WNBA is banking on class of '04's star power

Mercury drafts Taurasi

Mystics make Beard No. 2

Pro Basketball

April 18, 2004|By Milton Kent | Milton Kent,SUN STAFF

During the recent NFL owners meetings, Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis declared himself a fan of women's basketball, especially of University of Connecticut star Diana Taurasi, even if he couldn't remember her name.

The WNBA is gambling that Davis and people like him will get to know Taurasi and Duke's Alana Beard well enough to put the 8-year-old league on firm ground, as the first two players taken in yesterday's draft.

Taurasi, a 6-foot guard-forward from Chino, Calif., was the first overall selection, going to the Phoenix Mercury, and Beard, a 5-11 guard from Shreveport, La., went second to the Washington Mystics.

Beard, the reigning consensus National Player of the Year, and Taurasi, a two-time consensus National Player of the Year, are expected not only to be dynamic players, but to be the faces of the fledgling league, which continues to struggle for acceptance in the broader sports culture.

"We'll see," Taurasi told ESPN after being drafted. "There are a lot of great players in this league, but there are a lot of great players in this room. Hopefully, we can elevate the level of play."

Taurasi led Connecticut to the past three national titles, and Beard is the only Duke women's player to have her jersey retired. They head a draft class that, for the women's game, is expected to be as deep as the NBA rookie class that was selected last June, headed by LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

Unlike Anthony, who left Syracuse after a year, and James, who went straight to the NBA out of high school, Taurasi and Beard had four years in college for their games to mature. The WNBA prohibits players who have not completed their college eligibility.

The two are expected to bring their friendly but intense rivalry to the professional level in much the same way that James and Anthony have in the NBA.

"That's the way the media goes with it," Beard said. "They'll say Magic and Larry, they'll say LeBron and Carmelo. It's sort of nice to be compared to them, but Diana and I sort of stand on our own. We're coming in and making things happen for the women. We're on our own, but it's great to be compared to some great names."

Just as importantly for the WNBA, Taurasi and Beard have had a combined six Final Fours for the public to see them and identify with them.

"You have name recognition. It's not like you have to educate your fans," said Pat Summitt, the University of Tennessee coach who serves as the Mystics' player personnel consultant.

"You have a class that has demonstrated that they are a legitimate impact group. You have Taurasi, [Stanford's Nicole] Powell, Beard and [Minnesota's Lindsay] Whalen that everybody knows, and the list goes deeper than that."

Powell, a 6-1 Stanford forward, was chosen third overall by the Charlotte Sting, and Whalen, a 5-8 Minnesota point guard, went to the Connecticut Sun, which drafted fourth. The New York Liberty, drafting fifth, selected Shameka Christon, a 6-1 guard-forward from Arkansas.

The Mystics, who had the second-worst record in the WNBA one season after coming within a game of the league's championship series, added North Carolina State center Kaayla Chones in the second round, and Missouri forward Evan Unrau in the third round.

Chones is the daughter of former NBA standout Jim Chones, who played for a season with the Washington Bullets.

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