'The buzz is higher than ever': WNBA first league to test virtual draft Friday night

Napheesa Collier #24 of the Minnesota Lynx shoots against Allie Quigley #14 of the Chicago Sky during their game at Target Center on May 25, 2019 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Lynx defeated the Sky 89-71. (Photo by Sam Wasson/Getty Images)

Sports around the world are shut down and most of us are stuck at home, but the WNBA has the chance to be in the national spotlight Friday night.

The league is hosting its annual draft, for a full two hours, on ESPN. Due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it will be done with all prospects and team officials in remote locations, which for a majority of them is at their homes. Interviews will be done through Zoom, or some other form of video or phone conferencing.

We haven’t had sports since the NBA shut down one month ago, and the NCAA Tournament followed soon after. Sports fans are hungry for something, anything live, and the WNBA gets that first chance Friday night. They'll be the first league to debut a virtual draft, with the NFL to follow on April 23. Many eyes will be watching, if nothing else than to get a glimpse for how the NFL Draft might work.

ESPN WNBA reporter Holly Rowe posted a draft preview video on social media on Monday, and within a few hours it had 40,000 views. By late in the afternoon, that number had nearly doubled.

“I feel that the buzz and the excitement is higher than ever and I think it’s mostly because we don’t have sports,” Rowe said. “I’m just excited that people care, the buzz is there and I think at least for me anyway, it’s filling this hole in my heart of no sports right now.”

For college athletes who didn’t get to finish their winter season with the NCAA Tournament, it’s the next chance to have a life-changing moment. Three rounds, 36 total selections and the chance for a professional career to get started.

Prospects and college seniors never got the chance this year to experience March Madness. The NCAA canceled its tournaments due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which also means scouts and WNBA team personnel haven’t gotten to watch the prospects play since the season was canceled. The only evaluations they can do are from old game video, and phone or Zoom conferencing.

The NCAA Tournament is that chance for many to get on the national spotlight, boost their draft stock and get the chance to start a career at the next level. They didn’t get their moment in March Madness, but some will get it when they hear their name called on Friday.

Rebecca Lobo, a former WNBA player who is now an analyst for ESPN, says the draft is one of her favorite events to cover.

“Even though the circumstances are far from ideal and even though none of these players got a chance, especially the seniors, to fulfill their dream for their collegiate career, there still is a dream coming true for some of these women on Friday,” Lobo said. “You get a chance to experience that and be a part of that.”

For the Minnesota Lynx, it’s another chance to add talent and perhaps some depth for the 2020 season, whenever it’s allowed to start. For the second straight year, the Lynx have the No. 6 overall pick after finishing 18-16 last season. With that pick last year, they took UConn star Napheesa Collier.

She made the most of her rookie season, she was Minnesota’s third leading scorer at 13.1 points per game, led the Lynx in minutes at more than 33 per game and scored her career-high, 27 points, in the season-opener. She started all 34 games last season, even if it might not have been an expectation on draft day.

“Our plan wasn’t necessarily to have the No. 6 pick be a starter, it just worked out that way and Collier made the most of an opportunity,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said.

So what will the Lynx do at No. 6? Do they take the best player on the board, or fill a need? Reeve hopes it can be both.

“I think probably our focus every year is regardless of what position we’re drafting in, you want to have the best player available. It’s utopia when the best player available also fills a need,” Reeve said.