UConn's Loss the WNBA's Gain: graduating from historic college streak to the next level
111 games in a row. Wow. The UConn Huskies’ record-shattering winning streak was a showcase for the resilience, consistence and dominance Geno Auriemma’s program has long been known for. Following Mississippi State’s shocking buzzer beater, the media offered up well-deserved eulogies to the streak that rewrote NCAA record books. However, for a program that is no stranger to historic streaks (and the championship rings that come with them) the accolades are not the final epitaph on this team’s legacy.
League history is peppered with prominent Huskies: from 2017 Naismith Hall of Fame inductee Rebecca Lobo to Geno’s one name wonders - Sue, Diana and Maya (Bird, Taurasi and Moore, of course). Players have left the bubble of bucolic Storrs and gone on to perform at the sport’s highest level. The stars have won league MVPs and been named to countless All-Star teams but just as notably, the program has produced dozens of quality role players. At the start of the 2017 season, more than 10% of the 144 players suiting up carry the UConn pedigree. For five of the young women involved in the 867 day-long magical ride, the WNBA represents a new chapter, a new challenge to conquer in their basketball careers.
In April 2016, Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck were the first three rookies drafted, the first trio of college teammates ever selected at the top of the WNBA draft. For these girls, unchartered duplication was just par for the course. They led the Huskies to the first 75 wins of the streak and 4 successive championships. FiveThirtyEight rightfully called their reign “the Breanna Stewart Era” comparing the 6’4 Forward’s dominant skillset to Kevin Durant. Coach Auriemma, opposing scouts and even the Warriors star himself admire the similarities in her multi - positional versatility, big man handles and elite range. However, Durant can’t claim the record four Most Outstanding Player of the Year awards ‘Stewie’ won. Not to be outdone, Jefferson and Tuck were twice named to the NCAA All-Tournament Team. Jefferson was also named the National Defensive Player of the Year and was a two time All-American.
Since leaving school, these accolades don’t carry any weight at the next level. How have these classmates forged in the WNBA?
Any questioning of Stewart’s adjustment to the professional ranks can be summed up by the end-of -season WNBA.Com article asking, “Did Breanna Stewart Have the Best Rookie Season Ever?”
It’s not clickbait, it’s an honest debate. Put simply, Stewart had a fantastic rookie season. She joined Uconn alumni Sue Bird and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (see below) on a Seattle Storm team that hadn’t made the playoffs since 2013. Coming into the season, She quickly became a team leader, dominating the front court and establishing herself as a franchise cornerstone while returning the Storm to postseason play.
On Offense: She scored 18.3 ppg, the sixth highest average in the league. In her debut, she scored 23 points, and went on to score 20+ 14 times. The team relied on her for offense and led the team in scoring 17 times. On June 28th, she dropped 38 on Atlanta, the second most in franchise history. She averaged 3.4 assists a game, even while Bird was having an elite year as the team’s primary distributor.
On Defense? Stewie finished second for Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 9.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks per game. Stewart was historically efficient, finishing her rookie campaign with the highest plus/minus rating in the league.
It’s pointless strictly comparing her to the ’16 draft class: She swept all four Rookie of the Month awards and came within one vote of unanimously winning Rookie of the Year. She led all rookies in points, rebounds, blocks, free throws and three pointers.
When compared to the rest of the league, her performance is just as impressive. Finishing in the top 10 for points (6th), rebounds (2nd) and blocks (3rd) earned her sixth place in MVP voting. She was the third player in league history to average 15 points, 5 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block, 1 steal per game for a complete season. She is less jack-of-all-trades and more elite-at-all-trades. Put simply, Stewart can expect to be a perennial all-star while leading her team (yes, it’s her team now) to the playoffs annually. Stewart may have filled up her trophy case during her college days but it’s time to make some room for a promising career filled with WNBA hardware.
Following the much-anticipated draft lottery, the Dallas native was selected 2nd overall by the San Antonio Stars. Despite returning to Texas, the guard walked into wholly unfamiliar territory. Jefferson and the class of ’16 went an unfathomable 151-5 over their four years together. Conversely, San Antonio finished the 2015 season with the league’s worst record leading to the team’s longtime coach Dan Hughes’ resignation. In 2016, the Stars were one of the slowest, least efficient and porous teams in the league. The Stars finished with a dismal final record of 7-27, with Jefferson losing more games in her first season as a pro than she had lost since her sophomore year of high school combined.
The bright spot of the floundering season was that the 5’7 Jefferson gained valuable playing time. She averaged 30.1 minutes a game, 2ndmost of all rookies (behind Stewart). She adapted to the professional game quickly, displaying good court vision and keeping up with the increased tempo. UConn’s all-time leader in assists continued to distribute the ball aggressively, leading all rookies in assists. After top scorer Kayla Mcbride broke her foot in July, Jefferson was forced to take on more offensive responsibility. Jefferson adjusted to the larger role well, seeing an increase in scoring, three-point shooting and assists after the Olympic break. For the season, Jefferson averaged 13.9 ppg along with 4.2 assists (7th in the league) earning a spot on the All-Rookie team.
While the drastic losing must be tough to swallow, Jefferson should consider her rookie year a success. She has shown that she can handle WNBA defenses and she has the keen awareness to be a top tier field general. Mcbride is expected to return to full strength and the team has spent the off-season acquiring assets most notably the 2017 #1 overall pick Kelsey Plum. Jefferson and Plum will be a promising backcourt that should provide San Antonio a blueprint back to respectability.
As the third overall pick in the 2016 Draft, Morgan Tuck also had a homecoming of sorts. Drafted by the Connecticut Sun, she moved just 30 miles south of Storrs to Uncasville and Mohegan Sun.
