The draft is an exciting night for WNBA teams, but while everyone sees the players walk across the stage, hours and hours of work behind the scenes go into every team’s selection. That work starts months in advance, but in the days leading up to the draft everything intensifies. Our Kyle Ratke spent the last few days in the Lynx war room in order to provide this inside look into an exciting and hectic time. For the first time ever, go inside the draft process with Lynx coaches and front office staff and see how the Lynx’s most important draft in recent history came together.
It’s the most-important Lynx draft in more than seven years. It’s too much pressure to say the Lynx need to get it right, but there’s an extra sense of urgency for a franchise who has won four titles since the 2011 season.
It’s pressure they put on themselves. Greatness is fun and gives you rings and parades. But it also adds a great deal of pressure to sustain that greatness. And if history tells us anything, sustaining greatness is hard. It’s almost impossible.
This is a team that realizes it’s in transition, but with the roster the Lynx had – with players like Lindsay Whalen retiring, and the natural aging of Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson, this transition was going to happen at some point.
And for fans saying this team should have started a “rebuild” earlier, puh-lease. This team won the 2017 championship with that core. Were they supposed to immediately blow it up after? Of course not.
The big surprise for the Lynx was that Maya Moore will be sitting out for the 2019 season. Nobody saw that coming, at least externally.
With that being said, this team has its eyes on the future.
Being in the draft room for the first 10 minutes, you realize how unpredictable this draft could be. And the Lynx are a major ingredient of that unpredictability considering they have a league-high five picks.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at the cast of characters you’ll be reading about for the next 5,000 words or so.
Cheryl Reeve: Reeve is the Coach and GM of the Lynx. She’s led this team to four championships and deserves all of the credit she’s gotten. And probably more. I’ve never met someone has the friendliness and humor that Reeve has, but also it feels like she could bite your head off at any time. In these meetings, she’s incredibly open minded, listening to other opinions. But she’s not afraid to say things like, “I’m not sure I agree with that” which means that she definitely does not agree with that.
Shelley Patterson: There’s nobody like Shelley P. She’s wearing slides when I enter the war room on Day 1 and is constantly challenging opinions, more in a devil’s advocate way than a confrontational way. She also mispronounces words in a way that feels like she’s doing so intentionally. I don’t think she is but I’m afraid to ask. Patterson wants a shooter for this team. Badly.
Walt Hopkins: He’s the always-smiling assistant coach. Literally. Always. Smiling. It feels like he should be on a character on a sitcom. The always-happy coworker. He’s well-respected among the players and clearly among the staff. He’s young and eager, but also knowledgeable and hardworking. Not a combination you always see. He’s been with the team for two seasons.
Clare Duwelius: She’s the assistant GM. She started out making travel plans for the team, ordering food and merchandise. While she still does all of those things, along with probably a million other things, her opinion is valued greatly in this room. I’d imagine that’s not the case with other assistant GMs in the league. She recently got a puppy. So that’s fun. I’ve known Clare since my time starting here in 2013.
Plenette Pierson: The former player bringing all the attitude. If Pierson is thinking something, she’ll say it. And it won’t be sugar coated. If she likes someone, you’ll know. If she doesn’t, you’ll know . . . louder. She has inside info on players that only a former player would know. It’s not just about the draft prospects – it’s about current WNBA players who could be traded. Pierson gives background information on the character of certain players. Certainly a very valuable asset.
Paul Swanson: Ah, Swanny. The encyclopedia of basketball knowledge you never know you needed to know. And you might not need to know it, but Swanny knows it. He’s not at the head table, but he’s onlooking. Just a few months ago, Swanny moved on from a flip phone to a smartphone. Players from 1-50 on the big board, Swanny seems to know everything about them. He likely averages less than four hours of sleep a night. He’s a secret weapon that every team would love to have.
