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WNBA, Liberty taking center stage on Friday with virtual draft

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news

WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert speaks at a news conference before Game 1 of basketball's WNBA Finals between the Connecticut Sun and the Washington Mystics, Sunday, Sept. 29, 2019, in Washington.  Credit: AP/Patrick Semansky

With the ongoing absence of live sports and live sporting events to the COVID-19 pandemic, the WNBA will take a rare center stage Friday night when it holds its annual draft.

The draft will be held virtually and televised live on ESPN, which moved it from ESPN2 to its main channel after a number of fans, including projected No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu, protested on social media that they were getting second billing to non-live sports programming.

The WNBA will be the first league to hold its draft in this manner. The NFL is also planning to hold its draft virtually next Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

The rules of social distancing means there will be no ballroom, no live audience. Instead, WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert will be announcing draft picks live from her home in New Jersey beginning at 7 p.m. Top draft picks will take part remotely.

“It is strange,” said Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb, who has five picks in the top 15, including the No 1 pick. “I’m sad for the players. I’m happy they are going to have their moment, but at the same time this is probably something they’ve dreamt of for a long time and unfortunately due to the circumstances they are not going to have the moment they envisioned, though the league has done a really nice job of putting this together.”

Social distancing also means teams will also be in their draft “war rooms” electronically. In ordinary times, Kolb likely would be hunkered down at the team’s training facility with coach Walt Hopkins and his coaching staff. Instead, he will be conducting the draft from his apartment in Brooklyn and communicating with his staff and the league over separate devices.

“We’re doing test runs of it to make sure we have our technology in order,” Kolb said. “I have my phone for the league conference call, I have an iPad for the Zoom conference call with the staff and I have another computer for research purposes and cap analysis that we have to do quick stuff on. It’s a lot of technology.”

The Liberty won’t have to do too much discussion to figure out their first pick as it is all but guaranteed to be Ionescu, the NCAA Player of the Year. The Oregon guard is just the second player to win the award unanimously since its inception in 1995. She is the first player in college history to post 2,000 points, 1,000 assists and 1,000 rebounds.

“She really is a phenomenal leader in multiple ways,” Hopkins said on a league conference call this week. “I think to see the poise with which she's handled all the things that have happened in the past couple months -- obviously we've all been through some things, but I think Sabrina in particular has been through a lot, with her proximity to Kobe [Bryant], speaking at his service and then flying and going and playing in a game where she didn't even warm up. All these things speak to a person who really is pretty special.”

Ionescu, who was close to Bryant and his daughter Gianna, spoke at their memorial service this year. As part of Friday night’s telecast the WNBA will honor Gianna Bryant, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, who died in a helicopter accident on Jan. 26. They also will honor Bryant.

New York Sports