WNBA Draft: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese lead star-studded 2024 class ... if they choose to turn pro

The 2024 WNBA Draft class could be star-studded if all players choose to enter. Clockwise from top left: North Carolina's Deja Kelly, Iowa's Caitlin Clark, UConn's Aaliyah Edwards, Stanford's Cameron Brink, Hailey Van Lith (currently in transfer portal), NC State's Diamond Johnson, and UConn's Paige Bueckers, with LSU's Angel Reese in the middle. (Illustration by Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

NEW YORK — The Washington Mystics may have made the best decision of the 2023 WNBA Draft. They used their No. 4 overall pick, which they acquired from Los Angeles in an April 2022 trade, to take Iowa State’s Stephanie Soares. And then minutes later, they sent her to the Dallas Wings for a duet of future draft picks.

With the talent poised to enter the draft next season, or potentially in 2025 because of the extra COVID year allowed to players, it will almost assuredly pay off. Washington brought in veteran talent in free agency and has nine of 11 roster spots filled, meaning any first-round pick this year was highly likely to be waived.

“I’m not sure had we taken a player that was going to come in right now, that it would be somebody who would be making a huge difference in the very near future compared to the upside of what that pick could be down the road,” said head coach Eric Thibault, who took the reins from his father, Mike, this offseason.

The extra year of eligibility players can take through 2025 has muddied draft pictures, an issue certainly frustrating for teams attempting to plan in what has largely been an easy-to-determine WNBA Draft landscape in the past. The league requires players to complete at least three seasons, or meet certain eligibility requirements that are similarly restrictive. There are no one-and-done collegiate players as there are in the NBA.

It has made the end of the collegiate season more exciting, and the draft decisions more of a show. That was clear this April as the season wound down, and will be even more of an event in the next two seasons as some of the game’s brightest stars become draft eligible.

As it stands, the 2024 draft could have two Naismith National Player of the Year winners in Caitlin Clark and Paige Bueckers. Two national champions could enter in LSU’s Angel Reese and Stanford’s Cameron Brink. And two more Final Four contenders in Hailey Van Lith, who is currently the top player in the transfer portal, and UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards are headliners. Those accolades are all without next season even having been played yet.

Clark, one of the game’s most prolific scorers and crafty passers, will be a senior next season after leading Iowa to the national championship game for the first time in history. Her logo 3s are wow’d and awed by basketball fans and non-basketball fans alike. She led the nation in scoring her first two seasons and ranked second as a junior. As a freshman, she was third in the nation in assists per game and first the past two years.

Iowa's Caitlin Clark will be WNBA Draft eligible in 2024 because of strict rules around eligibility. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)
Iowa's Caitlin Clark will be WNBA Draft eligible in 2024 because of strict rules around eligibility. (Ron Jenkins/Getty Images)

Any franchise in the lottery will immediately be better with Clark on a roster, similar to how the New York Liberty’s path grew brighter when they won the lottery to draft Sabrina Ionescu. But she might not be available until 2025 if she opts to take the extra year. That might hinge on if Iowa wins a national title next season, a goal for any player and one Clark was 40 minutes away from.

“I probably will have to make a decision on that sometime next year,” she said on “The Dan Patrick Show” in February. “I really have no clue what I’m going to do, stay for an extra year or leave after next year.”

The top team could also take a similarly franchise-changing player in Bueckers, the 2021 Freshman of the Year and National Player of the Year winner who took UConn to a surprising 2022 title game in her home state of Minnesota. Bueckers missed the 2022-23 season with an ACL injury and said early on she would not enter the 2023 draft, which she was eligible for by turning 22 this calendar year.

“People asked me, ‘What are you thinking about fifth year, COVID year, redshirting this year?’ ” Bueckers said in September. “I’m not thinking too far ahead about that at all. But I will be playing college basketball again.”

Her production, vision and leadership are similarly lauded, and this time last year, the talk was if Bueckers, or any other star, should have to wait three years to enter the draft. Name, image and likeness deals changed that conversation, and Bueckers has some of the most lucrative NIL deals in women’s basketball. But the knock on her draft stock is health. She underwent ankle surgery after her freshman year and missed 19 games last season with a tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear in her left knee. Then, the ACL injury in the offseason that kept her sidelined.

Van Lith, a 5-foot-7 point guard, opted this month to leave Louisville, which she led to the Final Four in 2022, and chose not to be contacted by coaches. It means she likely has an idea of where she wants to go, and the All-American honorable mention probably wants to join a team better designed to reach a title game than the Cardinals will be this season. Van Lith, who is listed as a graduate transfer after obtaining her degree in three years, is the type of high-intensity player who locks in and turns it up come tournament time. She’s been on draft radars since she was a freshman.

Edwards, a 6-3 forward, lifted her game as a junior to help steady UConn amid a season of unprecedented injuries to nearly every single player on the roster. She ranked top 100 in scoring for the first time, is an experienced member of the Canadian national team pool, and has the strength and mobility to be a lottery pick. WNBA front offices are often high on UConn players, which was seen this season in Lou Lopez Sénéchal going No. 5 overall after a stellar single year at the program.

Brink, a 6-4 shot-blocking standout for Stanford, is a projected lottery pick for her size and defensive talents. She’s the program’s all-time blocks leader and ranked third in Division I in the category this season. Her scoring ability could improve and she is often in foul trouble, though it’s something she has been cognizant of this past year. She won the 2021 national championship with Stanford.

NC State star Diamond Johnson, a 5-5 guard who started at Rutgers, is also a part of the traditional ’24 class as is North Carolina’s Deja Kelly, a 5-8 guard who can take over games with her dangerous midrange jumper. Ayoka Lee, the Kansas State big who set the NCAA D-I scoring record with 61 points last year, is an overlooked post in the class as she missed this past season after undergoing knee surgery.

The 2025 draft class has the potential to be over-the-top if a majority of these players do choose to return to school for an extra season.

LSU's Angel Reese during an NCAA Women's Final Four semifinals basketball game against Virginia Tech Friday, March 31, 2023, in Dallas. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
LSU's Angel Reese has said she plans to stay in college as long as possible. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

Reese has made clear she intends to stay in school as long as possible. She would be eligible for the 2024 draft because she turns 22 in May of that year. Reese, listed as a third-year sophomore, has at least two years of eligibility remaining.

UConn sharp-shooting guard Azzi Fudd, who has one of the quickest and smoothest 3-point releases in the game, turns 22 next season and would also be eligible for the 2024 draft. Very few juniors have declared for the WNBA in its history, and it seems unlikely to become a growing trend now that NIL deals are boosting earning potential from the collegiate ranks. She would also be a high prospect in 2025.

Aneesah Morrow, the 2022 Freshman of the Year at DePaul, is a part of that traditional 2025 draft class. She entered her name into the transfer portal and could up her stock with a bigger program.

There’s a logjam of talent ready to enter the league, yet there continues to be too few roster spots. Expansion has been discussed ad nauseam for years now, but there is no update on when a team might enter the league, commissioner Cathy Engelbert said on Monday night.

“Now it’s time to really get into the due diligence phase with some of these cities, some of these ownership groups,” Engelbert said. “Start deciding on what an expansion draft might look like. We’ve got great drafts coming up in the next few years.”

It might be some of the best, most packed draft classes in WNBA history as players start higher-level training and skills at younger ages that weren’t possible decades ago in the early years of women’s professional sports. The Mystics opted to hedge their bets on the top talent in those classes. The rest of the league won’t have a problem finding their own gems, even if a draft of them were to take place tomorrow. The question that can wait is if all this talent will make starting day rosters in the coming years.

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