April 7, 2022
THE MODERATOR: We're going to bring in our four WNBA GMs and head coaches. We have with us from the Seattle Storm, head coach Noelle Quinn; from the Atlanta Dream, general manager and executive vice president Dan Padover; from the Indiana Fever, general manager Lin Dunn; and from the Washington Mystics, general manager and head coach Mike Thibault. Welcome, everybody. We're going to begin right away with question and answer.
Q. For Mike, just kind of your thoughts on NaLyssa Smith and what maybe the impact of Nicki Collen coaching her this year, how much that helped her.
MIKE THIBAULT: Yeah, that's a great question. I think going into the season, NaLyssa was somebody that everybody in our league was aware of and knew. She had a terrific junior season, and with most of these players, we've followed them since they first came into college.
But I do think in preparing for the pro game, having somebody who coaches at the pro level could give her a different perspective. I think she had a great coach in Kim Mulkey, but I think that sometimes as you approach a new level of play, learning more about the kinds of things that happen in the pro game on both ends of the floor are beneficial to a player. She certainly thrived in it this year, more pick-and-roll game, playing multiple people defensively. I think all of that helps a player to get a new perspective on what pro coaches expect.
I think part of that, in talking to Nicki throughout the year, is that players have a lot of questions about, hey, Coach, what's it like at the next level. So being able to go into somebody's office and ask those questions because they've lived it is a great resource for a player.
Q. I was going to see if a couple of you could answer. Ali Patberg from Indiana, how her game translates from the college game to the pro game.
LIN DUNN: I'll answer that since Ali is right down the road from me here. I think the fact she's already played seven years in college makes her uniquely prepared for the next level. She's a combo guard with great size. She can get to the rim. She's been leading the team now for three years, so I think she's uniquely prepared for the next level.
She's just played seven years with the college game, so she's a little bit older than everybody else and had experience that most players haven't had in leading her team. She's great size, 5-11, she can get to the rim, shoot the three. So I think she is prepared and ready for the next level, definitely.
Q. I have two questions. The first one is directed to Dan. Obviously, Rhyne Howard has been projected by many to be the top pick in the draft. What is your evaluation of her as a player and your experiences with her, if you've interacted with her? My second question, Emily Engstler made a huge impact at Louisville in one year with the program. How valuable is her versatility and defensive instincts in the pro game?
DAN PADOVER: Yeah, I'll start with Rhyne. Obviously, a good-sized wing player who can score in multiple ways and also has the ability to defend when she wants to. Led a program with not a ton of help around her for a lot of those four years and had a lot of responsibility on her back on the offensive end. So it'll be interesting to see what she's like around the pro level with teammates that have pro skill.
But I think the ceiling for her is very high, and I think a lot of people would agree with that.
Q. To all of the coaches and GMs, Emily Engstler, how valuable is her versatility and defensive instincts at the pro level?
LIN DUNN: She's right down the road from me, too. One is below me and the other one is above me. Let's see, gosh, kudos to Emily for transferring and having an enormous impact on the Louisville program. Lots to like about her, a 4 player that can spread the floor, knock down threes, get to the rim. Really, really intense defensive player, high energy, gives you 110 percent 24/7. Just really high on her and what she can do, and I think she's going to have a great pro career.
Q. Mike and Dan, I was wondering if you guys could address the sheer number of athletes who are vying for the draft this year and what it kind of says about the state of play. I think it's like double last year's number. I was wondering if you could talk about this year's depth compared to what you guys are looking down the road to next year.
MIKE THIBAULT: I think let's take the misconception out of this. Your question is well asked, but the number I don't think is necessarily reflective of where we are. The COVID years and the NCAA's extra year allowed a lot more people to stay in school last year, and even so this year, but you have more this year who have at least been four years in college, so whether they had an extra year or not, they are coming out. It impacts the depth of the draft just because there were less people available last year. We'll see even more in a year or two as we've gotten through these couple years that were granted to these players.
I think this draft has more depth than last year did. I don't know that it's the number of players coming out or just the number of good players. But you go through years that there aren't as many in that particular class. There have been ups and downs in the WNBA with just the depth of a draft, but this one feels like it has more depth than a year ago did.
It's one of the reasons we felt like we wanted to be in the second round with the 14th pick, whereas a year ago I questioned whether we'd want to even be in the draft. That's kind of the difference.
DAN PADOVER: I agree exactly with what Mike said. And to add a little commentary to that, I talked to Mike about a year ago this time, and he said, Every time I try to get into this draft, meaning '21, Eric (Thibault) talks me out of it.
I think we all have that different sentiment this year. I think all four of us are probably excited about different positions that we may have and feeling like we might be able to get somebody.
