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WNBA Rookies: Making It In The League

ByShawn Medow|@ShawnMedow| September 14, 2021
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“Where do I begin?” 

WNBA veteran Angel McCoughtry was responding to a Queen Ballers Club question about what she wishes she knew back when she was a rookie in 2009.  

The 34-year-old took a pause during the Las Vegas Aces media day and then began to explain.

“I wish I had known more about branding and marketing. I wish I knew about the business aspect of it more so,” she said at the team’s 2021 media day. “You come in young and think ‘play, play, play, play.’ You wish you knew something more about the business side of it.”

Angel is doing something about it: writing a book. 

“[It’s] about how to be successful. Tailored to help the young kids how to use social media, form relationships, because you’ll need these relationships after you retire. I didn’t think about this stuff when I was a kid,” Angel McCoughtry said. “The book is written to explain all those details in depth to explain to the young players.”

“When I came in, there was no Instagram. Twitter had just come out. The Dream made me a Twitter account. I didn’t know what that was. I knew nothing about that stuff. Now it’s a different generation for the kids with social media and people watching more, so I think that’s really important.” 

As the 2021 season winds down, and the Rookie of the Year conversation kicks into gear, we take a look at what being a rookie in the WNBA is like. 

Coming into the WNBA — and all women’s professional sports — is unlike most other (men’s) sports. There aren’t six-figure or more salaries, million-dollar endorsements or teams of people  plotting your every move. In a sense, you’re on your own. 

While it’s improving for rookies in the WNBA, it still has a ways to go after 25 years. The life of a rookie is not easy. These are some of their stories of how they cut it in the WNBA, who helped them along the way, and how the league can continue to improve. 

The WNBA Draft

The WNBA draft is a life-changing night for many draftees. 

The anticipation is high, the selections are minimal — just 36, with rosters of only 12 for the season. So the draft can be a stressful time. 

Happening right after the Final Four, future rookies have barely any time to decide — if they’re undecided — about going into the draft if they still have college eligibility remaining. 

When Sabrina Ionescu was a junior and led the Oregon Ducks to the 2019 Final Four for the first time in the school’s history, she faced not only the pressure of performing in the national semifinal, but also the pressure of deciding if she would remain at Oregon or not. 

In the end, Sabrina decided to stay, writing in the Players’ Tribune that she has “some business to take care of first.” Unfortunately for Sabrina, who went to the New York Liberty as the No. 1 pick a year later, she and Oregon never got to take care of her unfinished business as the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For Sabrina Ionescu in the WNBA, the pressure of being the No. 1 pick was big. She was a household name in the college game and was about to make her mark on the WNBA stage. After an ankle injury during the 2020 bubble season in Florida, Sabrina never got the full rookie experience. For Sabrina’s New York Liberty teammate and 2021 WNBA draftee Michaela Onyenwere, she’s had a proper rookie experience while performing at a high level. 

Michaela, the No. 6 pick in the draft, won back-to-back rookie of the month awards in June and July after becoming a key part of the Liberty squad.  

“My coaches and my teammates just always speak life into me and encourage me and so when I have those open shots, I know I can hit them,” Michaela Onyenwere told the New York Daily News. “I know I can knock them down. If I don’t, then they’re still in my ear encouraging me. I think that’s just how our team works.”

For Las Vegas Aces’ Kelsey Plum, the quick turnaround to the draft was a stressful process. For Kelsey, it only got more stressful during her tough time in San Antonio. 

“It kind of happened so fast,” Kelsey said to the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “These women play college, within a week they’re getting drafted and then they’re in the city that they’re drafted in the next day. Everything happens so much faster. Then you add in other media stuff and you’re trying to sign with maybe a shoe brand. There’s a lot of stuff going on.”

“I think I was so caught up the whole year with so many different things, that when the moment finally came, I didn’t enjoy it. … For me, looking back, if I could tell somebody now, I would say really soak it in. And it sounds so cliche, but you know, I didn’t.”

Similarly to Kelsey, Skylar Diggins-Smith had a tough go in her first season in the WNBA. She was on a struggling franchise in Tulsa, which surely didn’t help.

