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WNBA Hidden Gems: Impact 2nd-Round Picks in 2015

The second round of the WNBA Draft is what separates the die-hards from the casuals. With most of the superstar talent almost certainly off the board by the 13th pick, this is where WNBA GMs show what they’re made of. It’s also where avid fans of both the college and professional game eagerly comb through possible “sleeper picks,” hoping that their team will pick up an overlooked player who will blossom into a star.

There’s good reason for this. Going back as far as 2010, at least three players selected in the second round of each draft are still on a WNBA roster. Of those players, six have become All-Stars, and we’ll likely be seeing a pair of All-WNBA selections in Emma Meesseman and Alex Bentley (2013 draft) sooner rather than later.

While the 2015 WNBA Draft was predicted by analysts to be weaker than some of its predecessors, a case can be made that its talent was simply more spread out. Even though none of this year’s second-round picks have put up eye-popping per-game statistics, several of them have still made valuable contributions in their rookie seasons, and will now look to stick around and establish themselves as household names among the more casual WNBA fans. Let’s take a look at a group of 2015’s second-rounders who’ve made an impact this season.

Natasha Cloud – Washington Mystics (15th pick)

“It’s really exciting,” Mystics head coach/GM Mike Thibault said of his 2015 draft picks. “We got the two players we really wanted the most.”

After watching Natasha Cloud develop during her rookie campaign, it’s easy to see why. At 6’0”, Cloud filled an immediate need for the Mystics: a tall, versatile player who can defend all three perimeter positions and keep incumbent Mystics guards in their defined roles.

She’s done this about as well as a rookie possibly could. Cloud began the season on the bench, but was inserted into the starting lineup in mid-July, which turned out to be a sharp move. Starting Cloud meant that a small Mystics backcourt became much less of a liability defensively. Meanwhile, Thibault has been able to stagger his rotations more effectively, as Ivory Latta is now able to come in off the bench and focus on what she does best: shooting and scoring. Along the same lines, playing alongside Cloud has seemed to benefit veteran Kara Lawson, who’s seen an increase in her own scoring, and has been spending less energy chasing around defensive assignments that are now Cloud’s.

It’s not easy to come into the WNBA and play multiple positions right off the bat, but Natasha Cloud has performed admirably. Her role as a Swiss Army Knife has proven invaluable for what may be the deepest backcourt in the league.

Betnijah Laney: Chicago Sky (17th pick)

As a Sky fan (and as a Big Ten follower), I may be a tad biased on this one, but when I saw that Laney had fallen to Chicago at No. 17, I immediately thought, “steal.” I’d quickly grown to love Laney’s game (described in one word as “tough”) while watching her play at Rutgers, and was hoping that she’d still be around when the Sky were up to bat in the second round.

Playing as an undersized power forward in college, Laney projected to be more of a perimeter player at the next level, and was drafted by Pokey Chatman to fill the role of another defensive stopper a la iron woman Tamera Young. A torn ligament in Young’s thumb meant that Laney was pressed into action early, and she fit the Sky’s need like a glove, giving the team a solid and smart perimeter defender whose presence meant that Elena Delle Donne could be used more at the power-forward position and wouldn’t have to chase around quicker players on the perimeter.

Laney and Delle Donne have meshed remarkably well, and not only on the defensive end. Laney’s knack for moving without the basketball has given her many open layups, as she can read when teams are paying a bit too much attention to Delle Donne and knows when to make a well-timed basket cut. Defensively, she’s already put in several tremendous efforts against Angel McCoughtry and Maya Moore, earning herself plenty of fans. Laney’s toughness, smarts and rapport with the team’s superstar have likely scored her a spot in Chicago for several seasons.

Cierra Burdick: Atlanta Dream (14th pick; originally selected by Los Angeles Sparks)

As a Tennessee product, Burdick already had the pedigree most WNBA GMs are looking for when considering who to draft. This wasn’t enough to keep her on the Sparks’ roster, but the Dream were quick to snatch her up, and it paid immediate dividends.

