WNBA Draft winners and losers: 5 South Carolina players selected in rare feat; Dallas stacks talent with no roster room

South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley poses for a photo with her former players, from left, Laeticia Amihere, Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke and Brea Beal, who were all selected during the 2023 WNBA Draft at Spring Studios in New York City on April 10, 2023. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — Two hours after Aliyah Boston officially became the No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, her former head coach Dawn Staley was asked to give the South Carolina fan base a little video from Spring Studios.

Not one, Staley said. Not two, three or four. But five Gamecocks were drafted on Monday night, further placing them in the elite company they keep joining at every turn.

“Where they do that at?” Staley asked.

Not many places. Boston joining 2018 draftee A’ja Wilson as No. 1 picks made South Carolina the fifth program to have multiple top picks in the draft’s 27-year history. The Gamecocks join Connecticut, Tennessee, Notre Dame and Stanford. And with five selected over three rounds, South Carolina is the third school to have at least that many taken in a single draft, joining Notre Dame (2019) and Tennessee (2008, 1999), according to ESPN Stats and Information.

South Carolina was without a doubt the winner of the night, from the Indiana Fever selecting Boston with their first pick to their selection of Victaria Saxton with their final one at No. 25 overall. The Indianapolis real estate market might be in luck, too, as those near Staley suggested she buy a condo in town to see her alumni play professionally. The duo join Destanni Henderson, a teammate on the school’s 2022 national championship team.

Staley and Henderson were together in the back of the draft table area as things began to wind down despite an entire third and final round of the draft remaining. They spotted Saxton’s name on the big board as the first pick of the third round and yelled, chanting “V” and grabbing her on a video call a few minutes later.

It was a special moment, but also a downside of the WNBA Draft that continues as players beyond the first round do not hear their name called unless they are one of the dozen in attendance.

The duo was rightly excited as Saxton was viewed as more of a long-shot pick. Their four other South Carolina stars of the “freshies” class that went 129-9 in their collegiate careers were in New York. Laeticia Amihere was drafted No. 8 by the Atlanta Dream. Two picks later, the Los Angeles Sparks selected point guard Zia Cooke. At No. 24 overall, the Lynx finally selected Brea Beal as the final player in attendance to be drafted.

The sheer number of South Carolina players hearing or seeing their name called furthers the program’s status as a powerhouse of the sport in the likes of UConn and Tennessee. Unlike them (probably), it drew a hug and congratulations for Staley by Jake from State Farm, who, yes, was in attendance. Staley’s efforts to make the school a destination, and build a fan base that packs the arena nightly, has helped further the sport. Her players deserve better than catching their name scroll across the ESPN broadcast that always makes sure it fits seamlessly into its two-hour window.

Here are more winners and losers from New York.

Loser: The speed of the second and third rounds

WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert opened her pre-draft remarks with the media by calling it “one of the most exciting nights on the WNBA calendar” and ended it by celebrating the excitement in draftees’ voices when she calls them to invite them to the draft.

“Handing out the WNBA Finals trophy is great, and the rings,” Engelbert said. “But this night is unique because it’s a new chapter in all of the lives of these 36 players who will be drafted tonight.”

All 36. Except all 36 do not hear their name called, a frustrating aspect of the WNBA Draft for two key reasons. For one, most draftees are waived by their teams before the start of the season. This is their culminating moment to hear their name called and take the next step toward their dreams. Saxton deserved that as much as any of the players in attendance on Monday.

Some of these second- and third-round picks will make rosters, though. Maybe not this year, but next, or the one following. And when that happens, we all lose out on the clip of a player hearing their name called as part of highlight packages. Fever teammate Erica Wheeler went undrafted, so her draft call wouldn’t have been available when she won the 2019 All-Star MVP. But her story is similar to players who were drafted lower than the first round and still made their mark on rosters.

It feels worse in person as draft picks flash up on the screen in a list, without any information or broadcast scroll to direct us. There are long, long stretches of silence in the house beyond the DJ, and it makes it worse for players like Beal still sitting there deep into the second round. There’s nothing to pull an attendee’s attention or keep everyone engaged.

And we should all still be engaged in these players we watched for four or five years in college realize their next steps if the WNBA is going to keep trying to connect the bridge between college fans to WNBA ones.

Winner: Both Indianas and Grace Berger

The Fever selecting Indiana Hoosiers star Grace Berger at No. 7 was a huge win. The Hoosiers, who secured their first No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, are one of the better teams in attendance. If Berger can stay on the roster, the cross fandom could be a boost for the fledgling Fever team after the guard played an extra COVID-19 year at Indiana.

“One of the things that was the most special to me in my five years at Indiana was just to see the excitement in the community of women’s basketball grow, to where I’m at now, and it just seems like obviously people are crazy about basketball in Indiana, but they’re crazy about women’s basketball in Indiana,” Berger said. “We were able to kind of build that fan base at Indiana that was so special to me, and then obviously at the professional level, I think that excitement just takes a next step up.

