Thinking of Monday's WNBA draft (ESPN2 and ESPN3, 2 p.m. ET), the image that keeps coming to mind is that of a Batman adversary, the Riddler. You know, the guy in the suit covered with question marks.
Admittedly, every year this exercise in talent dispersal has its undercurrent of uncertainty. This time, though, it feels as if that current is so strong, it could easily pull you down and keep you there.
For the professional evaluators of WNBA hopefuls, this draft is a real head-scratcher. For the rest of us, trying to predict it is like rolling dice, in the dark, at the edge of a cliff. Figuratively, of course: Nobody who has done a mock draft will be surprised in the least to see it, resultswise, go tumbling right over the edge.
"I think [the draft] is going to be very subjective," said Cheryl Reeve, coach of the defending champion Minnesota Lynx. Meaning even the experts might feel like they're essentially throwing darts.
This uncertainty is not just with the order of the draft but also applies to virtually all the prospective draftees. There's a least one big question with most of them.
Is she a good-enough shooter? Is she mentally tough enough? What is her pro position, as opposed to what she played in college? Can she guard at that position in the pros? Is she reliable? Does she have a pro-level standout skill? Will she disrupt team chemistry? Is she durable? Has she topped out on potential already? Is she really a winner?
There have been "eh" drafts before. But probably because it feels like there's so much "eh" in this one -- especially when looking ahead to 2013 -- that 2012 seems pretty vague, if you will.
Everyone should agree, though, there is a single sure thing: Stanford forward Nneka Ogwumike will be the top pick and appears headed to success in the league. Athletically, skillwise, mentally and emotionally, she's the complete package ready to step into a pro's shoes comfortably and effectively.
In the WNBA's previous 15 seasons, we've seen a few "plot" developments from various teams that were as bizarre as something out of a David Lynch movie. But, surely, the Los Angeles Sparks won't do anything weird at No. 1, right? Big Sis will head south to the city you can overlook from Mulholland Drive.
Who will follow Nneka? I wouldn't wager half the semismashed granola bar in my backpack -- let alone an exorbitant amount of money like, say, a quarter -- on the order of even the next four names called after hers. Let alone the next 11.
In January, Seattle traded with Chicago to get the No. 2 draft pick, as the Storm's Brian Agler hedged his bets on the possibility that one or more of this college season's junior superstars who were eligible to leave early would do so. But Baylor's Brittney Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne and Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins all are staying put. (And, by the way, the reason those three are so "exciting" as pro prospects is that they do have those very obvious skills/attributes that make them stand out.)
Which means that the Storm will pick let's hear it for the question marks again. Since Agler gave up 6-foot-2 veteran Swin Cash, he'd like to get a reasonable facsimile of her in the draft. But is there one?
Tennessee's 6-2 Shekinna Stricklen physically has all the tools, but does she have Cash's ferocious drive to win? Cash won two NCAA titles in college, and her "winner" status has followed her through pro/international ball. Stricklen and her Tennessee teammate Glory Johnson didn't make it to the Final Four in their careers. But is that really a fair gauge for their pro potential?
Then again, that's not the only question about those two players. With Stricklen, there's the issue of whether she can be consistent enough using the talent she has.
The 6-3 Johnson, on the other hand, has the more evident and reliable "motor": She has a grinder's heart in a thoroughbred's body and is as breathtaking a pure athlete as there is in this group of prospects. The big question with her: Does she have that one offensive skill that sets her apart at the next level?
Frankly, I'm bullish on GloJo because, to me, her athleticism and intensity make up for the question mark. Especially in this year's draft. But as Reeve said, it's very subjective. Might Agler go instead with someone who could be very versatile, but not at Cash's size/position? Such as 5-11 Miami guard Shenise Johnson?
Wednesday, the WNBA had its annual pre-draft conference call with a few coaches and prospects, and it was as upbeat but unenlightening as usual. The kids -- Ogwumike, UConn guard Tiffany Hayes, Ohio State's Samantha Prahalis and Notre Dame's Devereaux Peters -- all said they are excited but not especially nervous, and will be happy to go wherever the draft winds carry them.
The coaches -- Agler, Reeve and Tulsa's Gary Kloppenburg -- tried to be as helpful as possible to media grasping for clues about assessing the draft prospects without actually giving away anything they plan to do, of course.
Hayes, Prahalis and Peters are all examples of the questions pro teams are facing. Hayes has the "inconsistent" tag but also the UConn pedigree. It has been a proven commodity in several Huskies in the WNBA, both stars and reserves. Whatever Hayes' flaws, if she falls very far in this draft's first round, that's just dumb.
Prahalis has a few question marks around her, one of them being her temperament. But to her credit, that has improved. And she has court vision/scoring ability in a league in which many teams always seem in need of a real point guard who also can put up points.
Peters had the knee injuries that sidelined her early in her career, but players with one or more ACLs have gone on to good pro careers. Are her defense and rebounding ability enough to make teams believe that she's a good risk?
When asked about how they project college players to mature as pros, Agler and Reeve both pointed out ways that that evaluation was very different from how a college coach might evaluate high school kids.
Agler highlighted that an incoming college recruit is competing with and against people close to her own age. Once in the pros, though, a player has jumped into a talent pool that has far more depth in age/experience.
"There's many more players that come in than retire [each year]," Agler said. "Probably in some places the biggest positive influence on a young player making the team is the amount of money they're going to be asked to take from the salary cap. That helps them in a lot of ways.
"There are players in this draft that will make rosters. It will be very difficult and demanding on them to play a significant role right off the bat."
In other words, sometimes it pays to be "cheap" labor, but it also means doing a lot of grunt work. And part of the pro reality is that some people will be drafted just to fill in for what teams need in training camps, since so many veteran players report late from overseas. That's kind of the sports equivalent of being a crash-test dummy, but it's at least a foot in the door. It might lead to something down the line in the WNBA, or it might not.
Reeve added that although a college coach can opt to take four years to develop a "project" type of prep recruit, the pro coach/GM can't wait nearly that long for someone to pan out. Four years? A player needs to make an impression in four days (or fewer) if she hopes to secure a roster spot.
However, there's quite a big difference between getting a WNBA job and then truly coming into your own as a pro. The latter usually is a longer process, and coaches realize that, too.
"It takes oftentimes three or four or five years," said Reeve, who could point to the Lynx's Seimone Augustus as an example of a supertalented player who grew into being a winner. "It's so situational, whether you have time to wait.
"High school to college, there's a greater margin for error. [Coaches] can take a chance and put the time in and let that player blossom. When you go from college to pro you've got to be pretty darn close in your evaluation. These picks are all meaningful, and you hope that they develop into that player you anticipated."
Realistically, though, the "meaningfulness" of picks starts diminishing quickly, even in the best of drafts. We'll toss in this caveat: There are always those examples of players taken in the second or third rounds who stick.
"We've seen in our league surprises on both sides," Reeve said. "Maybe a player that got drafted lower that came on to be a pretty darn good player."
Indeed, but they are exceptions. For the most part, it's not the picks from the first round, but from just the first half of the first round that produce players who contribute a lot and stay awhile in the WNBA.
Projectionwise, that has probably never been truer than it is for this draft. Hope springs eternal, as it should, but that doesn't mean it flows very far before it dries up. For better or worse, the questions get answered.