Coronavirus: WNBA will hold virtual draft, honor victims of Kobe Bryant helicopter crash

The 2020 WNBA draft will go ahead as scheduled, but will take place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the league announced Thursday.

The draft, headlined by presumptive No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu of Oregon, will still take place on April 17. It will also still be aired on ESPN2 at 8 p.m. ET, and eligible juniors still have until 10 days before the draft to declare.

The WNBA will honor Kobe Bryant and the youth basketball players who died in the helicopter crash in January, as has been planned.

WNBA draft to be held virtually

The draft will include streams from players wherever they are and commissioner Cathy Engelbert will be “somewhere in New Jersey” announcing the draft picks live on air.

“We want to make sure that the players who are the draftees get their moment in the limelight,” Engelbert said, via Howard Megdal for the New York Times.

“And that’s an honor for them,” she said. “So that while it’ll be virtual, and I won’t be with them, maybe they’ll be with their families and could be streamed in at home.”

The draft is typically held in New York City, where there are more than 20,000 positive cases of COVID-19. The infection rate is accelerating and the peak could come around the time of the draft three weeks away. The White House has asked anyone traveling from the city to self-quarantine.

The virtual draft will ensure there are no gatherings of players and media. Teams already do much of their work via teleconference and video in the lead-up to draft time, coaches told the Times.

Ionescu likely No. 1 pick by Liberty

The New York Liberty have the No. 1 pick and the opportunity to draft Ionescu, the only 2K-1K-1K player in NCAA Division I history. The Dallas Wings, Indiana Fever and Atlanta Dream have next three picks. Following big free agency moves, the Wings have a stockpile of draft picks.

Underclassmen who turn 22 at any time in 2020 or are four years past their high school graduation have until April 7 to declare for the draft. Ionescu’s teammate Satou Sabally has also done so. Along with fellow senior Ruthy Hebard, they are all expected top-10 picks.

Connecticut’s Megan Walker has declared and Louisville star Dana Evans is considering it.

WNBA to honor victims of Bryant’s helicopter crash

Engelbert has said the league will honor Kobe Bryant, a vocal advocate for women’s basketball, and the three young victims of the helicopter crash. There are still no specific details about the honor, and how it will be done in a virtual format, but the league reiterated the news in a release Thursday.

The WNBA will honor Kobe’s daughter Gianna and her teammates Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester. The young teenagers were on their way to a basketball game on Jan. 26 at the Mamba Academy when the helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain near Calabasas, California.

Engelbert not making cancellations prematurely

Engelbert said the league is still unsure if training camp and the 2020 season will begin on time, but she’s not willing to make those changes until the dates are closer. Training camp is scheduled to start April 26 and the season will tip off May 15, as of now.

“One thing I learned is, don’t take any plans off the table prematurely,” Engelbert said. “Everything’s changing hour by hour, if not day by day.”

She told the Times she was already planning for a potential delay or cancellation when the NBA suspended its season after Rudy Gobert tested positive for the coronavirus. There are plans for 30, 60 and 90-day delays.

“It's our job to think through the scenarios, put down all the pros and cons, and continue the momentum around the WNBA during a time of crisis in the world,” she said, via ESPN. “I think there's still unprecedented awareness to support women's sports and the WNBA.

"We're really bullish that when we get to tip our season, we'll have success in building off the momentum we and the players established together with the new CBA."

The league might run into scheduling problems since three teams share space with NBA squads. It will not have to deal with a break during the Tokyo Olympics, though, since the IOC postponed the games this week.

WNBA: Opportunity to be creative, expand fandom

Engelbert, who’s in her first full season on the job as commissioner, told the Times that the delay might open up chances to be creative and expand the footprint of the league.

“One of our transformational goals is to expand the fandom, expand the reach of the W.N.B.A. beyond our 12 cities to get more exposure to our players in our potential fan population,” Engelbert said. “So we could actually be creative here and think about other cities.”

She said playing this season is important, even if it’s done in empty arenas, and said she believes they have “almost a public service responsibility to do everything we can” to get live sports back on TV for people.

In that avenue, the league announced it would provide free access to WNBA League Pass starting Monday so fans can watch content and game replays.

Sabrina Ionescu is expected to be the No. 1 pick in the 2020 WNBA draft. She'll likely be joined in the first round by teammates Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

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