She was drafted by a franchise in flux, having missed the playoffs three years in a row. The Sun expected 2014 Rookie of the Year Chiney Ogwumike to lead a powerful frontcourt but the power forward has struggled to stay on the court. A knee injury caused her to miss the entire 2015 season and a limited ’16 season. This past winter, she suffered an Achilles injury while playing in China and surgery will likely keep her out the entire upcoming season. Drafting Tuck and scorer Rachel Banham with consecutive first round picks, and Jonquel Jones at #6 offered hope for a young nucleus.
As Ogwumike regained strength throughout the 2016 season, the team began to mesh. Known for her basketball IQ and low post skills, Tuck played well behind versatile veteran Camille Little, averaging 7 points and 2.7 rebounds in 16 minutes a game off the bench. Her season ended catastrophically when she suffered a severe left knee injury at the end of August. Tuck missed most of her sophomore year at UConn with a right knee injury. Though she was granted an additional year of eligibility because of it, she decided to go pro in 2016 because “she didn’t know how many years she had left to play on her knees.” The team knew about Tuck’s medical red flags before the draft but the injury, albeit to her other knee, raises an additional question mark about her long-term viability.
2017 is an important year for Tuck and the Sun. Tuck had originally planned on playing overseas in the offseason but spent her winter rehabbing her knee. She stayed in Connecticut to train, occasionally filling in to broadcast UConn games. The team has since dealt Little, hoping Tuck will return in good health and take her place in the starting lineup. With Ogwimike out for the year, the team’s pace should create more scoring opportunities for Tuck. If Tuck can stay on the court, she has a golden opportunity to carve out a larger role for herself on a team hoping to see healthy progression.
Entering the 2015 draft, Kiah Stokes was shrouded in relative mystery, uncommon for any UConn product. Known for her defensive prowess, the 6’3 Center was part of the championship frontcourt along with Stewart and Tuck. Playing in such a formidable offense however, left Stokes with the lowest offensive usage rate for a Center in WNBA draft history. The New York Liberty chose the defensive stalwart with the 11th pick in the first round hoping Stokes could emerge out of Stewart’s shadow as a formidable two-way player/ Coach Bill Laimbeer, known for his bruising defense in the NBA, called the pick “the steal of the draft.”
Playing alongside Husky legend and 2016z MVP runner up Tina Charles, Stokes makes up a frontcourt that sets up the Liberty to be perennial contenders. She is a prolific rebounder, finishing the 2016 season with 7.4 boards a game, the 7th most in the league. Averaging more than one and half blocks a game, her 105 career blocks already rank 5th all time for the original franchise. With Stokes anchoring the defense, the Liberty limited opponents to the lowest field goal percentage in the league. While she wasn’t a starter, she finished the
Offensively, Stokes has revealed herself to be a useful player for a team that finished with the best record in the conference. Her increase in offensive rebounds has led to a direct increase in efficiency. Before a hip injury ended her regular season in late August, she was averaging 6.9 points a game, up from 5.8 as a rookie.
No stranger to postseason pressure, Stokes had one of the best games in her young career in Game 1 of the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, scoring a career high 21 points. The playoffs marked her return from injury one year later, as she took the court to face the Phoenix Mercury once again. A month of rust forced Stokes to play only 10 minutes as the Liberty lost in the new single elimination playoff format.
A winter playing in Turkey for Beskitas has Stokes in game shape for the new season. The fleeting trade rumors involving the first overall draft pick show that the league has noticed Stokes’ potential. She is already one of the league’s best on the defensive end. She has proven that she can fill up the box score on both sides of the ball. If she continues to improve her scoring, Stokes’ third season could produce top stats, a bright future for the Liberty and maybe even All Star consideration.first
The Seattle Storm have high expectations for their nucleus of UConn stars to take the team far this season. The #3 pick in the 2015 draft isn't a star like Stewart and Bird, but Does that nucleaus include Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis?
Transitioning to the pros has been difficult for the sharp-shooter. She was drafted to be a key reserve for the STorm. KML left UConn as the NCAA's all time leader in three pointers. In her first year with the Storm, she struggled With consistency. she saw the court only 12 minutes a game, and her efficiency plummet to 28.1% from beyond the arch. In her sophomore season, Her scoring dipped slightly from 5.8 to 5.2 points per game but that doesn't tell the full story. The streaky scorer Improved from downtown, shooting a respectable 35.4. She closed out the regular season scoring 16 on 4/6 threes, proved she could be a capable if not dangerous reserve wing
Mosqueda-Lewis spent once again spent the offseason playing in France, putting up 13.1 a game for CHARLEVILLE-MÉZIÈRES. As a three point shooting specialist in a league that demands more versatility, KML must continue to improve her shooting percentage if she wants to carve out a role on the stacked Seattle roster.
Despite battling through injuries for her first three years at Connecticut, Saniya Chong graduated the winningest player in NCAA history. In the vacuum of leadership left by Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck, Chong had a breakout senior year for an unusually young UConn team. The point guard started 31 games and was 4th in the country with a 3.3 assist/turnover ratio. Her championship pedigree and basketball IQ, often praised by Auriemma, convinced the cellar dwelling Dallas Wings to select he with the 26th pick in last month’s draft. This was the 11thconsecutive year a Husky has been drafted. As a third round pick, a roster spot for the 5th rookie selected by Dallas, and the 5th guard on the depth chart was not guaranteed. She impressed her coaches throughout preseason and made the final roster. As a glue guy on such an extraordinarily young team, Chong should see some playing time in her rookie season.