“My rookie season was underwhelming to say the least. Very character building, getting drafted to Tulsa, obviously we didn’t really have resources or a lot of things that I just remember the people being awesome to me ‘we love you, we got you’ even when I was struggling,” she said during 2021 media day.

The game has come a long way since Skylar Diggins-Smith — and even when Kelsey Plum — was a rookie. And things have turned out pretty nicely for the two of them since their slow starts. 

The two most recent WNBA drafts (2020, 2021) have been virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This has meant at-home viewing parties and no physical orange carpet. This hasn’t stopped the life-changing moments from happening. 

Aces draft pick Destiny Slocum came on day one ready to work. 

“She’s done a phenomenal job preparing herself physically, being ready to go for camp,” Kelsey said of her fellow guard during media day. “I think it’s nice when you have a couple years under your belt in terms of college, being a little bit older. Experience makes a difference. I think she’s done a phenomenal job. It’s tough, we have a very experienced roster so for her to come in and be able to make the transition, credit to her.”

A’ja Wilson was just as complimentary of her new teammate during media day. 

“She’s a passer. She can pass the ball really well. You can tell she’s a perfectionist, even a bigger one than KP (Kelsey Plum) and I didn’t even know that was possible. She really wants to make sure that she’s understanding exactly what’s going on,” she said.

“Yesterday, before the scrimmage she comes in the training room with a dry erase board and her playbook. It’s incredible. My playbook as a rookie was perfect sheets of paper because I never opened it. To see her do that, it really shows how much she cares about the game and how much she wants to grow. For me, that’s huge.”

Destiny Slocum has come in confident, too, saying she was ready for what was in store for her when she arrived with the Aces in Las Vegas.

“I mean, there’s really no jump. You go straight from college to the pros and that’s what they expect you to do, too,” Destiny said to Just  Women’s Sports. “They hand you the playbook, you come back and you know the plays when (coach Laimbeer) calls them. Just a lot of responsibility and maturity comes with it.”

For Destiny, the adjustment she has found most difficult has been working hard and not seeing immediate payoff. Instead, she has been staying ready for her minutes and opportunity to get on the court. 

“I mean, you’re crazy if you’re a basketball player and you don’t want to be on the floor every second. But also, patience [is important] in everything you do,” she said to Just Women’s Sports. “I show up every day as if I’m going to play 40 minutes every game. It’s what I do with the minutes that I do have that are valuable. My biggest goal is, when I’m in the game, am I doing everything in my power to help us win?”

The Learning Curve 

Some have a difficult transition to the WNBA game like Kelsey or Skylar, while others, such as Michaela, fit right in. 

The speed of the game increases for those coming from college or abroad. For some that’s not a big problem. 

“I wouldn’t say there’s some extreme difference, I think basketball is basketball. The pace of the game is definitely more uptempo. We play really fast and I think that’s how I’ve played my entire life so I’m just excited to be a part of it,” 2021 rookie Stephanie Watts said during Los Angeles Sparks media day.

“I think my biggest takeaway is that I can be a high level defender at this level. I think I was able to get some blocks on some really good players, get some steals. I think that I can be a really active, high level defender at this level.” 

Practicing with a new team, with players much older and experienced is a daunting task. Defending the highest level of players for the first time can catch a rookie off guard. Ball movement in the WNBA is unmatched, the individual skill of each player is above anywhere else, and there is no let off from starter to the deepest player on the bench. During training camp, rookies learn this immediately. 

“It’s very hard [playing defense as a rookie]. Everyone’s a threat,” the 2021 No. 4 overall pick by the Indiana Fever, Kysre Gondrezick, said. “There’s not a weak link on the floor. Everyone in this league is just as capable as the next man up. Having to guard a true one-v-one on defense so you don’t get beat consistently because the paint is wider, it’s longer. You can’t just sit in there. You have to move. Everything’s a lot quicker and faster.”

Kysre Gonderzick left the WNBA on personal leave following the Olympic break in 2021. 

For 2017 WNBA rookie of the year Allisha Gray, it’s even deeper than general speed or physicality. 

