna Stewart’s WNBA career stats: 20.0 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 2.9 APG. Joshua Huston/NBAE/Getty Images

She has played only three seasons, but already has a regular-season MVP award, a WNBA Finals MVP and a league championship — and she’s still just 25. A No. 11 ranking actually seems too low, but for the veterans who are ahead of her. She might one day be at the top of this list. Stewart made a seamless adjustment to the pro game after winning four NCAA titles at UConn. Her rookie year included an Olympic gold medal, as was the case for previous top draft picks Taurasi and Parker. But Stewart faced real adversity in basketball for the first time last year, suffering a torn Achilles tendon playing overseas that cost her the 2019 WNBA season. She returned to action in January with the U.S. national team and then played overseas.

12. Brittney Griner, C, Phoenix Mercury, 2013Brittney Griner’s WNBA career stats: 17.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 3.0 BPG. Christian Petersen/Getty Images

She has a WNBA title (2014) and has established herself as one of the great interior scorers in league history as well as a premiere rim protector. She has averaged over 20 PPG each of the past three seasons and has been in the MVP conversation. That award and pursuing more titles will continue to motivate Griner, who turns 30 in October.

13. Chamique Holdsclaw, F, Washington Mystics, 1999Chamique Holdsclaw’s WNBA career stats: 16.9 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.5 APG. Doug Pensinger/Allsport

A lot of pressure was put on the 21-year-old to turn the Mystics — who debuted as an expansion team with a 3-27 record in 1998 — quickly into a contender. Holdsclaw put up terrific numbers — averaging a double-double in 2002 and ’03 — but the Mystics had little continuity in leadership. Holdsclaw played for five different coaches in six seasons in Washington. She also lived with mental health issues, for which she has become a spokeswoman and advocate. She finished her 11-year WNBA career with stints in Los Angeles, Atlanta and San Antonio. Statistically, she was an exceptional player, but never got the chance to play for a championship.

14. Margo Dydek, C, Utah Starzz, 1998Margo Dydek’s WNBA career stats: 10.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 2.7 BPG. Andrew D. Bernstein/WNBAE/Getty Images

At 7-foot-2, she was a strong defensive presence who led the league in blocked shots nine times. She spent her first seven seasons with the Starzz/Stars organization that moved from Utah to San Antonio, then played three seasons in Connecticut before ending her WNBA career with a brief stay in Los Angeles. A native of Poland, she was in the first wave of European players to help build up the WNBA in its early years. She quickly became a fan favorite who also was beloved by teammates and opponents alike. Her death after a heart attack at 37 while pregnant with her third child in 2011 was mourned by all in the women’s basketball world.

15. Jewell Loyd, G, Seattle Storm, 2015Jewell Loyd’s WNBA career stats: 14.6 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 2.9 APG. Joshua Huston/NBAE/Getty Images

She surprised many people by leaving Notre Dame a year early and going to the WNBA as a draft-eligible junior in 2015. It allowed her to be the No. 1 pick — she wouldn’t have been in 2016 because of Stewart — and Loyd proved ready, winning Rookie of the Year honors. Then Stewart joined her in Seattle, and in 2018 they were starters on a WNBA championship team. Loyd and Stewart have been compared to Jackson and Bird as back-to-back No. 1 picks for the Storm. And while it’s tough to be measured against future Hall of Famers, Loyd and Stewart have had a very good start.

16. A’ja Wilson, F, Las Vegas Aces, 2018A’ja Wilson’s WNBA career stats: 18.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.1 APG. Melanie Fidler/NBAE/Getty Images

She has played only two seasons but already shows a maturity in her game and personality that is the stuff of impending greatness. Wilson was Rookie of the Year in 2018, averaging 20.7 PPG and 8.0 RPG. Her numbers went down a bit last season — 16.5 and 6.5 — but for a good reason: Center Liz Cambage joined the Aces’ frontcourt. Wilson handled that like a veteran, putting the team first and helping Las Vegas reach the semifinals. Wilson won an NCAA title at South Carolina, and her goal is to bring a WNBA championship to Las Vegas. She might move up a lot in this ranking in a few more seasons.

