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Natasha Mack is a throwback big with a bright WNBA future

WNBA frontcourts are moving towards stretch and versatility but Natasha Mack is an imposing, throwback draft prospect who could still be a WNBA star.

The conversation about bigs in the 2021 WNBA Draft usually revolves around two names: Charli Collier from Texas and Awak Kuier from Finland. But while both players have tremendous upside, neither is the big that’s most-ready to contribute right away. That would be Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack, an efficient interior threat whose ceiling might not be as high as Collier or Kuier, but who has one of — if not the — highest floors in this draft class.

Mack’s path to the W is a strange one. In 2016, she committed to the University of Houston but didn’t end up playing with the Cougars. Instead, she re-emerged a year later playing at Angelina College in Lufkin, TX, where she was the national player of the year at the JuCo level, averaging 24 points and 11.6 rebounds per game. After that, Mack transferred to Oklahoma State, choosing to head to Stillwater over a handful of other options.

With the Cowgirls, Mack has flourished, become one of the best post bigs in the country. No, she’s not going to get in the corner and start shooting 3s, but the WNBA is still a league where a traditional big can make a huge impact. That’s Mack’s path to success at the next level: using her strength to dominate inside. Her 12.3 rebounds per game rank ninth in the country this season, and her 4.1 blocks per game led Division I.

What Natasha Mack brings to the next level

If you watch basketball — men’s or women’s, professional or college — then you know that teams are emphasizing shooting more and more. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for a more traditional big, especially in the WNBA, a league where players like Sylvia Fowles and Brittney Griner still dominate. Mack might not be either of those players — she’s 6-foot-4, whereas Griner is 6-foot-9 and Fowles is 6-foot-6 — but she’s still displayed signs that she has the physical skills needed to dominate inside.

Per CBB Analytics, Mack’s Hakeem Percentage — a measure of her steal and block rates — ranks in the 100th percentile at 14.9 percent. Not only is she the leader in blocks per game, but her two steals per contest rank in the 96th percentile. It’s really, really hard to score on Natasha Mack:

On this play, Texas center Lauren Ebo has some nice positioning in the paint. The ball comes in to her, at which point Mack plants her feet down, gets her hands up, and forces Ebo to move right. By the time Ebo thinks she has a window to shoot the ball, Mack’s got Ebo shooting at a bad angle and has the upper hand, swatting the shot attempt away.

As for offense, Mack’s got a nice shot chart, as long as you ignore the lack of long-range shooting:

She’s at 8.6 percentage points above Division I average at the rim, 12.5 percentage points above average in the paint, and 8.7 percentage points above average in the mid-range. In that way, there’s almost something a little A’ja Wilson in her usage. Wilson doesn’t take 3s, but her accuracy in the mid-range still gives the Las Vegas Aces at least a modicum of spacing that helps the offense run more efficiently. Mack, who is in the 80th percentile in mid-range field goal percentage, can at least force defenders to account for her when she’s away from the basket, even if she doesn’t offer the spacing that a Charli Collier will.

You can see in this video from Ben Dull that Mack’s a dangerous player with the ball in her hands:

Some quick analysis of this: Mack’s strength is apparent when she’s posting up, as she’s able to push defenders back towards the basket, clearing out room for her to score. Synergy has 47.1 percent of Mack’s possessions being post-ups — which, yes, is a number that will have to come down in the W — and OSU scoring 0.953 points per possession on them, which rates in the 75th percentile. Considering the high volume there, I’d mark that as a win for Mack, as she’s fifth in Division I in field goal attempts out of post-ups. She’s also been great in transition, showing some nice ability to move with the ball in her hands. I’m not sure you want Mack as a half-court ball-handler, but her defensive versatility means that if she’s out guarding on the perimeter and forces a turnover, she can get the break going the other way.

One thing she’ll need to work on is shooting off of a pass. Mack takes a lot of her jump shots out of post-ups, but she’ll need to work on hitting mid-range pick-and-pops better, as her 24 possessions that ended in a pick-and-pop ranked in the 48th percentile in points per possession. Likewise, her very few spot-up attempts found the bottom of the net at a pretty low rate. She can’t be as ball-dominant in the WNBA, so Mack will need to get more comfortable on these kinds of plays.

Which team needs Natasha Mack in the WNBA Draft?

When it comes to fit, a few teams come to mind. Dallas and New York headline those teams.
The Wings might be the team that’s most in need of help up front, and while it seems like a foregone conclusion they use either the first or second pick on Texas center Charli Collier, they don’t need to stop there. They’ve also got the fifth pick and could double-down on bigs considering the current state of their roster.

That roster doesn’t feature a lot of depth up front, which last season led to the team having to use forward Satou Sabally at the 5 down the stretch. They bought out Astou Ndour this year, which leaves four players on their current roster who could play the 5 without the team having to size down. One of those players is Isabelle Harrison, who missed much of last year with an ankle injury. The other three — Bella Alarie, Luisa Geiselsoder, and Megan Gustafson — are young players who have plenty of promise, but who’ve yet to prove that they’re long-term WNBA players. Alarie has the most promise of the three, but there’s not really anything about this roster construction that screams “we only need to add one big!”

As for New York, frontcourt depth has to be the team’s biggest concern right now too. We don’t know if Han Xu is coming over from China or not, which leaves New York with limited options on the roster for players that can play center. Natasha Howard will get plenty of usage at the 5, but she’s such a versatile player on both ends of the floor that she could easily play the 4 if needed. Kiah Stokes is on the roster, but the veteran big doesn’t seem like she’s guaranteed to be part of this team’s future, even if she plays heavy minutes out of necessity this season. Second-year players Kylee Shook and Joyner Holmes can play the 5 too, but neither is a lock to even make the final roster in Brooklyn this year.

Mack would bring the team some needed shot-blocking, forming an All-Natasha frontcourt that would be tough for opposing teams to score on. No, Mack doesn’t fit the five-out offensive approach that it seems New York wants to use, but she helps them out in other ways. Mack should be on the Liberty radar when they pick at the No. 6 spot.

If Mack fell far enough, she’d also be a great depth piece in Vegas and is the kind of player that head coach Bill Laimbeer loves. Vegas has arguably the scariest frontcourt in the league with 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage, but last year showed that depth was a concern. When Cambage opted out of the shortened 2020 season, the team had to ask Carolyn Swords to unretire and become their starting center. Mack would give them a high-potential backup 5 who could help bolster that frontcourt.