Chuck Barta and Kate Taber: Barta is the head trainer for the Lynx and Kate is his assistant. Their input is crucial throughout the draft process. If there’s a tie between two players, Reeve will ask about the injury history and what the chances are that the player is an injury prone player. Kate is constantly on the phone, talking to college team doctors, getting more information about players. They have a 1-4 system. A 1 means the player is completely healthy with barely any injury history. If a player is a 4, you might as well take her off the draft board. Barta and Taber work hand in hand.
Aaron Freeman: Freeman is the team’s PR. You won’t find someone who’s as loved on this team as Freeman. He’s the one who helped coordinate this entire thing. Freeman started out as an intern and worked his way up to a manager within 15 months. Nobody will dispute big things are coming for “Free.”
Monday, 10:48 a.m.
I walk into the room with a welcome from Duwelius.
“What’s up, Ratke?”
I’m nervous and say “good” with sweaty hands and sit down because I’m incredibly weird sometimes.
And then I sit there for the next five hours. My Fitbit tells me to move about 35 times. But the day isn’t boring for even a second.
Nothing is held back. Nobody says something and then goes, “Oh shoot. That reporter-looking guy is in here.”
Within minutes, the group is going through mock draft simulations, with Hopkins moving around magnetic names on a white board. Swanson is rattling off player stats straight from his brain. He has no computer. Just a folded piece of paper that’s been in his pocket for at least a few hours.
Reeve has an iced tea from Starbucks and a tan from spending time at the Final Four in Tampa Bay.
There are talks of Iowa center Megan Gustafson, who had the best collegiate season as far as stats are concerned in 2018-19. But how will her game transition? There is a discussion about where she might land.
The group discusses Notre Dame big Jessica Shepard. Everyone loves her. Will she be available when the Lynx draft at 16, 18 or 20? It seems unlikely, but Reeve is intrigued. There is a zone between pick seven and pick 15 which seems full of promising players that this team likes. Too early to take at six, and too late to snag them at 16.
There are a few trade scenarios that are talked about, but I can’t tell if any of them are close to a sure thing, or just hypotheticals.
Everyone at the table gets input. I’m not sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect everyone to get equal say. I probably should have though considering how Reeve manages her staff.
“We have to teach her how to play defense,” Reeve says about a player projected to go in the middle of the second round.
If there’s anyone who can do that, it’s Reeve.
Patterson and Hopkins are interviewing prospects throughout the day via FaceTime, updating a shared sheet the group has preparing for the draft. Patterson might have accidentally deleted a few cells after updating it once. Judging from the laughs at the table, this isn’t the first time this has happened.
Duwelius fixes it.
Reeve and Patterson maintain a constant back and forth. They aren’t arguing at all even though they don’t have the same opinions. Agreeing to disagree and respecting each other’s opinions are the reason why this has worked for so long.
Maybe. Reeve goes off to chat with GMs around the league (maybe two?), including Bill Laimbeer of the Las Vegas Aces. Reeve and Laimbeer spent time together in Detroit and they remain good friends. Laimbeer is calling and texting throughout the day. It’s hard to tell if they are discussing business or just talking to talk. Probably a combination of the two.
Reeve discusses how difficult this draft is to predict, especially in the middle of the first round.
Swanson: “How would you like to be drafting 12th?
Reeve: “If I just won a championship? I’d love it.”
Patterson gets done with an interview with a player who is slotted to go somewhere in the second round. She comes back somewhat annoyed, declares this player was not prepared at all.
You can tell this news is more disappointing to the group than anything – they want these players to succeed, but they move on quickly.
Reeve misses a call from… guess who? Laimbeer, of course.
Lynx point guard Danielle Robinson, before one of her workouts with Hopkins, comes in the room and glances at the big board. She gives some of her opinions on players. For some reason, nobody asks the writer sitting at the table with a Cheez-It on his shirt what he thinks.
The group closes the four-hour meeting putting together a consensus top-25 ranking of all the draft’s players.
There’s one problem, though . . .
Notre Dame junior guard Jackie Young has two more hours to make a decision on whether or not she’ll declare for the draft. Young is projected to be a top-3 pick and would have a huge impact on the top of the draft.
