How 2024 Women’s NCAA Tournament affected WNBA Draft stock for collegiate superstars

Draft hopeful Nika Mühl’s stellar defensive performance in the 2024 Women’s NCAA Tournament catapulted her draft stock and showcased her potential impact in the WNBA. (Photo by Sean Elliot/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

PHOENIX – Just eight days separate the 2024 NCAA Women’s Basketball National Championship game and Monday’s WNBA Draft, meaning players from teams who made it far into the tournament have had just a little over a week to reset and turn their attention to the next phase of their careers.

While the turnaround may be short, it can also have its benefits. Players who put up stellar performances in the later stages of March Madness can leave a lasting impression in the minds of WNBA general managers and executives. Draft stocks can shoot up and solidify based on the way a player performs in the final few games of their collegiate careers, drastically changing the outlook on their professional careers.

“I think body of work is always important because consistency is something that’s important, but I do think that there’s something to be said about meeting the moment,” ESPN basketball analyst Andraya Carter said. “And in a very high-pressure situation, performing well and doing exactly what your team needs for success when there are times where you could fold or there are times where the pressure could be too much.”

When UConn guard Nika Mühl announced that this season in Storrs would be her last, she was not a flashy prospect. Talk of her being a first-round pick was minimal if it existed at all. The 5-foot-11 guard from Croatia had stepped up for the Huskies through many injury-riddled campaigns, being named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year twice and holding the single-game, single-season and career assists record at UConn. Still, expectations for her professional career weren’t particularly high.

That changed when she was given the defensive assignment of projected-No. 1 overall pick Caitlin Clark in UConn’s semifinal game against Iowa. Although the Huskies fell, 71-69, Mühl held Clark to just 21 points on 7-for-18 shooting from the field and 3-of-11 beyond the arc.

Mühl kept Clark in check with stout on-ball defense and relentless off-ball coverage that made it hard for the Hawkeyes to even get the ball into Clark’s hands. That performance alone skyrocketed Mühl’s stock and now has her projected as a late first- or early second-round pick.

“In terms of Nika, specifically, I had one person say to me they’ve never seen somebody’s draft stock rise so much because of one performance in a loss,” ESPN women’s basketball analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “So I think people were certainly aware of Nika Mühl, have watched her play, but her performance in the tournament, I think both on Caitlin Clark defensively and on (Syracuse’s) Dyaisha Fair defensively, showed people how impactful she can be on the defensive end as a guard in the WNBA.”

“That was one of my favorite performances I’ve ever seen,” Carter added about Mühl. “So I think that Nika, to me, I could see her going in the first round easily with some of those teams that need a defensive-minded guard.”

The NCAA Tournament doesn’t only help players on the outside looking in of the first round. South Carolina’s Kamilla Cardoso has been projected as a lottery pick since the first few mock drafts started getting released. Typically, experts slotted her in at pick No. 3 or No. 4.

Now, after the determination and dominance she showed throughout the last month of the season, the possibility of Cardoso being selected as high as No. 2 doesn’t seem as much of a longshot as it once did.

“I think Camilla is in the conversation for number two,” Lobo said. “I think especially how she performed over the last month of the season. She was dominant, and a lot of people have been talking about her ability to run the floor as a (6-foot-7-inch) post player. … She just has to demand extra attention inside and she’s very good at passing out of double-teams. She’s a very good rim protector on the interior.

“So 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, and 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.”

The last month of Cardoso’s NCAA career included a 3-point buzzer-beater, the first 3-pointer of her career, to help the Gamecocks advance to the 2024 SEC championship game, which they subsequently won. Then in the Women’s NCAA tournament, Cardoso posted three double-doubles and two 22-point scoring games. Her size and presence in the paint were instrumental in South Carolina winning the championship over Iowa on April 7, as the Gamecocks outrebounded Iowa 51-29, 17 of which came from Cardoso.

Other players who saw their stock solidify and maybe even rise slightly as the season wound down include Tennessee’s Rickea Jackson and Syracuse’s Fair. Tennessee struggled for much of the season, but Jackson was the one constant. Riding her 33 points, the Lady Vols were just seven points from knocking off third-seeded North Carolina State, which survived to the Final Four.

As for Fair, there’s no doubt about the kind of talent she brings. The questions lie in her size. At just 5-foot-5, there are concerns about her ability to excel at the next level. Despite them, she’s still a legitimate prospect who also played impressively down the home stretch of the season, scoring 32 in the Orange’s first-round win over Arizona and 20 in their second-round loss to UConn. Fair finished her five-year collegiate career in third on the NCAA Division I women’s college basketball all-time scoring list. With all of her accomplishments, Fair is projected to land somewhere in the late first round or early- to mid-second round.

“Her size is an issue because she’s so small, but she is a player who can get her shot off,” Lobo said. “Especially in a system that likes to push the pace, she is somebody who could come in as a backup guard and really do that well. … She can make shots and, at times, in a league that can have some prejudice against small guards, she’s certainly a small guard that is worth taking a risk on because of those things that she can do. She pushes pace really well. She can create and make her own shot often from deep range, and she does have the ability to get others involved.”

The WNBA is a hard league to make. Only 144 spots exist within the league’s 12 teams. Most draftees from the second and third rounds don’t even last all the way through training camp. With the excitement surrounding women’s college basketball this season and the many stars of the game, players who managed to improve their chances of being drafted early and finding the right organizational fit are just one step through the process.

Nonetheless, the excitement these players are carrying with them from the tournament into the draft, and theoretically, into the regular season is something unlike anything that’s ever been seen in the women’s game.

“These rookies have huge followings, so we want those followings to buy into how special the WNBA is,” Carter said. “And a lot of these rookies are really excited to play in the WNBA for that very reason. So using that I think would be cool. It’s the first time in a while, we had fans a while back, but first time in a while that we’ve had fans at the draft, So I think that coupled with this class coming in, these rookies coming in, I think it’ll be exciting.”

Tia Reid(she/hers)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Tia Reid expects to graduate in May 2025 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in African and African American studies. Reid previously worked as a production intern with ESPN and in production and on-camera with the Pac-12 Network.