UPDATE 1-Basketball-Dallas Wings poised to scoop up top talent in WNBA Draft
(Updates to show number of Wings' first-round picks after trade)
April 14 (Reuters) - The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) kicks off its 25th season celebration in earnest on Thursday, with its annual draft bringing in top talent to the league from U.S. collegiate programs and from abroad.
Nine of the WNBA's 12 teams will welcome back fans in limited numbers for the 32-game season beginning on May 14, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert told reporters this week, after last year was played inside a quarantined site in Florida.
With the first two picks of the draft and a total of three picks in the first round alone, the Dallas Wings' new coach Vickie Johnson has a variety of top prospects at her disposal, and is widely expected to pick up University of Texas forward Charli Collier first.
"She's big and strong, has a great frame, plays really hard. She added the three-point shot, which a stretch 4 needs to have now in the WNBA," Rebecca Lobo, a former WNBA All-Star and ESPN analyst, told reporters.
While she endured a punishing 25-point loss to Baylor in February and an overall decline in production in the NCAA women's basketball tournament, Hall of Famer Lobo said the 21-year-old is ready to excel.
"You also have to understand the system she was playing in... A big is in heaven when they are surrounded by shooters because it gives them space to be able to operate," said Lobo. "Charli wasn't necessarily surrounded by shooters this year."
Finland's Awak Kuier, a 19-year-old center, leads the international cohort, with a six-foot five-inch frame and a year of professional experience under her belt after playing in Italy.
"Her ability to handle the basketball for her size is exceptional," Dallas Wings President and CEO Greg Bibb told reporters.
"She's going to have to get stronger to become a contributing member of a WNBA team, but the potential with her is off the charts."
Arizona point guard Aari McDonald could be rewarded for her heroics in the NCAA women's tournament, where the five-foot six-inch sharpshooter led the Wildcats to their first-ever Final Four after dismantling Indiana with a 33-point performance.
"Aari probably was one of the more underestimated stars coming into the NCAA Tournament," said ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson.
"Though there were some questions about her size coming in, and there still may be, as she would probably say, she proved a lot of people wrong."
The WNBA Draft begins at 7 p.m. ET (2300 GMT) on Thursday. (Reporting by Amy Tennery, Editing by Christian Radnedge and Ed Osmond)
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