It's not shocking to anybody we saw a lot of first-rounders not even make it to the All-Star break last year. I think this year, could that happen, yes, but we feel a little more confident that some players will stick.
Q. This would be for Mike and Noelle. Looking for an assessment on Naz Hillmon from Michigan. Sometimes teams draft on potential, but is it an asset to know what you're getting with Naz? If you could assess her as a prospect.
NOELLE QUINN: I'll go. Right off the bat watching Naz throughout her career, one thing that sticks out is her motor. Understanding that she's undersized specifically for our league, but she doesn't play in that way.
To lead that program in scoring and all the other attributes and intangibles that she brings from that standpoint, it makes her very appealing as a prospect from the notion of understanding she'll come into a camp and work and be in this league and work hard. That's very intriguing about an athlete like that.
MIKE THIBAULT: I think the other part for Naz, I think every coach appreciates somebody with the motor that she has. Everybody would agree there are things in her game that she needs to work on, particularly at her size, to be able to extend her range and do things, but I think you know that you have a worker, that she's going to put in the work to do it.
The other thing about coming in, if you're undersized or you're missing one thing, if you can bring a great skill to the league, then that gives you a chance to work on the other stuff to catch up.
But she brings in a skill of being able to rebound at a high level and a skill of being able to finish around the rim. So when you're able to do that on a high level, then I think teams might give you the opportunity to develop the other things as you go along.
It's nice to say sometimes about players, well, they do a little bit of everything pretty well, but I think it's more important to come in with something that you do really well.
Q. For any coach, this season we have seen that six young ladies are making themselves eligible at the center position. I just wanted to know if any one of them stood out to you as far as being an instant impact on any of the teams.
MIKE THIBAULT: I'll go on this. I don't know that everybody in our league is going to share kind of their feelings with you about each of these players in the sense that there's some depth to it. I think it depends on your style of play. I think it depends on what you're asking that player to do. There are some players that are better at the offensive end than the defensive end, and there are others that are the reverse of that. It kind of depends a little bit on what your team needs.
The other part of it is what do you already have in your existing veterans on your team. Can you afford the luxury of taking a player maybe in the first round of the draft as a post player but not needing them to play a lot of minutes so they can develop and learn some things. If you've got some established post players that are older, you might want to bring a young one in to learn. And they may not play big minutes. I think you'll see players make this league this year, but depending on the team they go to, it may take some time to actually get long minutes on the court.
NOELLE QUINN: For sure, I definitely would agree with that. The centers in this draft seem to be very position specific in that there is a skill set that they have. If you think about the ability to make a team and to come and show what you're great at, I think there are a few centers in this draft pool that can show their versatility on either end of the floor.
Q. For Dan, when you look at this draft at a macro level, you were talking about it a little bit, but what is your evaluation of its depth and positional availability, and how much do you put next year's draft kind of into your stock or into your evaluation?
DAN PADOVER: Yeah, I mean, look, you always have to look at next year's draft, especially when the trade you made had something involved with it.
But I think this year's draft is probably the best from a depth standpoint since '18 or '19. I think next year's draft may be a little deeper in the, call it, 1 through 6 or 7 range, but after that this year may be better, in like the 8 to 15 range.
It all varies. Some drafts are top heavy, some are middle heavy, some are deep. I think this one is probably the most deep more than anything.
Q. This question is for Dan and Lin. I'm curious as I cover LSU and I wanted to see kind of a general place Khayla Pointer might get picked and how her game translates and how big a detriment her lack of height might be.
LIN DUNN: I think the great thing about Pointer is she plays taller than she is. As the game goes along, you'd swear she's 5-9, 5-10. I love that about her. Her speed, her quickness, her ability to score in a lot of different ways. I guess if you'd ask me where I'd project her, late first round, somewhere early in the second round.
DAN PADOVER: Yeah, I think Lin is on point with all that. I will say, after we get past a certain number of players this year, it's wide open. So while we may say late first or early second, there's a big chunk of 10 to 15 players where all of us will have different opinions. Everyone is asking us where certain people are falling, and it's pretty tough to say.
Q. For Lin, the Indiana Fever in the most recent years have made some picks that maybe have surprised some of us. I'm curious as to what you would like your picks in 2022, and you have a lot of them, what you'd like them to be known for.
LIN DUNN: Well, I'd like for them to be known for good picks. Then I did a really good job with my homework and I evaluated talent, and I picked players at 2, 4, 6 and 10 that make us better and that we can build around for the future, because that's what we're looking at right now. We're not reloading; we're rebuilding with good, young talent inside and outside.
Like I think Dan said, this is a good draft. This is a deep draft. Best draft I've seen since '18. We're optimistic that we're going to find some great young players that play hard, that are high energy, that can help us rebuild this Fever franchise where it should be.
