The Tulsa Shock missed the 2014 Playoffs, but the continued improvement of their young core players, along with some veteran free agent signings could very well
For the second year in a row, Tulsa Shock managing partner Sam Combs was forced to congratulate a someone else for winning the WNBA Draft lottery for the right to make the first pick in the college draft.
With the Seattle Storm claiming the top pick in 2015, the Shock were left with the second pick in the lottery for the third time in five years. It’s a routine that has to be getting old, even with the knowledge that the team has improved to a point where they haven’t had the best odds of winning the drawing since 2011 – and despite winning just three games that year, the Shock ended up getting the fourth pick in the lottery.
Luck simply hasn’t been on Tulsa’s side.
“We’d love to have that number one pick, but we’ve been a bridesmaid before and it has worked out for us,” Combs said in a phone interview with Swish Appeal not long after the draft lottery broadcast on ESPN2 on Thursday night.
And it’s true that in spite some disappointment, things have in fact worked out alright for the Shock in past drafts.
Last year, the lottery yielded the second pick of the draft which they used to select dynamic Baylor guard Odyssey Sims, who turned into a legitimate candidate for 2014 WNBA Rookie of the Year by the end of the season and has a bright future ahead of her. They lost the Brittney Griner sweepstakes in the 2012 lottery as well, but landed a budding star with the third pick in Skylar Diggins, who bounced back from a poor rookie year to have an All-Star second year and possibly a Most Improved Player award. Those two have ended up forming the foundation that the franchise is planning to build around.
“Those young players, we’re proud of both of them and they’re both very different players but they complement each other very well,” Combs said when asked about whether that pairing can lead them to greater success in the future. “What we have to do now is make sure we have the quality rotation to back them up.”
Now with the lottery set, the next step is figuring out how much that second pick can really help them.
There’s no shortage of needs for the Shock to fill this offseason and the draft is just one means by which they might be able to fill one.
“We’d love to be able to get a good three in, someone that can get their own shot, strong scoring potential,” Combs said when asked about the team’s needs. “You can never have enough bigs. So at the 4 and the 5 position, those players are hard to come by with quality, so you always look for those. And it’s a plus if we can acquire or draft a player that’s a strong defender. We need another good strong defender.
“We feel good about our guard play – they’re young – but it’s just about every other position, most glaringly the three, we could use some help.”
That point about defense, especially on the wing, is particularly significant: defense was by far the team’s biggest weakness this past season.
The Shock had the lowest defensive rating in the league during the 2014 WNBA season (108.9), according to Basketball-Reference. Although numbers don’t necessarily tell the full story about defense, the low mark not only reflects a number of major holes on that end of the floor but is also their lowest mark since their first season in Tulsa back in 2010. And, ironically, the fact that their biggest need is on the defensive end might actually soften the blow of missing out on the number one pick in this particular draft.
Shock won’t rule out making a trade
In what is widely considered to be a weak draft, it’s extremely unclear which players will make an instant impact of any kind. Finding an impact defender out of that group might prove to be even more difficult as few rookies – NBA or WNBA – can be expected to provide immediate help on the defensive end.
Whether selecting first or second in this draft, one rookie is unlikely to fill that glaring defensive weakness.
“We’ll do our evaluation, wait till the end of the college season, see how it plays out,” Combs said. “We’ve already done some preliminary scenario planning with our needs and we’ve got a good strong young nucleus of players so if there’s an opportunity to add some veterans – quality veterans – to the roster, we’ll look at that, certainly.”
So the bigger question might be whether the bigger priority for the Shock was getting that top draft pick or finding another way to acquire a more experienced player to begin with. It’s way too early to discuss whether they’ll ultimately decide to trade their pick, but Combs was very clear that they’re open to improving via trade.
“The idea is to add the best players possible so we certainly look at both sides,” Combs said when asked about managing the balance of youth and experience. “The way it has worked for us is just that the best players available for us for the circumstances have been to take the younger players in the draft and try to develop them. But if there are good veterans – or a good veteran – out there available, then certainly we’re always looking.
“We would love to have some strong leadership there, but it’s gotta be talent – it’s gotta fit with our team.”
Of course, there’s one talent out there who could either end up helping the team’s interior defense next season or continuing to epitomize the franchise’s bad luck in the draft lottery: 6-foot-8 Australian center Liz Cambage.
Will Liz Cambage return?
The Shock acquired Cambage with the second pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft, but she hasn’t been around long enough to make a real impact – since a solid rookie campaign, Cambage has played just 20 games over the past three seasons.
“Well, I could tell you a lot of things and probably be wrong but we would love to have Liz back,” Combs said when asked about his confidence in Cambage making a return. “We just don’t know.”
Cambage missed the 2012 season to prepare for the London Olympics with the Australian Opals, creating controversy with a very last minute decision not to return to the U.S. after the Olympics. All 20 of those games in the WNBA came last season, but she stirred up (more) controversy when she elected to leave the team after suffering an ankle injury last August. This year, she chose to stay in Australia again to prepare for the FIBA World Championships with the Opals. Throughout it all, there have been concerns about her staying in playing shape.
“That’s one of the challenges of having young players and international players: you never know about those things,” Combs said about Cambage’s relationship with the Shock. “But we’ve reached out to her and we’re going to remain open and we think it’s a great opportunity for her to play with the young talent that we’ve assembled on this team. So I wouldn’t want to handicap it, but I think that there’s always a good chance that she’s going to make a choice – especially after the Worlds are over this year – to come back and play. We’re sure hoping she will.”
Yet when Cambage is with Tulsa, she has shown promise.
In her 20 games last season, she was one of the league’s top rebounders and shot blockers in addition to being one of the league’s most efficient scorers (according to Basketball-Reference). If nothing else, that 6-foot-8 shot blocking presence would help address some aspect of that defensive concern.
A “frustrating” process
The optimistic take on the Shock’s situation is that they still have a number of solid assets with which to either build around or make trades.
They haven’t made the playoffs just yet, but their 12 wins this season is a franchise-high since moving to Tulsa. Diggins, Sims, and Riquna Williams are all young, talented guards who can score with the best in the league. Glory Johnson, who they selected fourth overall in 2012 after missing out on that top pick, has been an All-Star and has ample defensive potential.
Despite poor luck in the lottery, they’ve done a decent job making the most of their second and third round picks finding Williams and Jordan Hooper in the second round of their respective drafts and Angel Goodrich in the third round last year. And although Cambage has yet to make a full commitment to the WNBA, her return would be an obvious game-changer.
They’re moving forward, albeit slowly.
“We’re getting stronger,” Combs said. “It’s slower this way. It can be maddeningly frustrating. But at the same time, you can see it – you can see it getting better.”
For more on the upcoming draft, check out our 2015 WNBA Draft section.