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Probable first-rounder Nia Coffey prepares for the WNBA Draft

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Northwestern should have its first-ever first-round pick in basketball on Thursday.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Big Ten Conference Tournament Maryland v Northwestern Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

After four brilliant years at Northwestern, Nia Coffey will be taking her talents to a bigger stage. The only real question left is which WNBA franchise will draft her this Thursday.

Nia Coffey is the best player Northwestern women’s basketball has ever had, setting a program record in rebounds and coming just 20 points short of the all-time scoring record. She was a dominant presence during her time at Northwestern, and her combination of athleticism and offensive talent have her high on WNBA mock draft boards. Eric Nemchock of FanRag Sports has Coffey as the ninth overall pick, going to the Chicago Sky.

“I think she is the player who could make the biggest jump from college to what she will eventually become as a pro,” ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson said in a media teleconference last week. “She’s only scratched the surface of her potential — her size, her length, she can drive it, she can shoot it, pull up off of the pick and roll, which is a primary offense in the WNBA.”

If Nemchock’s prediction comes true, Nia Coffey will be the first Northwestern women’s basketball player ever to be selected in the first round of the WNBA Draft. In fact, she would be the first Northwestern graduate to ever be selected in the first round of any professional basketball draft.

Coffey’s size, raw scoring ability and potential versatility make her a top target in this year’s draft. She doesn’t really have a position at the next level yet, and has been thought of as a three or a four. If the Sky draft her (as Bleacher Report and Newsday also predict), she will be a long-term upside pick for a team that finished second in the Eastern Conference and is looking to shore up its successes. The Chicago-Northwestern connection would be good for Northwestern fans. The Sky have the No. 2 pick and the No. 9 pick in the WNBA Draft, and new head coach Amber Stocks had high praise for Coffey.

“Nia Coffey and Kelsey Plum [the projected No. 1 pick from Washington] are exceptional talents,” Stocks said. “They do so many things very well. The obvious one is score the basketball. They move well without the ball. They’re both talented defenders. They move their feet, have great footwork.”

Coffey could also go at No. 7 to the Atlanta Dream or at No. 10 to the rebuilding Dallas Wings. Coffey’s high upside would fit well for the Wings, who have three first round picks in the draft and are looking to construct a young core. The only teams between 6-12 that would have no interest in Coffey are the Connecticut Sun, who are clearly in the market for a guard, and the Los Angeles Sparks, who have Candace Parker. Coffey’s ties to Minnesota could also interest the Lynx, who could pick her at No. 12 if she falls that far.

Coffey has been preparing for the WNBA Draft since Northwestern’s season ended in March with a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament. Although Coffey’s Northwestern career ended on a downer after missing out on a second NCAA Tournament, her lack of exposure on a national stage has some pegging her as a sleeper pick. It’s also forced her to work even harder to gain recognition.

“Stuff I’m working on now [includes] being more of a threat from the wing, working on my midrange game, being able to stretch any defense, and just a lot of ball handling of course,” Coffey said.

Coffey accepted an invitation to attend the draft, which will be held on Thursday evening in New York City. She said that assistant coach Christie Sides, her trainer Jeff and her best friend and teammate Lauren Douglas will accompany her and her family at the WNBA Draft. Her brother Amir, a starter at Minnesota, will presumably be in attendance as well.

The draft will be aired at 6 p.m. CST on ESPN2. Tune in to watch Northwestern basketball’s first-ever first-round draft selection.