“The fouls that you know you’re getting in college you have to play through in the pros and that’s what I realized my rookie year,” she said to Queen Ballers Club. “OK I gotta get stronger because these are literally grown women. The age gap is so much different than the age gap in college.”

From a coaching perspective, the incoming class of rookies have similar traits every season. They are wide-eyed, eager to impress and have to take time to adjust to everything that being a rookie entails. 

“They don’t know what they’re doing,” Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer said during 2021 media day. “They’re scared, they’re young, they’re not grown, complete women like the rest of them are, so they’re always going to be behind. They’re going to struggle, especially in the first week, it’s overwhelming for them.”

The first few weeks in the gym are big, with an emphasis on training camp. They’re competitive as players fight for the limited roster spots, especially for the rookies who are most likely to get cut over the experienced WNBA players. 

“I think that when you’re on a team with similar players, iron sharpens iron,” 2021 draftee Aari McDonald told Just Women’s Sports. “We’re making each other better every day in practice. We’re gonna put these pieces together, and we’re gonna fight and we’re gonna scrap and grind it out. And I really like my odds.”

While learning the game is one thing, their entire lifestyles changing is just as important if not more. The basketball on the court is only part of the life of a WNBA player, and rookies have to pick up on that quickly. 

“I’m learning our new tactics, new styles, my IQ,” Kysre said during preseason media day. “Getting in terms of how fast I’m able to pick up information and how fast I’m able to implement it. The management process of everything, I’m learning about my responsibility and recovery, the life of a professional, just getting used to it.”

With the quick turnaround from college to the draft to being in the league, WNBA players who are still finishing up their degrees have had classes clash with their professional basketball games. In the case of Seattle Storm rookie Kiana Williams, a June WNBA game conflicted with her graduation from Stanford. Kiana Williams played in her Storm game, scoring her first professional points while her classmates received their diplomas. She was later waived.

Mentorship

What can make the adjustment less overwhelming when a rookie arrives in the WNBA is a mentor. A veteran player will take a youngster under their wing to guide them along their beginning in the WNBA. 

When Jordin Canada was drafted by the Storm, she was dubbed Sue Bird’s replacement. She had a lot of pressure on her young shoulders. But during the first week of training camp, that pressure was lifted by a veteran on the team: Sue Bird herself. 

“She told me the first couple days of practice to not worry about filling her shoes,” Jordin Canada told Queen Ballers Club. “That was something that was extremely important to hear early in my career.”

Having a veteran in your corner when starting out is not just helpful, it’s powerful.

While Kelsey and A’ja complimented their Destiny, Angel McCoughtry is giving the advice now to the up-and-comers of the WNBA. Shakayla Thomas is one of those players who she took under her wing during the 2021 training camp. 

“I just feel like I’m a leader. Just the leader in me wants to see the kids do well,” Angel McCoughtry said. “You don’t wanna see the kids nervous or anxiety. We’ve been through it. Just to take Shakayla under my wing just to show the ropes, help with any experience that I have.”

“I felt like when I came in as a kid, I didn’t have that, a mentorship, someone taking me under their wing. I kind of had to be alone and there’s nothing wrong with that but if you have people around who have accomplished so much, why not lend the helping hand? You don’t win gold medals or go to championships for no reason. It’s not for yourself, it’s to help others that are coming and paving the way under you as well.” Shakayla was later waived.

Though that pave-the-way mindset is seen throughout the WNBA. An uplifting mindset for vets who look to lift the rookies to the top level. 

For Chiney Ogumwike, it’s important to go after it from the get go, allow oneself to learn from the game and do everything in their power to get better each day. 

“The game will force you to grow. Those that hesitate, those that resist will get left behind. I think covering the NBA, covering women’s hoops, covering our league, that’s one thing that is universal. Sometimes people will send me a high school highlight or my All-American game. I kind of was a different player. Even though Stanford was a great experience, it’s sort of getting back to that free-flowing, playing basketball because that’s the professional level,” she said during media day.

“You can script a hundred-zillion plays but at the end of the day the play that matters is the one that you sort of dictate. Those are those championship plays at the highest level and for me that just means continuing to work on my game and getting back to working on free-flowing basketball which includes knocking down shots.” 