17. Chiney Ogwumike, F, Connecticut Sun, 2014Chiney Ogwumike’s WNBA career stats: 13.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.1 SPG. Tim Clayton/Corbis/Getty Images

Injuries have been her biggest obstacle, costing her the 2014 and ’17 seasons with the Sun. Following the 2018 season, upon hearing the Sun might trade her, she requested a deal to join older sister, Nneka Ogwumike, in Los Angeles. New coach Derek Fisher never seemed to settle fully on how best to implement Chiney, and the Sparks as a whole imploded in the playoffs. But she could still have a bright future with the Sparks, and she already has an established broadcasting career.

18. Janel McCarville, F/C, Charlotte Sting, 2005Janel McCarville’s WNBA career stats: 7.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.9 APG. Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

The 2005 draft class wasn’t very impactful, and McCarville averaged less than 5.0 PPG her first two seasons. But then Charlotte disbanded, and she was taken by New York in the dispersal draft. With the Liberty, she hit her stride, with her best seasons in 2007-09, averaging double-figure scoring in each. McCarville then went back to Minnesota, where she’d starred in college, and finished her WNBA career with three seasons with the Lynx, winning a league title in 2013.

19. Ann Wauters, C, Cleveland Rockers, 2000Ann Wauters’ WNBA career stats: 9.9 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 1.3 APG. Nick Hura/WNBAE/Getty Images

Like Australia’s Jackson a year later, Belgium’s Wauters was a foreign player just 19 when drafted. It took a while to find her footing in the WNBA. And with her overseas commitments, she played just nine seasons (with five different teams) in the WNBA between 2000 and 2016. But when she was at her best, she was very good. That included the 2005 season with New York, and 2008 with San Antonio, when the Stars reached the WNBA Finals. She was a little-used reserve in her final season, 2016 in Los Angeles, but was a great veteran to have in practice and on the bench. It was also a nice finish, as she won her only WNBA championship with the Sparks.

20. Lindsey Harding, G, Phoenix Mercury, 2007Lindsey Harding’s WNBA career stats: 9.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 4.0 APG. David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

Harding is the only WNBA No. 1 pick who never played a game for the team that drafted her; she was traded on draft day to Minnesota. The former Duke star played for six teams in nine seasons, and wasn’t with any of them for more than two years. Her career overall was solid; individually, it’s probably better than a few people ranked above her. But she never found the right fit for very long, and she didn’t get a WNBA title. She has successfully moved on to an NBA coaching career.

21. Kelsey Plum, G, San Antonio Stars, 2017Kelsey Plum’s WNBA career stats: 8.9 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 3.5 APG. Mark Sobhani/NBAE/Getty Images

Plum went from being the leading scorer in NCAA history at Washington to a San Antonio franchise that was dying on the vine and didn’t instill confidence in her as a rookie. Plum benefited from the Stars moving to Las Vegas to become the Aces. But she still had to make the adjustment from high-volume scorer to a different type of pro. To her credit, she has made a lot of progress, and is another player who could climb this list given time.

22. LaToya Thomas, F, Cleveland Rockers, 2003LaToya Thomas’ WNBA career stats: 9.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.1 APG. Gregory Shamus/WNBAE/Getty Images

A case study in how circumstances can affect careers. A four-time WBCA All-American at Mississippi State, she was the top pick in one of the WNBA’s weakest drafts. Still, she had a good rookie season for a Rockers team that lost a close conference semifinal to eventual champion Detroit. But she was never able to establish roots. The Rockers folded after her first year, and Thomas went to San Antonio in the dispersal draft. After three years there, she left as a free agent to Los Angeles, but a year later was selected in the 2008 expansion draft by Atlanta. The Dream immediately traded her to Detroit, which during the season dealt her to Minnesota, for which she played just 13 games before being released. After five teams in six seasons, she was done in the WNBA after 2008, but kept playing professionally overseas through 2014.

23. Jackie Young, G, Las Vegas Aces, 2019Jackie Young’s WNBA career stats: 6.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 4.5 APG. Ned Dishman/NBAE/Getty Images

In some ways this might not be very fair; Young is last mostly because she has just a year under her belt and didn’t get a chance to be a marquee player for the Aces as a rookie. But she was a solid presence, especially considering she left Notre Dame a year early as a draft-eligible junior. The only reason she’s behind Thomas is that Thomas had a pretty good rookie season. The Aces believe in Young’s potential, and it’s unlikely she’ll be ranked last after she gets in a few more seasons.

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