Q. This is a question similar to the one just asked recently for Lin. Given the results of the last season and the multiple picks in the first round, I was wondering what the criteria is you focus on to want to change in this draft and even going forward.
LIN DUNN: Well, when you're last, there needs to be change. We've made some change in the coaching staff. We've made some changes already in the current roster, waived some players, we've traded some players, we've divorced some players. So we're obviously going in a different direction.
We are looking at our seven draft picks, in particular the four in the first round, to rebuild around, and fortunately this is a draft where we think 2, 4, 6 and 10 will have an immediate impact on our team. They might not have an immediate impact on other teams, but they will definitely have an impact on our team. So we're excited about four picks in the first round.
Q. Lin, obviously you had a uniquely close relationship with Rhyne Howard while she was at Kentucky. I'm curious to know if you gave her any advice while you were there on what to expect for the WNBA, maybe prepare her in that sense, and then at the same time maybe -- obviously she was known for having an all-around complete game. What are some things you think she needs to home in on to take her game to that next level?
LIN DUNN: Well, Rhyne is uniquely prepared for the next level. I think there are a couple of players, two or three players in this draft that I think are going to have a smooth transition into the pros and are not only going to play but they're going to have an impact, and I think Rhyne Howard is one of those players. Anytime you can play four positions, the 1, 2, 3, 4, and play them well, then you're special.
I think Rhyne, everybody talks about her motor. I think she played on the team this year where she had to conserve her motor in order to play 40 minutes every game and carry a team. She has a motor. She uses it when it's needed. She is exceptional when she's playing with better players around her.
And if anybody wants to see her at her best, go watch her games in USA Basketball where she won gold medals every time she participated and was the MVP of every one of those competitions.
I think Rhyne is going to have a huge impact on the league.
Q. Lin, given the fact that the Fever have four picks in the first round, how do you prioritize what needs the team has and what players you guys go after?
LIN DUNN: Well, that's a great question. You know, first and foremost in the first round, we're looking at the best player available. We've got a list. We've got a board charting those top 10 players by best available, and then we've also got a chart over here beside us charting what we need.
In our particular situation, we need a lot. We need help inside. We need help outside. It's a little bit easier for us to pinpoint our needs because they're glaring. But we are essentially in that first round with 2, 4, 6 and 10 looking at the best player available.
Q. Mike, you said in your release when trading back to the No. 3 pick that you were comfortable with all of the top three players on your board. I'm just curious what does that say about the top players in this year's draft and the comfortability that you have that any of them would be able to contribute on your roster?
MIKE THIBAULT: Well, I think it says good things about the draft, that you have three or four or more players that could have an impact right away. There may be more than that.
For us, we're a little bit different than the other two teams in that we have some players coming back to our team, with Elena Delle Donne, Alysha Clark, even Myisha Hines-Allen, who missed a good part of last year, that coming in healthy, we're a different kind of team, we're a veteran team. So whoever we draft is not going to be expected to play 25 to 30 minutes.
I feel like all three of those players that we have identified would fit the bill for us. They can contribute. We're going to need down-the-road players at different positions regardless, and so if we all felt that way, why not take the opportunity to get another pick in this draft where we think we can get another player that can make our team, in addition to an outside chance that we could move up in the draft.
That's not a given. L.A. is a really good team. We don't know which of us will finish higher in the standings. But it's an opportunity to at least put that out there for yourself.
We enjoyed our interviews with all three players. We think they're all going to be good players. But I don't think it was a situation where we had to have one of them to make a certain particular impact on our team. I think they're all going to do well.
Q. What are your evaluations when it comes to versatility players, and what are your thoughts of Kierstan Bell coming in from Florida Gulf Coast?
DAN PADOVER: I think all of us as coaches and general managers love versatile players. It's important when you can have someone that can slide over, whether they're a 3 who can slide to the 2 and the 4 or a 4 that can slide to the 3 and the 5. It helps in matchups. It helps defensively. As you're building your team, it just gives you a lot of flexibility.
I think someone like Kierstan Bell, she has some offensive talent that is pro ready. I think the questions about her is can she play both ends of the floor and how long can she play both ends of the floor for. But offensively she can shoot from the outside, she can post up smaller players, she can get by players, she's got quick feet and she has a natural basketball instinct from playing for a great program and also having a good IQ herself.
Q. Noelle, when you approach a draft and your roster is seemingly set, your 11 seems pretty secure, how do you approach the picks that you do have in kind of preparing for the draft as you get here?
