We are back with more draft grades for the Challenger draft that happened yesterday. Time got in the way of putting together a mock draft beforehand but, not surprisingly, the draft itself had some whacky selections with the draft picks getting announced on Tuesday morning. If you missed the actual picks, we can’t blame you as MLP announced approximately 14,000 new celebrities to the ownership ranks of various Challenger teams from Heidi Klum to Jeremy Lin. Linsanity, indeed.
The major Lebron James announcement feels so long ago, and we can’t help thinking the LBJ news has been cheapened in an odd way by the addition of all these celebrity owners. It is hard not to question how much interest many of these owners have in pickleball and MLP, and while the short-term exposure is undoubtedly good from a brand perspective, there is a sense of watering down the brand, at this point. More than a few people are calling a pickleball team ownership the new NFT, and it is starting to look as if that could be an apt analogy. We can only hope that there are enough owners with an invested interest in pickleball and MLP, who can steward the league and sport forward, and make sure it lasts through tough times.
It was also strange to pair the new owner’s announcement with the draft results, and not make them separate releases. The draft felt like a footnote in the announcement, with the new player rosters being shorter than most of the ownership rosters.
From an outsider’s perspective, MLP has become fame obsessed and we wonder if they are losing sight of their vision with respect to the product on the court. Is MLP a legitimate professional sports league, or is it simply a toy for rich and famous folks, so they can draft themselves and friends to a “pro team”? The highlighting by MLP of Sam Querrey as the first overall selection in their press release did little to dissuade us of this notion. While Querrey showcased some potential at the PPA’s Bubly event over the weekend, he did not indicate to us that he is worthy of the first pick in this draft. There is reason to question whether Querrey is worth a draft pick at all when a team will only have him for three events in the season. We could be wrong, but it appears he needs a fair amount of seasoning to be truly competitive at this level.
For the record, we have no problem with teams gambling on upside or potential. We see it all the time in sports, and whether pickleball players want to admit it or not, Sam Querrey simply has a much more accomplished athletic background than all of them. With that said, if you are a team trying to win in this Challenger league, there is little justification for taking Querrey first overall, and taking him in that spot comes across to us as an unnecessary publicity stunt, regardless if their new GM, DJ Howard, says otherwise. We would have had less questions if it were Jack Sock going first overall. His pickleball potential popped off the page this past weekend and what he could look like with a couple of months of seasoning is scary to think about. No one may end up noticing outside of the pickleball world, but it is a question for us whether it harms the process of legitimizing a professional sports league when you are taking a player that has never played an actual tournament in the sport, first overall. Even if it is the 2nd division draft.
Oh yeah, where were we? Right, Challenger draft grades, which had plenty more to digest than Sam Querrey and celebrity owners. School may be out for Christmas break, but we have grades to hand out.
D.C. Pickleball Team – Sam Querrey, Steafan Auvergne, Shelby Bates, Monica Paolicelli
Where do we start with this one? We dove deep on Querrey in the introduction to this article but we are not done. Besides Querrey not being ready from a pickleball standpoint in our view, drafting him first overall really doesn’t put him in an ideal situation from a playing and development perspective. If he had gone late in the draft to a relatively strong team where he wasn’t being asked to carry the load, it almost certainly would have been a far more ideal situation. The Stefan Auvergne pick at the end of round two is the only solid pick with this team as we had him as a late first round pick on our boards. He should prove to be a good partner for Querrey in men’s.
The Shelby Bates pick is okay at #25 with such a big run on women early in this draft but Olivia McMillan was available as the far more proven pro player. Although we had other options ahead of Monica Paolicelli, she was in the mix for the last spot. The issue is that when you take two men with your first two selections, you are really counting on them to carry your team and we don’t think Querrey is up for that task yet. It will be a shocker to us if this team is competitive at any point. It would not be the first time we were wrong in our draft grades though!
Utah Black Diamonds – Michelle Esquivel, Spencer Smith, Olivia McMIllan, Rob Cassidy
This is a strong team across the board, with no real weaknesses. The question we have with these legacy players is whether the upside is limited compared to other teams in this draft. Nevertheless, we expect this group of veteran players to put them in contention to win the league. We had Barr and Fudge ahead of Esquivel, but Esquivel can bring the heat when few other women can in this draft. Spencer Smith and McMillan are also good value at these draft slots.