With the college basketball season ending on Sunday and the draft just three days later, there’s an incredibly tight window for college underclassmen like Young to decide whether to stay in college or skip their senior season to pursue their WNBA dreams.
The group is prepared for any scenario. Throughout the day, they did mock drafts with and without Young. Obviously, with Young in the draft, it would likely bump a player down to the Lynx that they previously thought they wouldn’t be able to get. A few names that are mentioned are Napheesa Collier and Alanna Smith.
We’ll see . . .
Young declares for the 2019 WNBA Draft.
Tuesday, 10:45 a.m.
“It’s so big that she came out. It opens up a lot of options for us.”
Fitting that’s the first thing I hear from Hopkins upon entering the room after Young made her decision to declare for the draft. Young isn’t going to fall to No. 6, but it means someone else that the Lynx didn’t think would will.
There is some talk on foreign players and how they could fit. There could be three picked in this draft, and China’s Han Xu could go in the first round.
Reeve takes a call from KFAN Sports Radio and joins Paul Allen for his 9 a.m. to noon show. I almost tell the group I interned for Allen a few years back. I quickly realize nobody will particularly care.
During that call, Reeve misses a call from owner Glen Taylor. No big deal. She calls him back.
The day before the draft seems to be a big day for agents. Agents are calling the Lynx coaching staff and vice-versa discussing players and where they could go. Any sort of intel here goes a long way. There’s no WNBA Woj to report who could go where.
“This draft is so unpredictable,” Patterson says.
Everyone nods their heads. Yep.
There’s a trade offer on the board, but this happened before I got here or perhaps the night before. It’s a little unclear how far along the trade is. It’s hard to tell if something is about to happen or just under discussion. Things happen fast.
It’s fascinating. Reeve is going through player rankings for the second round and says to the group, “You guys will have to give me input.”
This is so important with this group. With Patterson, Hopkins and Duwelius all traveling throughout the offseason to scout, their information is extremely valuable, especially since there is no WNBA draft combine. Reeve knows that and she always listens to what they have to say.
Communication and trust. I’m going to start taking notes for my own personal relationships with people.
It’s clear that the Lynx are planning to play without Rebekkah Brunson (who is still recovering from concussion-like symptoms), at least for the start of the season and probably longer.
Reeve has a press conference with the Twin Cities media at 12:30 p.m. On our walk over there, I get in a few questions. She reiterates how wild this draft is going to be, but it’s clear she feels comfortable. She says the Young decision was one she expected and that puts the Lynx in a better place.
Reeve tells media members that this might be a five-player draft, which I don’t think Reeve necessarily believes, but it’s coach talk. Everyone knows it, but she has a charm and wit about her that makes her so incredibly popular among the media members.
There’s a question on whether the team will trade up. Reeve said being such a successful franchise, nobody wants to deal with the Lynx. And that may be true, but Reeve also likes playing that narrative. It puts pressure on other teams and if I’m an opposing GM, that’s probably getting in my head. Does it matter who I’m dealing with if it makes my team better? It seems petty to not do a deal with a team based on their past success. But humans are imperfect and that’s what makes sports fun.
She tells the media that Brunson won’t be ready for the start of the season.
The press conference goes on for about 10 minutes. There was a lot of talking, but nothing was really said.
That’s to be expected. Reeve isn’t going to tell us who is No. 1 on her big board, or how she expects the draft to go. A lot can change over the course of 30 hours.
I have to leave in the afternoon for Timberwolves game duties.
I see Duwelius in the hallway later in the afternoon.
“You missed all the action!”
Wednesday, 1 p.m.
We are about four hours away from the draft and the Lynx braintrust feels like they are in a very good place.
To project for trades that could involve future picks, Reeve and her staff go through prospects who could be available next year. With five picks, I’d be surprised if the Lynx keep all their picks. But with picks 16, 18 and 20, the room thinks there’s plenty of value there.