NOELLE QUINN: Well, sure. I think it's about finding quality players, finding players that can come in and challenge positions that show weak spots or deficiencies within our team. We're not set in stone, so it's about doing our due diligence in the draft and drafting players that are high IQ that can -- understanding our training camp is so short, can pick up our system, can just provide good-quality presence within our camp.
You know, it is a blessing in disguise knowing that we have -- knock on wood we stay healthy and we have our pieces in place. But now as we look at this depth in the draft, finding those jewels or finding those gems that can come in and be exceptional at something, whether it's three-point shooting or playmaking, whatever it is, just finding good-quality, high-character players that can really complement our team, our camp.
Q. Rebecca Lobo mentioned wanting to potentially see WNBA rosters expand before seeing expansion as a whole in order to get more talent onto teams. I'm curious, knowing that of the 36 players that ultimately get drafted how many won't necessarily even play in a WNBA game, what are your thoughts on just kind of what that means for the league, and does that impact how you look at players that maybe have a high ceiling but aren't game-day ready?
MIKE THIBAULT: Well, I think every general manager and coach, when it's not coming out of their own pocket and paycheck, would love to have a bigger roster. I think that's a safe thing to say. But we don't write the checks. We don't have to balance the books. That ultimately is an ownership decision.
I think we're at a point right now, because we've had COVID and injuries and condensed schedule this year, that everybody feels the strain to have healthy players, and obviously if you had a bigger roster, that would help. But again, that's not our decision.
I think it would also allow for longer player development, that we would be able to take some players and let them develop at the rate they need to develop rather than cutting them and hoping that they develop when they go overseas.
It's a very big Catch-22. Coaches always want to have a little bit more to work with and a little bit more to do, and we've gotten to the point now where because of the salary cap and the collective bargaining agreement, a lot of us are going to play with 11 players this year. It does make it tough when you have some injuries.
The saving grace for us right now is having male practice players, which we went without during a year and a half of time. I would love to find a way to get more players in the league so that we as coaches can develop them, because there are ones that are going to get cut that probably would have a future in our league. But there's no simple answer to that.
Q. I wanted to address this question toward Dan. Obviously trading for the first overall pick yesterday. I was curious to see what would you like this first overall pick to be known for and to represent for the franchise once you select them on Monday night?
DAN PADOVER: Not dissimilar to what Lin said. We're in a rebuild right now, and we're also looking to add pieces that can be with us for a long time.
I think having the No. 1 pick in 2022, our hope is this person comes in with fresh energy and sparks something underneath our franchise which we need right now, and also embraces the city of Atlanta.
I think it's been a city that our overall player body has enjoyed visiting. A lot of players in the W have homes in Atlanta or second homes in Atlanta. I think that as we bring people in here, the most important thing is for these players to enjoy Atlanta and for Atlanta to come out and watch these players play. We're hoping that this pick will help us do that.
Q. I wanted to ask Noelle, is going through this draft process as a head coach any different for you? And how do you project players where film doesn't tell the whole story?
NOELLE QUINN: Yeah, it is different. These war rooms are brutal. I'm like, wow, did y'all talk this bad about me as a player? Very transparent, understanding that you're trying to find quality players for your organization and doing it in the way in which you have resources, whether it is watching them a couple times a year or interviews or things of that nature. It's interesting to see this side of things.
Obviously, a lot more in depth as a player. You're thinking about making the league and your preparation is different. It's physical, it's training and things of that nature. As a coach, it's just more in depth. This is alluding to the second part of your question, sometimes it is just difficult to watch a game or be in the presence of a game and find things about players that will translate to our organization, our league.
So it is having a feel. And I think that's one thing as a player that is my strength, understanding what it took to be in this league and to have longevity in this league. And whether you figure it out with a conversation or whether you go above and beyond and look at these athletes in different environments, there is something about knowing and understanding that the numbers do tell a story, but your gut and your feel for the game also provide a lot of answers. So having a balance of that is very special.
MIKE THIBAULT: I'd like to jump in on this a little bit, too. I think there's this misconception that we do everything by numbers or by film. I run across everybody in this league going and watching practices as much as games and shootarounds and finding out how players react to day-to-day coaching, not to game coaching.
I like to go and watch a player at a practice the day before a game and then see if they can carry that over into a game. You can see them in shooting drills. You can see them in defensive breakdown drills. A, are they coachable, B, do they learn things quickly, do they do what they're supposed to do as teammates. You see leadership qualities come out.
It's not just the numbers. As Noelle said, it's a gut feel about team players, and it's studying them in different environments. It's not just the games; it's everything else. I think there's a lot of hours spent -- I always laugh when people ask me what I do in my offseason. This is what we do. This is our job, to be on the road and watch these kids develop and figure out and project what that will translate to at our level.
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