“Now I fully understand this process. In order to learn, you have to miss to learn how to make. And I’m in that stage where I’m not afraid to miss in order to figure out how to force my game to grow.” 

One of the league’s most prolific players, Brittney Griner, says she’s enjoying the new talent that steps onto the court each season. 

“Young centers that are coming in are hungry. They’re definitely talented. Had a stretch where they weren’t the tallest. We got the height coming back a little bit,” Brittney said during 2021 media day interviews.

“They’re not shy. They’re ready to learn, they’re ready to bang, they’re ready to go right at you. And that’s what I love. I love when I see the younger players come in and take it right to us. I’ve always been a fan of players that have that grit and toughness.”

Changing the Game 

The culture shock of coming into the WNBA from college or overseas is nothing to scoff at. New rookies are seeing a difference, and making one too, as they enter the league at a point of peak popularity and an ability for it to grow even bigger. 

Players have a chance to be a vessel for change, they can use social media to market themselves, and they can fight for better compensation. 

“The league has gotten a lot better since my rookie season. I’ve been here for 10 but this is only my fifth season. There’s a lot of reasons why that is. A lot of it was pay, a lot of it was the way we were treated, travel,” Liz Cambage said during 2021 media day. “There’s been a lot of growth on and off the court. It’s still a very young league. …There’s been a lot of growth and a lot of improvements but there’s still a long way to go.”

The differences from when players like Liz Cambage was a rookie to now are stark. But like the Aces and Australian star said, there is still work to be done. One way players are making personal changes to the league is through individual branding. Chiney Ogumwike is one of the players at the forefront of that. 

“Personal branding is everything. I think when you step into the professional ranks for the first time, and I think it was even as recent as when I got in as a rookie in 2014. It was, ‘OK what do I do? How do I show myself?’ We’re at the beautiful intersection of sports and society and technology,” she said.

“So now seeing the possibilities of you don’t have to rely on your team necessarily to continue to brand you 100 percent. You can bet on yourself in that regard. And I think it’s just understanding who I am and what I stand for. Mind you, I didn’t know who I was until I was 26 or 27. That’s when you step into your adulting type of vibes.”

“Just knowing what is your passion and what makes you go and having that platform now as a pro where you can really tell stories from your own personal brand, that means something to you whether it is giving back, social justice, being fleeky. I think the idea is just knowing yourself and advocating for yourself, realizing that you are in a beautiful position with a platform and I think a lot of times now we’re in an era of society where platforms are being valued in a way that we never thought was possible. So I tell those young rookies to tap, tap, tap into that.” 

One 2021 rookie taking Chiney Ogumwike’s advice is Kysre Gonderzick, who went into depth on the topic during 2021 media day.

“For me it was really important to change the landscape of women’s basketball. For me, I’ve always been taught just before that just because you play like a boy doesn’t mean you have to look like one,” Kysre said. “I think it’s so important for women and our femininity to compete at a high level in which we do and to be able to brand ourselves off the court as well. I just wanted to set the bar. 

“…the next generation, someone’s always watching. You don’t know who’s paying attention. In terms of my ideal 1: yeah, I was a top five draft pick, I’ve done well from a basketball perspective but I still gotta start over. 2: There’s so many different facets of that deal about why they’re trying to brand you the way they are. From a business standpoint, when we have this converasaion of me creating my own line, my own shoe, you want it to be unisex. Steph Curry’s shoes, LeBron James’ shoes, Kobe’s shoes, why can’t they wear ours? That’s the narrative that I’m trying to change. The branding and marketing piece I feel that needs to be just as important as us competing on the court.”

“People want to pay attention so when you give them something to pay attention to and you promote yourself much bigger than you, people take notice of that. Who doesn’t want to see a woman and her best self on magazine covers in stores everywhere or who says they can’t?”

All the work the past generations have put in as the WNBA has grown to what it is in season 25 will not be for nothing. The future is bright. The rookies make it brighter.

Up next, read all about the evolution of three-ball in the WNBA and how it’s changing the game.

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