Last month, 36 talented players made the transition from college glory to the big leagues during the 2019 WNBA Draft. From the Chicago Sky’s 4th overall selection of UConn sharpshooter Katie Lou Samuelson to the Los Angeles Sparks addition of Baylor big Kalani Brown, this year’s draft class was nothing less than spectacular – offering a glimpse into what will surely be an amazing summer of competition.
Many of these ladies will make their mark throughout the coming season and beyond. But it may be hard for anyone to outshine the five players drafted from Notre Dame, whose passion, versatility and championship level experience could very well leave the biggest impact on the league this year.
It’s safe to say that the Fighting Irish made a statement early in the draft, with junior guard Jackie Young going No. 1 overall to the Las Vegas Aces. Notre Dame’s remaining starters would soon follow: Arike Ogunbowale (Dallas Wings; 1st Round/5th Overall); Brianna Turner (Acquired by the Phoenix Mercury; 1st Round/11th Overall in a trade with the Atlanta Dream); Jessica Shepard (Minnesota Lynx; 2nd Round/16th Overall); and Marina Mabrey (Los Angeles Sparks; 2nd Round/19th Overall). With that, Notre Dame became the first team to have all five starters drafted to the WNBA, demonstrating that the collective talent nurtured under legendary Irish head coach, Muffet McGraw, is in high demand on the professional level.
And rightfully so.
At the forefront of the equation, Jackie Young is the perfect addition to the youthful Aces, who finished the 2018 season with a meager 14-20 record. An excellent shooter, passer and defender, she adds depth to a roster that already includes the 2017 No.1 pick Kelsey Plum and last year’s Rookie of the Year A’ja Wilson, in addition to fellow Irish alum Kayla McBride. At 6-foot, Young brings size that should bolster the Aces defensive presence, as could her offensive proficiency and ability to play multiple positions on the floor. As the most versatile player in this year’s draft, it’s reasonable to surmise that Young will thrive in the limelight and is destined for WNBA stardom. And it will be a treat to watch.
Perhaps no one is better acclimated with the spotlight than Young’s former teammate Arike Ogunbowale, a jump shooting clinician with a Kobe Bryant-esque “Mamba Mentality”. As the hero of the 2018 NCAA Tournament, where she hit not one, but two buzzer beaters in both the semifinal and championship games (the latter won the Irish their second ever national title), Ogunbowale is primed and ready to kick off her career as a guard for the Wings. And the timing couldn’t be better.
All-star center Liz Cambage, the WNBA’s leading scorer last year, requested a trade from the Wings in January – though she has yet to be dealt to another team. Dallas will also be without its other star, Notre Dame legend Skylar Diggins-Smith, who is currently with child. In the absence of the Wings’ two biggest faces, will Ogunbowale seize the spotlight once again, but this time as a WNBA rookie? Most likely yes, but only time will tell.
Without question, Young and Ogunbowale are among the draft’s most notable names – but the remaining Lady Irish cannot be ignored, nor should they be underestimated. Case in point: 6-foot-4 big Jessica Shepard, a beast machine of a rebounder with the ability to drain the mid-range jump shot, dominate the paint and distribute the ball with ease. Foreseeably, Shepard’s size, strength, skill and agility will become a collective asset for the Lynx, and could anchor the organization in the absence of its star Maya Moore, who will sit out the 2019 season to work in the ministry.
Similarly we have Brianna Turner, Notre Dame’s all-time leading rebounder and shot blocker. A 6-foot-3 power forward with a longer than life wingspan, Turner boasts proven defensive prowess that will likely pose problems for opposing offenses – especially if she’s paired with Mercury teammate and fellow shot blocker, Brittney Griner. As a frontcourt duo, Turner and Griner could wreak havoc for Phoenix on the defensive end, while also providing a much needed boost in critical areas like rebounding, where the Mercury finished third-worst in the WNBA in 2018.
And last but not least, there’s Marina Mabrey. A guard of all guards. A deadly shooter with the perfect combination of skill and heart – and the Sparks are lucky to have her.
With the recent acquisition of all-star forward Chiney Ogwumike, Los Angeles is an overwhelming title favorite – and Mabrey is the champion of all champions that can help get it done. With lethal range from beyond the arc, as well as the capacity to switch between the point and two guard positions, Mabrey can create vital floor spacing for crafty bigs like Candace Parker, and Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike – giving them substantial room to go to work on the interior. She’s also a scrappy defender who will protect the perimeter at all costs. And when it matters the most, Mabrey offers a fiery, competitive zeal that, at the end of the day, could easily be the spark the Sparks will need to win it all.
And I can’t wait to watch it all unfold.