On Wednesday, Her Hoop Stats released their semifinalist list for the Becky Hammon Award, which is given yearly to the best mid-major player in the country. One of the 10 players on that list: Rice center Nancy Mulkey.
While the 2020-21 season for Rice has been a bit of a mess due to COVID-19, with three consecutive weeks of games canceled at one point, the Owls have been incredibly good when they've been on the basketball court. Rice sits at 10-1 on the year, with their only loss coming by four points to Texas A&M, who are currently the No. 6 team in the country.
Over the next couple of months, we'll be taking a look at how certain players around the state translate to the next level ahead of April's WNBA Draft. While the NCAA ruled that following this year, players may maintain their eligibility and seniors can come back for another season, we'll operate under the assumption that top players will declare for the draft.
Let's start with Nancy Mulkey, the 6-foot-9 center for the Owls.
ISO Scouting Spotlight: Nancy Mulkey
Projected Draft Stock: Third round
It's hard to project Mulkey at the next level. She has elite-level size and shot-blocking ability, but also might not have the versatility that WNBA teams want. Still, I think betting on Mulkey's defensive upside seems like a good strategy in the third round.
Why? Because Mulkey's one of the best shot blockers in America and that can't be minimized by overlooking what other skills she may not have.
After leading the country in blocks per game in 2018-19, she fell to sixth in the country last season and is only *checks notes* eighth in Division I this season. Even her worst season at Rice in terms of shot-blocking is better than almost anyone else in the country.
Her 11.5 Hakeem Percentage — a combination of steal and block rate — is in the 99th percentile despite her steal rate being in just the third percentile nationally. That's just how outlier-good Mulkey is when it comes to blocking shots.
Part of what makes Mulkey so dangerous is that she can block shots at multiple levels.
Here's the kind-of expected thing you get from a player with Mulkey's height. Mulkey plants herself down in the post here and ends up one-on-one with Ciera Johnson. Considering Johnson is shooting 53.8 percent from the field, that's not a great matchup for anyone, but Mulkey uses her height advantage to force Johnson to pivot around and around for a couple of seconds, looking for an angle or a move she can make. Johnson never really finds that and eventually has to just do a little step-back hop shot right in Mulkey's face, which results in an easy block.
But Mulkey's blocking isn't just about sticking her down in the post and having her defend post-ups.
On this play, Mulkey is down there defending the paint and doesn't end up moving too much, but she has the awareness to see the Old Dominion player cutting to the basket. Usually, a player cutting open to the basket is going to have the advantage here as they'll have a full head of steam. Of course, you usually aren't confronted by a player of Mulkey's stature when you get to the paint. She's able to use that size to swat the attempt away.
Then on this play, we even get to see Mulkey defending out on the perimeter. I feel like I've had to watch this play over and over and over to figure out what's going on. Mulkey initially gets a hand on the ball, forcing it out of the ball handler's hands, but it's picked up by another player out on the perimeter.
When that player starts to take the shot, Mulkey isn't even close to her. But she uses her long arms to somehow get a hand on the shot as it goes up.
But while Mulkey's shot-blocking is something that should translate, we have to acknowledge a valid concern about her game: how she'll defend in space.
If a WNBA team could throw her into the paint and say "just sit here and block shots," Mulkey would be in for a long career. The problem is that Mulkey's not the quickest player in basketball, so if she's asked to defend on drives, or to switch onto the ball-handler when defending a high pick-and-roll, or something else of that nature, I'm not sure how effective she'll be. Against Conference USA teams? She's fine. Against the Chelsea Grays and Jewell Loyds of the world? That could be an issue.
On the offensive side, Mulkey's game is really post-up heavy, with Synergy logging 35 percent of her possessions as that play type. Her 1.158 points per possession rank in the 94th percentile.
I don't think there's much to say about Mulkey's post-ups. She's 6-foot-9 and has some good touch on her shots, so if she can get deep position in the post, she's going to make shots like this.
The issue is what happens when she's playing against bigger players. How'd she do against Texas A&M, who had Ciera Johnson and N'dea Jones inside?
Mulkey scored 13 points in that one, going 4-for-10 from the floor. It was her third-worst field goal percentage of the season. One of those shots was a made three, leaving her at 33.3 percent on twos. She had just eight points in last year's A&M game, plus struggled that season against Oklahoma State.
Bigger centers who can push Mulkey around and bother her post game have the ability to take her out of the game. That's a definite concern.
But as cliche as it is to say, you can't teach size. That's the best argument there is for drafting Mulkey this year: her height and her instincts make her a lethal post defender in college, and a lot of that should translate to the next level.