Dallas Pickleball Club – Megan Fudge, Chuck Taylor, Brandon French, Christa Gecheva
The Brandon French pick ruins what is otherwise a strong draft for Dallas. French is talented, but there is nothing in French’s resume outside of the PPA Tour Round-Up Men’s doubles win with Riley Newman that suggests he should have been drafted – his win with Neil Mediratta over Jay/Tyson earlier in 2022 does not count. Using a third round pick in particular is bad value for this pick. French got a PPA gold tour card presumably because of his friendship with Tom Dundon. It looks like the hometown Dallas guy gets another boost from his Dallas relationships with Mark Cuban owning this team. It pays to have friends in high places. The Fudge and Taylor picks are very solid, and Gecheva is may very well be good value in the fourth round.
Chicago Slice – Susannah Barr, Emily Ackerman, Connor Garnett, Ryler DeHeart
Solid team. As with so many teams out there, how they do rests with some upside selections. For the Slice, it will be how quickly Connor Garnett progresses and, to a lesser extent, Emily Ackerman. Susannah Barr is the top doubles player among the women in this draft and was our number 1 female out there. She is a solid foundation for the team. Moreover, with three solid singles players around Barr, it will help cover her singles weakness in any Dreambreaker.
Connor Garnett is extremely new to pickleball, but, with a few podiums to his name, there is already reason to believe he could be a fast-rising star. It is just a question of whether he can add enough polish and nuance to his game in time, as players adapt to his aggressive style and tricky two-hand backhand speed ups. Emily Ackerman has always looked like she has good potential in terms of watching her play, but the results have not come in her first true run at pro pickleball post-college tennis. With the upside picks, Ryler Deheart is a solid option in the fourth round as he can play all three events, but it does feel like his doubles game hasn’t evolved as quickly as we might have expected given his pedigree.
Bay Area Breakers – Pablo Tellez, Ewa Radzikowska, Christian Alshon, Rachel Summers
The Breakers went upside on both the Ewa Radzikowska and Christian Alshon picks, and those are players we really liked as upside selections going into the draft. We think Ewa’s limited results and the eye test probably warrant the second round, but we had thought there was a chance she would fall further based on her relatively low DUPR. This team is probably the best Dreambreaker roster in the league, which is likely a significant edge when there are bound to be consistency issues with lower-end players and teams lacking singles talent. There is a big downside risk for this team with Ewa and Christian being so new to the game still, and Pablo not exactly being a consistent player yet, with some shaky results of late. Still, we like the middle round bets, especially Alshon’s value, but we wonder if there weren’t safer options than Pablo in the first round. Rachel Summers is pretty much unknown to us and was just on the outside of our top 48.
Brooklyn Aces – Cierra Gaytan-Leach, Rob Nunnery, Corrine Carr, Greg Dow
Cierra and Rob provide a great core for the team. We both separately had Nunnery as our top rated player for this draft so to get him in the middle of the second round is highway robbery. We also separately had Cierra as the third rated female on our board. In the third round, Corrine was a real edge to be had in this draft. Her pregnancy means that she likely cannot play in the third event but, once you get down to about this spot in the draft, her steadiness and experience as your second female is unmatched.
The head scratcher for us was Greg Dow. He does not play singles or mixed in tournaments. Don’t get us wrong, we’re big fans of Dow’s men’s game as he is an extremely solid right side male player, but it was interesting for a rock solid team to take such a big gamble that he can play mixed and singles at this level. We think Eden Lica here would have made this team an instant frontrunner, with an extremely high floor. As strong as this team is, they are not made for the Dreambreaker either.
Atlanta Bouncers – Hunter Johnson, Brooke Buckner, Ben Newell, Christine McGrath
Hunter Johnson has some spotty men’s results, and for some reason has not been playing mixed of late, despite having some success in it earlier this year. However, Hunter is the best singles player in this league, and did not look out of place in the one MLP event he played last year. He’s your classic high upside pick for a Challenger draft, but there is some risk in building your team around him. Brooke Buckner has an elite tennis background and looks solid, but her results are still lacking. With where her game is at, it was a surprise to us that Buckner has tournament history back to 2018. Does she have a big jump in her level coming?
Ben Newell has some good results, and is an aggressive player who certainly has shots, but he seems to have real consistency issues. Finally, Christine McGrath has not been playing a lot of pickleball, but looks to be back playing after giving birth to a child earlier this year. McGrath is a legacy player, who was a fine enough selection in the 4th round of the draft. With this team, it is really a matter of whether Hunter Johnson and Ben Newell can play at their highest level consistently over the three events. If they can, they are scary. That is a big ‘if’ based on past results.