Reeve picks between two cookies on a break. Pierson goes, “that’s the easiest decision you’ll have to make.”
Laimbeer calls. Presumably about the draft and not the new season of “The Good Place.”
(It’s about the draft.)
We start to watch some film on possible late-round picks, focusing in on guards. There are about three or four the Lynx are choosing from and they’ll almost certainly get one of them between Paris Kea, Natisha Hiedeman and Cierra Dillard.
From their intel around the league, the Lynx might just have their dream scenario with Arike Ogunbowale and Collier both projected to be on the board at No. 6. This was something that this room didn’t think was an even remote possibility earlier this week.
Reeve has a pretty good sense on who four of the five top picks will be. There’s a wild card here, though. And that’s Chicago at No. 4. This is kind of fun considering the Sky is run by James Wade, a former Lynx assistant coach. Wade is playing hard to get and isn’t showing his hand. A very interesting dynamic that has everyone on edge a bit.
Regardless, it appears as if either Ogunobwale and/or Collier will be available.
Reeve is trying not to get too excited, knowing things could change.
“This was not a possibility we had . . . I’m trying not to get excited.”
Wednesday, 5:05 p.m.
The work has been done. And now we’re all waiting for the draft to start, which will be in about 30 minutes.
There’s some nervous energy.
Reeve asks if anyone wants Starbucks.
Everyone knows that’s because Reeve wants her third ginormous iced green tea of the day. Robinson orders some sort of pineapple blueberry tea that Hopkins didn’t know existed, but he’s intrigued.
The order is in.
Sylvia Fowles stops by for a bit before going to the Lynx Draft Party at The Pourhouse just down the road.
D-Rob asks if this article is going to be on ESPN. A boy can dream. I told her no. Good chat.
She’s a big fan of the chicken noodle soup and seems to also be a big fan of Collier and Ogunbowale when asked about the two.
Everyone is calm as if a decision has been made, but to my knowledge, no decision has been made if both players fall to six. Maybe they have a private Slack channel.
My hands are starting to sweat.
Totally forgot to tell you that the Lynx team surgeon, Nancy Cummings, has been to a few meetings. Cummings helped me with my broken hand twice over the last three years. I can’t tell if she recognizes me so it’s kind of awkward right now.
SHE RECOGNIZES ME! She grabbed my hand to make sure it was doing OK. Good times! Back to draft talk . . .
Some more nervous energy. Former Lynx GM Roger Griffith was invited and he’s welcomed by everyone. Now retired, Griffith sat on the outside of the circle.
Meanwhile, Swanson is talking about green tea ice cream.
It’s draft time.
The WNBA takes roll call. Duwelius checks in for Minnesota and specifies it will be Reeve making the draft calls.
First overall. Young from Notre Dame. Many people thought Vegas would go with Asia Durr, but this doesn’t really change anything for Minnesota.
Second overall, New York selects Durr.
Third overall, Teaira McCowan to Indiana.
And now, for Chicago, the mystery. What will Wade do with the fourth pick? Nobody knows. There’s only three minutes to decide on picks, so we’ll know shortly.
KATIE LOU SAMUELSON?!!
Now, don’t get me wrong. KLS, we’ll call her that . . . KLS was supposed to be first-round pick, but I don’t know if any other media outlets or experts had her in the top four. Wild Card Wade!
This ensures the Lynx will get their pick of either Ogunbowale or Collier with the sixth-overall pick.
Again, this is all very fast moving. It was hard to get the feeling from the room after each pick. But after the KLS pick, the room was genuinely surprised with a mixture of excitement considering what it meant for them.
Dallas is up at No. 5 . . . Ogunbowale.
Which makes the decision easy for the Lynx. They’ll take Collier. Immediately, Reeve goes, “We got a Swiss Army Knife. She can do everything.”
Generally, having players who can do everything are better than players who can’t. This is what I’ve learned over the years.
Because of the TV delay, there’s about a six-minute stretch before the pick is announced on TV. After it is, Swanson yells, “YEAH!”