Another power forward in college, Burdick’s pro game will garner a “tweener” label, though in this case it should be a testament to her versatility. At 6’2”, Burdick has the height of a 4 with the speed and athleticism of a 3, along with a very smooth mid-range game that allows her to face up with great effectiveness. Burdick played heavy minutes in her rookie season (her 18.9 minutes per game is the highest of any second-round draft pick this season), especially after the Dream temporarily lost Sancho Lyttle to a plantar fascia injury. She fit the Dream’s uptempo style of play perfectly, able to beat most post players down the floor consistently and blow by them in the half court. Burdick also boasts impressive court vision and passing for her size, as shown in her six-assist performance vs Phoenix on July 14.

Unfortunately, a stress fracture ended Burdick’s rookie season prematurely. The good news for her is that in terms of raw talent, she’s still easily near the top of her draft class, and her solid tenure with the Dream will certainly land her on a WNBA roster next season, whether it’s in Atlanta again or elsewhere. The best is definitely yet to come for this Lady Vol.

Alex Harden: Phoenix Mercury (18th pick)

Harden’s coming-out party came against the Minnesota Lynx in early June. In a nationally televised game, the Wichita State product put the handcuffs on league MVP Maya Moore, who was barely able to get a shot off versus Harden on several possessions. When switched onto Seimon Augustus, the Lynx shooting guard didn’t fare much better.

“Who the heck is this?” I wondered aloud. The answer? The perfect defensive weapon. At 6’0”, Harden has the size to defend anyone on the perimeter, and also has among the quickest hands and best footwork I’ve ever seen from a rookie. It’s extremely rare to see this from a first-year player, but the Missouri Conference Player of the Year is a special talent. She was simply born to play defense. Her athleticism lets her stay in front of just about anyone, and careless ball handlers will have their pocket picked within seconds.

While Harden has some work to do on her offensive game (she’s a hesitant shooter), there’s always a spot on a WNBA team for a defensive specialist, and she’s already far, far ahead of the curve on that end of the floor. Whether or not the Mercury bring her back for next season, GMs who’d like to shore up their team’s perimeter defense will likely be taking a long look at Harden as, at worst, a defensive specialist, and at best, a future WNBA All-Defensive candidate.

Brianna Kiesel: Tulsa Shock (13th pick)

This tenacious point guard out of Pitt came into Shock training camp hoping to win the battle for the third-string spot and get a crack at the team’s guard rotation. What she got was a trial by fire: Kiesel was thrust into the starting lineup four games into the season when Odyssey Sims went down with a knee injury.

Since then, Kiesel has played significant minutes alongside three high-usage guards in Skylar Diggins, Riquna Williams and Sims (after returning from her injury), which is an awful lot to ask of a player who was more ball-dominant in her collegiate career (she posted a USG of 27.2 percent her senior year, compared to 17.6 percent in her rookie campaign). Kiesel showed remarkable poise, though, and was a key contributor to Tulsa’s 8-1 start to the season. Her reliable, intelligent style of play turned out to be the perfect contrast to the rest of the Shock’s dynamic backcourt.

Though she’s seen her playing time decrease since Diggins tore her ACL (and while the Shock have struggled to maintain their fast-paced, machine-like identity they established early), Kiesel has no doubt made a positive impression on coaches around the league.

Reshanda Gray: Atlanta Dream (16th pick; originally selected by Minnesota Lynx)

The Pac-12’s Player of the Year was projected by many to go in the first round of the draft. That didn’t happen. Gray instead went to Minnesota, where she saw very sparse playing time before being dealt alongside Damiris Dantas as part of the blockbuster Sylvia Fowles trade.

It turned out to be a terrific move, both for Atlanta and for Gray. Like Burdick, she has an incredible motor for a post player, and she combines that with a strong upper body to make herself a relentless worker on the glass. This has earned her consistent minutes with the Dream, where she’s made up for lost time. Gray is shooting nearly 60 percent from the field since being traded, and she’s put up multiple impressive performances (10 points and eight rebounds followed up by 18 and six a game later).

As a player who can play both the 4 and the 5, Gray is the rare rookie who doesn’t need to put in much time in the weight room, and her lateral quickness makes her a good candidate for hedging and switching the pick-and-roll. She’s no stranger to active defensive schemes; California coach Lindsay Gottlieb would frequently employ a 2-1-2 zone press with Gray in the middle, allowing the gifted athlete to use her instincts and try to create turnovers. Her experience in such schemes and her ceiling as a strong, active post player gives Gray an upper hand when competing against players of her size, and should keep her around in the WNBA for quite a while.

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