Valhalla Volleys Bobbi Oshiro, Callan Dawson, Rachel Rettger, Todd Fought
The team without an owner. It will be fascinating to see how Callan Dawson does in MLP and at this level when he has more responsibility to carry a team. He is such a steady right side men’s player, but there are questions about how much he can do in mixed and we don’t know if anyone has ever seen him play singles. Todd Fought, is a guy to watch in MLP and, even though he was outside our top 48, he has some results that suggest he could be a steal in the fourth round, although the consistency isn’t there in the results yet. Fought is definitely the swing guy for this team. If they have hit on him, they are likely going to be a tough team, as he theoretically is a good partner with Callan, and they could put out two solid mixed teams as well.
Bobbi Oshiro is a solid player, particularly in women’s doubles and she is under the radar good at singles. We wonder if Oshiro has been put in another tough MLP spot without power players around her though and we’ll be curious to watch how her mixed doubles goes as those results have been lacking for Bobbi. Oshiro did have a good run in her last tournament out with Brendon Long. If she can show some improved mixed prowess, her MLP stock could rise again. Rettger could be slight value in this draft slot too as a steady, not spectacular, type player.
Texas Ranchers – Lee Whitwell Pat Smith,’Genie Erokhina, Steve Deakin
This is a solid team across the board and it will be hard to see them finishing outside the top half of the Challenger league in almost any scenario. We have some big reservations about how this team will do in Dreambreakers, with no real singles players outside of Genie, who has a few strong pro singles wins. The Lee Whitwell, Pat Smith and Steve Deakin trio may not offer much in the way of upside, but there are not many teams that have a more steady, battle-tested core. You could make an argument that, outside of singles, none of those players would look out of place in the Premier League, which is not something many teams in this league can make a case for. If Steve Deakin can stay healthy, he is probably a steal in the fourth round, despite his lack of singles. Genie Erokhina has not overly impressed us on film, but her results suggest she could be decent value in the third round.
AZ Drive – Wes Burrows, Sarah Ansboury, Andreas Siljestrom, Sarah Burr
Outside of the Sarah Ansboury pick, these are all upside picks to a degree. Wes Burrows showed he belonged in MLP last year, but his level dipped in Columbus. This is right around where we had Burrows, but is he truly good enough to be the lead dog of a Challenger squad? He still has a ways to go with the consistency in his game, and with him playing less than a lot of these pros these days, you do have to wonder how much more progression there will be in his game.
Another pure upside pick, we had Andreas Siljestrom in our top 48 so the pick itself is not reprehensible. Siljestrom was ranked number 57 in the world in doubles tennis and he has only played four tournaments. But he has only played men’s doubles in those tournaments. He certainly would not have been drafted off of those results alone, so you are gambling on his upside, which as we previously stated about Querrey is a big gamble when the team will only play together for three events. With plenty of established male names left on the list in the third round, it is certainly a gamble. Sarah Burr has just recently come over to the states from Australia and her current results and the eye test make it questionable that she is ready for this level. It is certainly another gamble that she will keep improving.
Miami Pickleball Club – Alix Truong, Regina Franco, Jeff Warnick, Matt Manasse
You thought D.C. did a poor job with their draft? Hold my damn beer and welcome to Miami y’all! Let’s be clear, the women’s picks do not warrant a failing grade but, after those two picks, we were perplexed as to whether this was Major League Pickleball or the Greater Los Angeles area ladder league with Warnick and Manasse rounding out this roster. It may not be fair to lump Warnick in on this as it was not all that long ago that he was standing on PPA podiums, not something many players in this draft can claim. However, Warnick’s results this year have not been there, and he has not been playing a ton, nor can he play any singles. One of us had Warnick as borderline draftable and the other was out on him altogether.
What gives this team a failing grade is the Manasse pick. It is beyond bewildering, until you find out that he was acting as the GM of the team, and decided to bet on himself. More than a few players have to be wondering how they, with their pickleball resumes far greater than the self-proclaimed Pickleball McNasty, could not even get themselves on the list of draft eligible players, but Manasse is out here drafting himself. Manasse had an Instagram story about a week and a half ago with something along the lines of how he was ready for MLP and we legitimately thought he was joking. This is a screenshot of texts between each other about said Instagram story:
Manasse called Brandon French’s Dallas celebrity relationships, and raised us his pickleball coach to the stars tagline to make a mockery of the draft. If anyone tries to say this is no different than Travis Rettenmaier, they are wrong. Rettenmaier was in the draftable range last year. Manasse is not even close. Couldn’t Manasse have at least picked Ryan Sherry instead?
