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Lisa Bluder on Megan Gustafson: “She’s going to have some great opportunities after she leaves here.' Dargan Southard, msouthard@gannett.com

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IOWA CITY, Ia. — If Megan Gustafson had her way, she’d calmly deflect this conversation to a different day.

It’s not that her professional future is a sore subject — far from it, in fact. But discussing the next step of Gustafson’s basketball journey is only a reminder that her college career is nearly finished. That’s a fact she’d rather not be reminded.

Who could blame her? In four years, Gustafson has transformed into an unguardable specimen likely to end as the most dominant Hawkeye basketball player ever. In her senior season, Gustafson has Iowa ranked 13th and right in the middle of the Big Ten race heading into Sunday’s showdown versus No. 8 Maryland. A deep March run is the expectation.

Eventually, though, that chapter must close. And on the other side is a promising outlook that strongly suggests Gustafson will be Iowa’s first WNBA selection since Samantha Logic in 2015. The draft is set for April 10 in New York.    

“It is exciting to think about, and it’s definitely something I’m going to be ready for when the season ends,” Gustafson said earlier this month. “I don’t really want to think about it too much — and I haven’t been, to be honest — because I want to focus on my last year and give it my all. My mentality right now is in the present, and we’ll see what happens after the season.”

A few WNBA mock drafts have trickled out. Most have Gustafson picked somewhere in the second of three rounds, which consist of 12 picks apiece. ESPN’s version from late January has Gustafson going 17th overall to the Dallas Wings. The Associated Press’s edition from mid-January has Iowa’s all-American slotted 21st overall to the Connecticut Sun.   

Whether it’s right away or down the road, Gustafson’s professional route will likely include some overseas action, too. The WNBA calendar is only four months long (May-September), and international opportunities usually offer more financial stability. So it’s not uncommon for WNBA players to head right overseas once their American seasons end.

“I think she’s going to have some great opportunities after she leaves here,” Iowa coach Lisa Bluder said.      

A deeper dive into Gustafson’s stock reveals why.

An 'overall desire to be great every night'

The gaudy statistics and slew of awards speak for themselves — but women’s basketball analysts start intangibly when highlighting Gustafson’s premier asset.

“First and foremost, her work ethic translates,” ESPN’s LaChina Robinson told HawkCental. “I think what most players recognize when they get to the WNBA is that you’re essentially starting over. The WNBA is a very different level of basketball from college, and so adjusting to the speed and strength and physicality is usually tough — no matter if you’re a No. 1 pick or a third-round pick.

“But for Megan, what I think translates well is, again, her ability to score around the basket so easily. Also the tenacity with which she attacks the boards. Those two things right away, I think we’ll be able to see in the WNBA. More than anything, it’s her relentless desire to have an impact on the game.”

Gustafson bullies opposing posts with a variety of moves, but her southpaw half-hook has been the deadliest option in this two-year surge. The quickness, consistency and perfection with which Gustafson operates makes for an enticing weapon that most prospects don’t have.

“I think she’s the most offensively skilled post player in the draft,” ESPN women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli told HawkCentral. “More than (Baylor’s) Kalani Brown and more than (Mississippi State’s) Teaira McCowan. Now those two have unique skill sets as well, but Megan’s is totally different.”

That’s some lofty praise considering Brown and McCowan are likely top-five picks. Overall, though, there seems to be less clarity in the 2019 draft than last year or even past seasons. There’s no clear No. 1 pick, and Antonelli suggested teams will hunt more for need than overall talent.

That could benefit Gustafson, whose blend of drive, ability and attitude makes for an attractive selection even if lesser-used areas of her game still need developing.

“I just think her overall desire to be great every night is going to bode well for her,” Robinson said, “in practices and learning from the pros.”

Expanding her game       

Popping in the Gustafson tape is a clinic of repetition. Numerous buckets look like replays from the previous possession. In Iowa’s system, there’s simply no need for her game to expand any further from the basket.

Ultimately, though, Antonelli and Robinson believe Gustafson will need some sort of mid-range option at the next level. The Iowa senior backs out for a 15-footer maybe once every few games, but no more than that.

“Given a challenge to expand her game facing up in a different system than what she plays in, I have 100 percent confidence that kid is going to consistently work on her 15-foot game, off the bounce, one-dribble drive,” Antonelli said. “And then eventually become a pick-and-pop. Even if it’s a short roll — she doesn’t have to pop to the 3-point line — but not just a roll to the rim, not a pop to the 3-point line but an in-between. That’s where I see her right now.”   

The pro leap could also make Gustafson’s 6-foot-3 size more of an issue than it currently is. There are few problems now whenever she faces lineups featuring players in the 6-foot-6 to 6-foot-8 range, but those situations will happen more frequently in the WNBA.

Gustafson’s defensive progress will dictate a lot as well. She’s by no means a liability right now, but Iowa’s run-and-gun system allows for more leeway on the defensive end.

“For most first-year players, defense is what takes awhile to grasp,” Robinson said. “And again, the speed, strength and athleticism of the game. But I think if she can continue to develop her outside shot, that’s going to be a big aspect of what she’s going to bring to the next level.”

'An asset to anyone who gets her'

Both Antonelli and Robinson crossed paths with Gustafson this year. The former called Iowa’s Jan. 14 road win over Minnesota, while the latter saw Iowa up-close in its November Bahamas tournament.

Those interactions and the production that’s followed generate one prevailing thought: If any WNBA teams have concerns regarding Gustafson, she’ll go full-throttle to improve whatever needs work.

“If she can expand her game — and eventually over time she will — somebody that picks her is making an investment in her for years to come in terms of her development, Antonelli said. “Not just what she can bring right now immediately.

“Spots in the WNBA are so hard, so even if you weren’t counting on her this year, you know that if you tell her, ‘You’ve got to be able to consistently hit the 18-footer,’ I have no question in my mind she’s going to work on it. She is such a hard worker. She has the right spirit. She would be an asset to anyone who gets her.”

That excitement will wait for now as Gustafson still has Iowa City business to finish. Her future prospects, though, look quite promising.

Dargan Southard covers Iowa and UNI athletics, recruiting and preps for the Des Moines Register, HawkCentral.com and the Iowa City Press-Citizen. Email him at msouthard@gannett.com or follow him on Twitter at @Dargan_Southard.     

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