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Grace Berger pose after Berger was drafted No. 7 overall by the Indiana Fever during the 2023 WNBA Draft at Spring Studios in New York City on April 10, 2023. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert and Grace Berger pose after Berger was drafted No. 7 overall by the Indiana Fever during the 2023 WNBA Draft at Spring Studios in New York on Monday. (Sarah Stier/Getty Images) (Sarah Stier via Getty Images)

“Hopefully, we have a lot of Indiana Hoosier women’s basketball fans there now during the summertime, huge Indiana Fever fans.”

Indiana head coach Teri Moren gave a loud yell, jump and arm raise as soon as she heard Engelbert say “Gr-” from the dais. Berger is also from the greater area, growing up two hours away in Louisville, Kentucky. She said her dad would take her to four or five Fever games every summer from the age of 6 or 7. They watched Tamika Catchings and Katie Douglas, who led the franchise to its only title in 2012.

“Just really grateful and full of emotion when I heard my name called, especially being there with my dad,” Berger said.

Loser: Dallas

There are 18 players on the Wings roster after the draft and only four with at least four years of experience. Dallas added four first-round picks, plus two more, and it’s a continued trend that the Wings keep adding scores of young talent with no real focus.

The Wings selected Villanova forward Maddy Siegrist, who led the nation in scoring (29.2 ppg), with their No. 3 overall pick. Then they agreed to trade for the rights to Stephanie Soares, who was selected by the Washington Mystics at No. 4 after playing only 13 games at Iowa State due to injury. She will miss the season.

The Wings gave Washington future first- and second-round picks, which could be massive given the talent coming into the league in the next few years. They turned around and added Connecticut guard Lou Lopez Sénéchal with the No. 5 pick and another star tournament guard in Maryland’s Abby Meyers at No. 11. At No. 19, it was Ashley Joens (Iowa State) and at No. 31, Paige Robinson out of Illinois State.

All of these picks are not going to stick around a roster that has to sit at 12 players, maximum. They added wing Diamond DeShields and forward Natasha Howard in trades to bolster their starting lineup around Arike Ogunbowale and Satou Sabally. All this talent sounds great, but there is nowhere for them to go.

Winners: Sénéchal and Meyers

Sénéchal and Meyers were transfers who played key roles on their new teams and reaped the benefits on draft night.

Sénéchal has lived in Mexico, France and Ireland and doesn’t have the traditional route to the WNBA. She transferred to UConn after four years at Fairfield thinking she would be a reserve on a star-studded team destined for a national championship game. Instead, she had to play starter minutes at a high level when Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd missed time. Sénéchal averaged 15.5 points shooting 47.6%, including 44% from 3, and rose up the draft rankings throughout the season. Even so, going No. 5 was a surprise. The difficulty now will be sticking to the roster.

Lou Lopez Sénéchal poses for a photo with WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert after being drafted fifth overall by the Dallas Wings during WNBA Draft 2023 at Spring Studios in New York City on April 10, 2023. (Vincent Carchietta/USA TODAY Sports)

Her story is also a win for players who start at mid-majors, especially as the transfer portal turns college recruiting into a professional free agency. There may be more players like her moving from small school to big and earning the training camp spot.

“I hope to inspire a lot of other players from mid-major schools, that nothing is impossible,” she said. “As cliché as it sounds, it’s very true if you put the work in and if you believe. People are always going to give you opportunities, like UConn did for one year. Even if you’re at a mid-major school, you can always reach higher.”

Meyers transferred to Maryland out of Princeton knowing she would play key minutes. She averaged 14.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game. Her individual efforts nearly lifted Maryland through the NCAA tournament and hearing her name at No. 11 was the first big surprise of the night as she was not in attendance. Unlike those selected below the first round, she was able to hear her name called.

Winner: What might come next

Soares, a 6-foot-6 center/forward, also has an incredible story as a former two-time NAIA Player of the Year at The Master’s University. She played only 13 games at Iowa State before tearing her ACL and having to miss the rest of the season. The NCAA did not grant her a waiver to continue playing at the school next season.

To be a lottery pick after all of that is quite the jump. She will not play the 2023 WNBA season because of that injury, and given the small rosters she may never. But to be drafted is a huge deal beyond simply playing professionally.

Soares said on the pre-draft orange carpet she enjoys working with kids and would love to use her platform to give back to those in her home of Sao Paulo, Brazil, where she competes on the national team.

“I think in the future I kind of want to build a facility back in Brazil and help support different kids,” she said. “Teach basketball with training, personal training, whatever they need. We’ve got to give back to the community and that’s just a great way that we can do that.”

The importance of being drafted, and having people hear your name called, goes beyond playing.