WNBA Draft Day arrives, but Phoenix Mercury’s splash already made in Kahleah Copper trade

Kahleah Copper’s arrival gives the Phoenix Mercury a proven star, at the expense of their top draft pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – The 2024 WNBA Draft is garnering plenty of excitement off the heels of record-high viewership from the 2024 Women’s NCAA Final Four, but the Phoenix Mercury will not participate in much of the action.

The NCAA Championship game April 7 drew 18.7 million viewers –nearly four million more viewers than the men’s championship – and the momentum keeps rolling Monday with the 2024 WNBA Draft.

The NCAA Tournament interest was fueled by the success of Iowa star Caitlin Clark, who is expected to go No. 1 to the Indiana Fever in today’s draft. But there were other generational stars in the tournament who also will be among the top players in today’s draft, including Stanford forward Cameron Brink, South Carolina center Kamilla Cardoso, Connecticut forward Aailiya Edwards and Louisiana State center Angel Reese.

It was supposed to be a big day for the Phoenix Mercury, too. However, the Mercury made their splash before the draft, packaging the No. 3 overall pick in a deal to land 2021 WNBA Finals MVP guard Kahleah Copper of the Chicago Sky.

Now the organization holds only two picks, both in the third round of the three-round draft.

On Feb. 6, the Mercury acquired Copper and forward Morgan Bertsch from the Sky for the No. 3 pick, a 2025 second-round pick, a 2026 first-round pick and forwards Michaela Onyenwere and Brianna Turner. Ten days later, UConn star guard Paige Bueckers announced she was returning to school for her senior season.

If Bueckers declared for the draft, she would have likely been the third pick. Instead, the Mercury obtained a proven guard in Copper, who averaged a career-high 18.7 points per game last season.

With Bueckers returning to college for her senior year, the third overall pick is up in the air. Clark, the all-time leading scorer in college basketball history, is all but guaranteed to be the first pick to the Fever, but the rest of the order is a little more uncertain.

Not only is Clark one of the greatest collegiate basketball players of all time with a record 3,951 points, but she is also extremely marketable, as evidenced by the ratings her games receive and the sponsorships she landed while in college with State Farm and Nike.

Hall of Fame player and current ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo still believes Brink will most likely be the second pick, going to the Los Angeles Sparks, but she also believes Cardoso has played her way into the conversation for the No. 2 pick.

“A lot of people have been talking about her ability to run the floor as a 6-foot-7 post player and her relentlessness in doing it in every single possession,” Lobo said. “She’s very good at passing out of double teams. She’s a very good rim protector on the interior. I think especially the effort with which she played over the last three or four weeks of the season really opened a lot of people’s eyes. Before that, was she going to be a lottery pick? Most likely yes, but certainly solidified her position in the top four and potentially in the top two or three.”

Cardoso started her collegiate career at Syracuse and did not start any games in her first two seasons with South Carolina, but she became the best player for a Gamecocks squad that finished the 2023-24 season as undefeated champions at 38-0, defeating Clark and the Hawkeyes in the national championship finale.

The Sky already have a dependable center with Elizabeth Williams, who averaged 8.6 points and 5.8 rebounds last year, but Cardoso is four inches taller and would give the team one of the most intimidating post presences in the WNBA. Chicago general manager Jeff Pagliocca was asked Thursday about Cardoso and spoke about her in glowing terms.

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“We’ve done a lot of scouting there,” Pagliocca said. “A very nice player. Good size, good athlete (and) a winner. Obviously has significant defensive traits already in place and can rebound. Looks like a high-character player as well. I say that anybody that ends up with a true five with a lot of room to grow is absolutely putting themselves in a good position for the future.”

Cardoso makes sense for the Sky, but it would not be as smooth of a fit if the Mercury had the pick. Phoenix re-signed center Brittney Griner on April 2, so having two centers who primarily work in the paint would be counterintuitive to the pace-and-space game basketball evolved into over the years.

A better fit at No. 3 with Griner and some of the Phoenix guards would have been Tennessee forward Rickea Jackson. The Mercury are very guard-heavy with the additions of Copper and Natasha Cloud to go with returners Diana Taurasi and Sophie Cunningham, so the team’s biggest need is a forward.

Jackson could have provided the Mercury with depth at the forward position after averaging 20.2 points per game for the Volunteers. She did not have much of a chance to make a name for herself in the tournament after Tennessee lost in the second round, but ESPN basketball analyst Andraya Carter predicts she can be even better at the next level.

“She can make post moves. She can make guard moves,” said Carter, a former Tennessee player from 2012-16. “She’s so versatile and she has the ability to hit tough shots, so I think her ability to do that at times at Tennessee. She was the only option sometimes for the Lady Vols — to my angst at times. For her to be on a professional floor with defensive three seconds (in the paint) and players around her where she can have space to operate, I could see her hitting some of those tough shots and being aggressive at moments where she needs to.”

The 2024 draft class is deep with the likes of UConn’s Edwards, Ohio State guard Jacy Sheldon and LSU’s Reese also expected to go in the top 10.

However, the Mercury will not get to pick any of them unless they trade back into the first round.

Phoenix is rolling with its all-in strategy in what could be Taurasi’s final season, which was the motivation behind the Copper trade. The Mercury only have one first-round pick in the next three drafts and do not have a second-round pick this year, so the time is now to win after a disappointing 9-31 record last season.

Phoenix has the 25th and 29th overall picks, both in the third round, and there is no guarantee players taken that low will make the roster. There are only 12 WNBA teams that can have up to 12 players each, so those 144 potential roster spots fill up quickly and may not leave much room for players selected late in the draft.

Lobo said that’s just the reality of the league.

“The hardest part of this conversation every year is that second and third-round picks have a really hard time making WNBA rosters,” Lobo said. “Certain first-round picks that go late have hard times making WNBA rosters. We talk about a league of 144 (players), (but) it’s not a league of 144. Most of these teams – or at least many of these teams – only carry 11 players and maybe by the end of the season they can carry a 12th.

“I can’t overstate (that) this is the hardest league to make a roster spot. Draft night is really exciting and we don’t want to necessarily talk about how hard it is on draft night because the second and third-rounders just had their dreams come true.

“It’s hard, and we’ve even seen in recent years first-round picks who aren’t able to stick their rookie year. It’s tough to find that diamond in the rough who might make a roster in the second and third round.”

Justin de Haas(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.