This guy is a real hoot.
Rebecca Lobo describes the pick as a “perfect fit” for the Lynx, a team in need of a player like Collier.
She also said that Reeve was probably “doing a happy dance.”
Spoiler: She wasn’t.
Not because she wasn’t happy, surely. But it just wasn’t a dancing atmosphere. Very crowded room. You understand.
Reeve’s phone starts to light up after the pick. It sounds like a potential second-round trade, but again, things are moving incredibly fast.
Notre Dame’s Breanna Turner goes 11thoverall to Atlanta, which is a blow to the Lynx, who badly want Shepard. With four picks before the Lynx pick at 16, this almost certainly guarantees Shepard will be gone. Reeve called Shepard earlier in the week and told her if she was available at 16, she’d be absolutely thrilled.
During all of this, Reeve gets on the phone with Collier to welcome her to Minnesota.
“Welcome, welcome, welcome! . . . We were holding our breaths. We’re really, really excited.”
The most-likely team to take Shepard is the New York Liberty at pick No. 14. Reeve is almost positive they’ll take her.
Curve ball alert. Instead, New York takes China’s Han Xu!
But then there’s Wild Card Wade at No. 15 . . .
He goes with Baylor’s Chloe Jackson.
The whole room applauds and the Lynx get their pick in for Shepard.
“We got two very good basketball players!” Reeve yells.
Her phone lights up again.
It’s Connecticut. The Sun have shown some interest in one of Minnesota’s three second-round picks. Obviously, it wasn’t going to be No. 16 with Shepard on the board. The Lynx have shown interest in Lexie Brown, who was drafted ninth overall just a year ago out of Duke.
While Brown hasn’t found her niche quite yet in the WNBA, getting Brown would give the Lynx a shooter and defender who would likely join the rotation. Plus, the team projects that the player the Lynx are targeting will still be available at No. 20.
The Lynx select Natisha Hiedeman for Connecticut and Reeve immediately calls in the trade.
Then, with pick No. 20, the Lynx select Cierra Dillard out of Buffalo. Dillard is a player the Lynx have targeted all along.
Meanwhile, ESPN is a bit delayed and the network announces the Shepard pick.
“She reminds me of Janel McCarville,” Lobo said.
Hey, we know her!
Reeve calls Shepard.
“Welcome to the Lynx. We are so excited. We are so, so excited.”
Reeve hands the phone to Fowles, who wants to talk to the rook.“Welcome, Jess . . . You know who you’re talking with?”
It’s clear early on that Shepard does not know who she’s talking to. But it’s understandable under a high-pressure situation. Imagine if your dad called you and handed to a guy who might be Peyton Manning. Would you have any idea? Probably not.
Back to Fowles.
“You’re speaking with your new big.”
Freeman has been in the room the whole night, organizing interviews and actually looking cool, calm and collected. Good for Free. He organizes an interview with the Lynx Draft Party.
During that Skype interview with John Focke, one Glen Taylor calls Reeve. Reeve ends the interview a bit early and tells Taylor how excited she was for the picks and that she thinks he and his wife Becky will really like these players on and off the court.
The Lynx end the draft selecting Kenisha Bell from the University of Minnesota. While Bell played for the team that Whalen now coaches at, Reeve made it clear that it wasn’t a favor to take the speedy Bell. In most mock drafts, Bell was projected to go higher. So, actually, it was kind of a steal.
Reeve goes around the whole room and high fives everyone in the room. Some of us have sweaty hands that we can’t control and that’s not our fault.
It’s easy to see why Reeve and her staff are so good at this. The atmosphere was incredibly fun and that’s an easy thing to project when you know you’ve done all of your research. There were fist pumps throughout the night and plenty of smiles. Again, I’m not sure how this was going to go, but this isn’t what I expected.
We get Reeve for one last interview. She thanks us for all of the coverage, and we thank her for allowing us access. Without access, cool content doesn’t have a chance.
What a night.