Is presumptive No. 1 pick Aliyah Boston the player who will lead the Indiana Fever back to contention?
Every playoff game Indiana has ever played featured franchise icon Tamika Catchings, who retired in 2016. In the eight seasons the Fever have played without Catchings, including 2001 when she sat out what would have been her professional debut due to an ACL tear, the team has never won even 40% of its games.
In its sixth consecutive trip to the lottery, Indiana finally landed the top pick and a chance to select Boston, who led South Carolina Gamecocks to the 2022 national championship and played on teams that went a combined 129-9 in her four years in Columbia.
Boston's college coach, WNBA legend Dawn Staley, believes she will turn things around.
"She is exactly what the Fever needs," Staley said recently. "Whatever challenges that the Fever have had in the past, there are things with Aliyah they will never have to worry about. Like coming in with an incredible example of what a professional should look like, even as a rookie. She will elevate even their most veteran player."
Ahead of Monday's WNBA draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App), let's dig into the numbers and what they say about Boston's potential to become a WNBA star.
Two pools of No. 1 picks
Since 2010, the first year for which I have complete WNBA projections for college players, we can divide the No. 1 picks into two pools based on their projected individual net rating as a rookie by my wins above replacement player metric. Boston falls in the middle of those two pools.
Generally, the top-rated prospects were considered likely franchise players in the WNBA. With the notable exception of Nneka Ogwumike, the only MVP from the lower-rated group thus far, those prospects were considered less certain WNBA stars.
Either way, having the No. 1 pick is a boon for Indiana. Besides Ogwumike, Jewell Loyd and Kelsey Plum have developed into All-WNBA selections and key contributors to recent championship teams -- as was Jackie Young for the 2022 Las Vegas Aces -- while Rhyne Howard has plenty of time to do so after winning Rookie of the Year last season.
Still, there's a divide between even players as good as Loyd and Plum and the No. 1 picks their teams added the following year -- Stewart and Wilson, both MVPs who anchored those title winners. Based on her projection, it's unclear to which of those groups Boston belongs.
Better spacing, higher usage?
Part of the reason Boston's scoring dropped as a senior is that her share of the Gamecocks' offense did, too. After finishing 26% of the team's plays in 2021-22, Boston saw that decline to 21% this past season -- lowest among No. 1 picks during their final college season since Sue Bird in 2001-02.
And yet, as I wrote about Sabrina Ionescu ahead of the 2020 draft, that might not be such a bad thing.
Higher-usage stars on less talented teams have sometimes had a more difficult time adapting to the WNBA than lower-usage prospects on dominant teams, many of whom actually increased their share of the offense as rookies.
Boston in particular is likely to increase her usage rate because of the better spacing she'll enjoy in the WNBA. Although Friday's loss to Iowa in the Final Four that saw the Hawkeyes pack the paint and dare South Carolina's perimeter players to shoot 3-pointers was an extreme example, Boston rarely had much space to work with on a team that ranked No. 306 nationally with 4.4 made 3s per game.
According to Synergy Sports tracking, Boston faced a hard double-team on 23% of her post-up opportunities, as compared to an average of 17% among all players with at least 100 post-ups. Left uncounted, because Synergy doesn't have a category for it, is the number of times defenses sent three players in Boston's direction.
Despite the extra attention, Boston's post-ups led to 1.19 points per play when they resulted in her shooting, going to the free throw line, turning it over or passing to a player who immediately shot. That ranked fifth nationally among players with at least 100 post-up opportunities.
Any WNBA team would provide a shooting upgrade over what Boston experienced in college. All 12 averaged at least 5.4 3-pointers per game last season. Better yet, the Fever have added shooting by dealing for Kristy Wallace and signing Erica Wheeler after finishing 10th in made 3s in 2022 (6.6 per game). Entering training camp, Indiana's players under contract made the fourth-most 3s last season of any WNBA roster.
SEC Now's Steffi Sorensen and Alyssa Lang discuss how Aliyah Boston will impact the WNBA with her strong basketball IQ as she declares for the draft.
Part of the reason No. 1 picks with lower usage rates have succeeded is those players are inevitably providing value in other areas. That's true in Boston's case largely because of her defense. South Carolina finished in the country's top three in HerHoopStats' defensive rating all four years Boston was on campus, leading the nation in this mark each of the last two seasons.
With 6-foot-7 Kamilla Cardoso coming off the bench behind her, Boston wasn't alone in leading the Gamecocks' dominant defense, but she was a key factor in it. Per HerHoopStats, she had the nation's sixth-best individual defensive rating based on box score stats this season, and was No. 1 overall in 2021-22 among players who saw at least 500 minutes of action.
Boston's best attribute -- contesting without fouling -- might come as a surprise to casual women's basketball fans who saw her sit most of the first half Friday with two early fouls. That's more than Boston averaged each of the last two seasons (1.4 per game in 2021-22, 1.6 this year). She will be the eighth WNBA first-round pick since 2010 with a better projected block rate than foul rate, joining a group that has combined for 15 WNBA All-Defensive appearances by five of the seven other players.
Scoring versatility will determine Boston's upside
While Boston should have more room to post up in the WNBA, inevitably more of her offense will come out of the pick-and-roll than at South Carolina. It would be hard for that rate to get much lower. Per Synergy Sports, Boston attempted just nine shots after screening for a pick-and-roll all season, going 3-of-9 on those attempts.
Consider fellow Gamecock and No. 1 pick A'ja Wilson a model for how Boston's game could adjust as a pro. Wilson was only slightly more involved in the pick-and-roll game as a senior in college, attempting 20 shots off her screens. As a WNBA rookie, that jumped to 81 attempts. By last season, pick-and-roll was the primary source of Wilson's offense, accounting for 132 shots as compared to just 98 on post-ups.
Part of that development for Wilson was expanding her range, something Boston must also do to maximize her WNBA value. Having attempted just two 3-pointers in her first four WNBA seasons, Wilson made 31 last year at a 37% clip, a key factor in her most efficient season as a scorer.
By contrast to Wilson, Boston has been more willing to let fly from the perimeter in college. She attempted 128 3-pointers at South Carolina, making just 24%. There's reason to believe Boston is capable of improving her long-range accuracy. She shot 76% on free throws in college, often a leading indicator of 3-point success, as compared to 72% for Wilson.
From day one, Boston's ability to dominate the paint should make her a solid contributor. Her chances of becoming the star who helps the Fever get back to the playoffs without Catchings will depend in large part on how much Boston can expand her offensive repertoire in the WNBA.