As much as Rachel Banham would love to be drafted by the Lynx, she’s all but certain it won’t happen. The Gophers guard is projected as a high first-round pick in Thursday’s WNBA draft, and her hometown team — which traded its first-round pick last summer — won’t make its first selection until early in the second round.
Banham also wants to be drafted as high as possible, and it appears the top scorer in Gophers history will get that wish. UConn’s Breanna Stewart and Moriah Jefferson are the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 picks, while mock drafts have Banham going anywhere from No. 4 (to Connecticut) to No. 7 (to Washington). The Lynx pick first at No. 14.
The past few weeks have been a blur for Banham. After finishing her Gophers career with a loss in the women’s NIT on March 20, she was named an All-America player, won a nationally televised three-point shooting contest, attended the Wooden Award ceremony in Los Angeles and met her idol, Kobe Bryant. With the draft, she will embark on an entirely new chapter.
“I’d love to go in the first round,” said Banham, one of 12 players invited to attend the draft at Connecticut’s Mohegan Sun Casino. “Regardless of where I go, it’s a blessing.
“I’ve been working out, getting mentally ready to go to the next level. I’m super excited; it’s going to be great, and I’m definitely ready. It’s just crazy how fast it’s happened. It feels like the season just ended yesterday, and I’m already off to the next level.”
Mock drafts by ESPN, SLAMonline and Bleacher Report all have Banham going to Connecticut with the fourth pick. Excelle Sports predicts Washington will take her with the seventh pick. DraftSite has Banham going at No. 5 to Dallas (formerly Tulsa), which would reunite her with her friend and former Gophers teammate Amanda Zahui B., the No. 2 pick last year.
Though Banham never played in the NCAA tournament, limiting her national exposure, a series of eye- popping games this season nudged her draft prospects higher. She tied an NCAA record with 60 points at Northwestern, then scored 52 at Michigan State and broke the WNIT and Williams Arena records with 48 against Wisconsin-Milwaukee. Banham, who ended with 3,093 points, broke the Big Ten career record and averaged 28.6 points per game last season.
“Anybody that puts up three games going 45-plus points is definitely going to get the attention, because offense is at a premium in the WNBA,” ESPN analyst Carolyn Peck said. “A player that can score the ball the way she does, I think teams could find a role [for her].”
Another ESPN analyst, former WNBA star Rebecca Lobo, also said Banham’s offensive game is ready and expects her to fit in as a combo guard, one who can play the point but is most effective as a shooting guard. Lobo added, though, that questions remain about Banham’s ability to play defense — a weakness of the Gophers.
Banham played zone for a team that surrendered 79.8 points per game last season. Lobo said that hasn’t allowed Banham to show whether she is a strong defender.
“Her ability to create her own shot, her ability to hit deep [three-pointers], is not in question at all,” Lobo said. “The question that comes up consistently is, what can she give you on the defensive end, just because she hasn’t really played any man defense recently.”