Russia's Maria Vadeeva could be the steal of the WNBA draft

Maria Vadeeva was the tournament MVP of the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup, leading Russia past the United States in the title game. PHOTO COURTESY OF FIBA EUROPE

When scouting international prospects as potential first-round picks in the WNBA draft, every franchise hopes to land the next Lauren Jackson or Penny Taylor. In the 17 years since those Australian legends were drafted, however, few have yielded a return that comes close.

From 1997 to 2007, 13 international prospects (all without NCAA experience) were drafted in the first round. In the past 10 drafts, there have been only four. Six years have passed since an international prospect was drafted in the first round. The most recent, Astan Dabo of Mali, was taken ninth by Connecticut in 2012 but has yet to play a game in the WNBA. The most notable, Liz Cambage of Australia, was drafted second overall by Tulsa in 2011. She is back this season after a six-year hiatus.

At 6-foot-3, Russian center Maria Vadeeva probably will break the first-round dry spell for international draftees. Just 19 years old, Vadeeva has been playing professionally for four years in the Russian Women's Basketball Premier League (WBPL), a top offseason destination for WNBA players. Vadeeva's team, Dynamo Kursk, also competes in EuroLeague competition, which this year featured Diana Taurasi, Emma Meesseman, Kayla McBride and Courtney Vandersloot.

General consensus says Vadeeva will be taken in the first round, but it's unclear which team will make the call. She has been one of the most mobile pieces on WNBA mock draft boards in recent months, ranked as high as No. 2 and down to No. 12, the last pick in the first round. When UConn's Azurá Stevens declared for the draft last week with one year of NCAA eligibility left, the news further sent Vadeeva's name into the spin cycle. But while question marks surround Vadeeva, ranging from her national team obligations to her commitment to playing in the league, her talent is undeniable. And for the front office willing to take a chance, she just might be the steal of the draft.

Vadeeva presents a skill set that many league personnel believe makes her a top-five pick. She's lauded for her physical presence in the interior, and has the ability to spot up or put the ball on the floor from 15 feet. Vadeeva's foundation is built off of her proficiency in finishing with her left hand, particularly her knack for taking defenders off the right shoulder with her back to the basket. Vadeeva will have to continue to expand her range beyond the arc in the WNBA and will need to improve her speed to better run the floor. At her core, teammates describe Vadeeva as a basketball junkie, a smart player with a high basketball IQ.

"She watches basketball, she plays it, she lives it, she breathes it," said 2016 WNBA MVP Nneka Ogwumike, who has played with Vadeeva for two seasons on Kursk.

Last year, featuring WNBA guards Angel McCoughtry and Epiphanny Prince, Kursk went undefeated on its way to winning its first EuroLeague title in franchise history. This season, Vadeeva is averaging 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds in 19.8 minutes. She leads the team with a 57.9 field goal percentage.

"She's not just a player where you can see her becoming a great player," Ogwumike said. "She's a great player where you can see her becoming a very high-caliber player."

Phoenix Mercury coach Sandy Brondello faced Vadeeva for four years as an assistant with UMMC Ekaterinburg of the WBPL. Against Vadeeva, Brondello dispatched four-time WNBA All-Star Brittney Griner, who is six inches taller and eight years older than Vadeeva. According to Brondello, Vadeeva held her own.

"I think she did well," Brondello said. "She's a big, strong girl, very good with her back to the basket. For a 19-year-old, she's quite impressive."

Brondello's husband, Olaf Lange, coached UMMC Ekaterinburg for 5½ years. From the first time he remembers seeing Vadeeva play, he was impressed by the then-15-year-old's endless motor. In 2017, he became her coach when he took over the Russian women's national team.

"She never stops," Lange said. "Contact doesn't bother her, the physicality of the game, of the post game in particular, doesn't bother her. You could see the talent that was very raw in the early years, but she would never stop."

Vadeeva comes from a basketball family. Both her mother and father have playing experience and Vadeeva grew up as a gym rat. Off the court, Lange says Vadeeva is a bit introverted but exudes a level of maturity and selflessness uncommon for her age.

"She's a very grounded kid, coachable," Lange said. "... You can get after her, she takes it. She's willing to improve. She puts the team's success first, over her own."

While Vadeeva already has pro experience and boasts a superior résumé, her commitment to the Russian national team means she probably will miss a significant part of the 34-game WNBA season.

"Europeans in particular, they have something going on every year," Brondello said. "That's just how it's going to be. Are you willing to have an important player but allow her to miss time?"

Last season, the Liberty lost both Prince and center Kia Vaughn to the European Basketball Championship (also known as EuroBasket). This January, Meesseman announced she'd be sitting out the 2018 WNBA season as she prepares to lead Belgium in the 2018 FIBA World Cup this fall. Cambage decided to not return to Tulsa after a strong rookie season, in part so she could focus on playing for Australia in the 2012 Olympics. After the World Cup in August, Vadeeva will have EuroBasket obligations in 2019 and Olympics preparation in 2020 that conflict with the WNBA season.

There's no question the absences will impact Vadeeva's draft stock.

"Every other year she just won't be there, or at least the season will be impacted by some type of commitment from the national team," Lange said. "I think she'll go [in the first round], but she won't go early."

"She's not just a player where you can see her becoming a great player. She's a great player where you can see her becoming a very high-caliber player." Nneka Ogwumike on Dynamo Kursk teammate Maria Vadeeva

Falling in the first round to a more established team could be beneficial for Vadeeva, who is the new face of women's basketball for Team Russia. Lange says Vadeeva is effective for Kursk because she can exploit coverage as opponents focus on the first, second and third options in Prince, Ogwumike and McCoughtry. And an easier transition could come with a familiar face in Prince in New York (which has the No. 10 pick), Ogwumike in Los Angeles (No. 11) and Brondello in Phoenix (No. 12). Pokey Chatman, coach and general manager of the Indiana Fever, which holds the Nos. 2 and 8 picks, could be another potential destination. Chatman coached Vadeeva's previous team, Spartak Moscow, from 2009 to 2013.

Vadeeva has already faced many of the players who will share Thursday's draft board. She helped lead Russia to the 2017 FIBA U19 World Cup title, finishing with 26 points and a game-high 18 rebounds in Russia's first U19 championship in 28 years. She faced a frontcourt that featured Oregon's Ruthy Hebard and Texas' Joyner Holmes, who combined for only eight points in a physical matchup with Vadeeva. She was named tournament MVP after leading the event in efficiency, scoring and rebounding.

"She's a big body and she's really skilled," said UConn sophomore Crystal Dangerfield, who played guard for Team USA in the tournament. "[She] knows how to score around the basket. She can take you outside, too. I think she's going to be a great player."

When asked if she thought Vadeeva was ready to become a WNBA pro, Dangerfield joked: "She's probably had a pro body since she was 15."