Columbus Pickleball Club – Milan Rane, Becky Ryan, Yates Johnson, CJ Klinger
The Milan Rane pick is fine, but pairing her with Becky Ryan, who we haven’t seen since August, is a big risk. We think both Rane and Ryan were reaches at these spots when you’re making them the foundation of your team. Yates Johnson’s singles game has continued to improve and he is one of the stronger singles players in this draft, just behind his brother Hunter. His doubles result though, have been erratic. We have hypothesized the men’s struggles for the Johnson twins could be that their games are not suited for each other, so Yates may be worth the gamble.
It was an interesting move, however, to partner Yates, with another rather erratic player in CJ Klinger. Klinger is a guy who has a lot of shots but tends to play with some reckless abandon. This style has gotten CJ some good wins, but he has struggled to put full days together in doubles. While we had CJ Klinger as borderline draftable in this draft (somewhere between 24 and 28 in our respective rankings), it is worth noting that his father was reportedly acting as GM of the team, which likely influenced this pick.
Notable Undrafted Men
Eden Lica – The big question for us on Eden has been desire. How much does he care about pickleball? How much does he train for pickleball beyond bicep curls? Despite all of that, it seems insane that he goes undrafted. His men’s ability is Premier level, and his singles is more than adequate. It’s hard to fathom how Eden does not get drafted somewhere in this 48, unless there’s something scandalous going on with him that we are unaware of. Either way, players must be all the way out on Eden Lica.
Brendon Long – One of the most underrated guys out there. Brendon Long gets wins in men’s and mixed, but no one seems to know who he is because he does not get a lot of podiums. We can say this for pretty much every male player out there who didn’t get drafted, but Matt Manasse getting drafted instead is a crime.
Austin Gridley – Gridley is a guy who has shown he can get results at the pro level. His stock has gone way down since the beginning of 2022 and he hasn’t played as many tournaments recently, but he offers steady reliability as a men. We also don’t think he’s nearly as poor a singles player as the perception of him based on a couple of Dreambreakers that did not go well.
Daniel De La Rosa – Daniel was picked too high last year for MLP, and it showed in his team’s performance. At this level, his talent should be enough to impact winning even if he’s not fully dedicated to being a pro pickleball player. It’s surprising he did not get a look from one team.
John Cincola – We were hard on Cincola getting to stick around for 2 MLP events last year, but he was in our top 48 for this Challenger draft. He’s steady across all 3 events and has shown he can win at the pro level.
Joey Farias – There are not a lot of guys who possess Joey’s shot making. At a certain point in this draft, there are guys who have proven to get results at the pro level and that should mean something. We expected some of these guys like Farias were going to go undrafted. We did not think it would be in favor of the likes of Matt Manasse or Brandon French.
We had a number of other guys we thought we in the mix that were not in our 48, and definitely deserved to be drafted over Manasse. We cannot name everyone because, well, pretty much everyone in the available player pool would qualify, but here are some other names: Alex Neumann, Jake Kusmider, Pesa Teoni, Anderson Scarpa and Mario Barrientos.
Notable Undrafted Women
Salome Devidze – It appeared that Devidze was out of the player pool at the last minute for reasons unknown to us, so she wasn’t undrafted. In a thin crop of women, we felt this one needed highlighting, even if the doubles game needs a lot more seasoning.
Dominique Lemperle – We haven’t seen Lemperle play recently, but the DUPR was high. She’s a little older and coming off a major injury this year with limited movement. She has some decent pro results as of late.
Jennifer Tavernier – She was right on the border of the top 48 for both of us and a testament to her improvement has been some of the better partners she has been getting. She does not play singles in tournaments after her hamstring injury last year, but there has been far more improvement in her game than either of us would have expected in 2022. We had her higher than Monica Paolicelli, Sarah Burr and Rachel Summers.
Martina Kochli – She has been around a while and the game is passing her by here. But Kochli is a veteran of the game at this point and arguably brings as much to the table as a few of the women drafted. The singles is a concern for her.
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