Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

No Team No Problem As Philly Flavor Sprinkles WNBA Draft

By Mel Greenberg @womhoopsguru

 

Devoid of a WNBA team here in Philadelphia did not prevent the City of Brotherly Love from accentuating its share of sister influence Friday afternoon and night over the women’s pro basketball league that thumbed its collective nose at the coronavirus and went ahead with its scheduled draft in a first-ever virtual format for pro leagues  as those involved kept their social distance.

 

From the very start of the activities was an afternoon teleconference held by commissioner Cathy Engelbert, the native of Haddonfield, N.J., from across the Delaware River, who was to preside over her first three-round group of 36-player selections. 

 

Later, following the leadoff picks as expected with consensus collegiate player of the year Sabrina Ionescu out of Oregon going No. 1 to the New York Liberty, her Ducks teammate Satou Sabally out of Germany going next to the Dallas Wings, and Baylor’s Lauren Cox taken by the Indiana Fever, Princeton’s Bella Alarie went fifth to Dallas as the first Ivy Leaguer to be a first-rounder since Harvard’s Allison Feaster went to the Los Angeles Sparks in 1998.

 

Alarie also became part of a rarer father-daughter first-round combo with her Dad going from Duke to the Denver Nuggets as the 18th pick of the NBA draft of 1986.

 

Bella was a three-time Ivy player of the year and the second Princeton pick in draft history following Leslie Robinson by New York. 


Former Tigers star Blake Dietrick, who now plays for the Atlanta Dream, was a free-agent signee when she entered the league.

 

Another famed father-daughter first-round combo was Cheryl Ford of Louisiana Tech with the former Detroit Shock and her dad, NBA great Karl Malone.

 

Draft night also shined just down Route 206 in Lawrenceville, N.J. with the third-round pick of Stella Johnson, the nation’s leading scorer, who becomes the first-ever selectee out of Rider, which she led to its first Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference regular season title and spot in what became the cancelled NCAA tournament.

 

Johnson was taken fifth in the second round, 29th overall, by  the Phoenix Mercury led by former UConn great Diana Taurasi.

 

Engelbert noted during her afternoon presser that officials felt it was important to go ahead with the draft as some compensation to players who had their collegiate careers cut short before the NCAA tournament to realize their dreams with their names called.

 

WNBA teams could also begin building their rosters and strategize.

 

A former Neumann-Goretti High standout from here selected was James Madison star Kamiah Smalls, a Colonial Athletic Association player of the year, going just ahead of Johnson as the fourth pick of the third round and 28thoverall to the Indiana Fever, which has veteran all-star Candice Dupree out of Temple.

 

The Midwest team will be under former Immaculata star Marianne Stanley, returning to her first WNBA head coaching job after a long stint under Mike Thibault with the Washington Mystics, who won its first league crown last fall beating the Connecticut Sun in a thrilling five-game go-the-distance affair.

 

Several days earlier this week, Washington pulled a blockbuster trade, landing former UConn star Tina Charles from New York, reuniting her with Thibault from their days with the Sun. 


She’ll be playing alongside Delaware great Elena Delle Donne as well as former Saint Joseph’s playmaker Natasha Cloud out of Cardinal O’Hara High.

 

Two stars from Dawn Staley’s top-ranked South Carolina squad went consecutively in the first round with Mikiah Herbert Harrigan going sixth to the Minnesota Lynx, coached by former La Salle star Cheryl Reeve, followed by Tyasha Harris going to the Atlanta Dream.

 

The next two picks were players taking advantage of a loophole allowing them to join the WNBA a year ahead of their senior eligibility because they turn age 22 prior to the end of December.

 

Ruthy Hebard, the third first-rounder from Oregon, went eighth to the Chicago Sky followed by UConn star Megan Walker to New York, which collected a bunch of draft slots out of the Charles trade.

 

There was also a moment of poignancy with Engelbert announcing the creation of the Kobe & Gigi Bryant Advocacy Award going to an individual or group making a significant contribution to the visibility, perception and advancement of girls and women’s basketball at all levels.

 

The award will be given out annually at the NBA All-Star game honoring the memory of the late NBA great out of Lower Merion High in the suburbs and his daughter Gianna, who were killed with several others in a helicopter crash last January heading to a girls game at Bryant’s complex in Los Angeles.

 

“Kobe was an incredible champion of women’s basketball and his daughter Gianna shared his passion and dedication to our game,” Engelbert said.

 

She also made Gianna, along with two other young victims in the crash, Alyssa Altobelli and Payton Chester, honorary draft picks at the start of the night’s activities.

 

Engelbert  was thanked by Bryant’s widow Vanessa, who was wearing Kobe’s WNBA hoodie in the video.

 

ESPN devoted two hours to the draft, the first-ever conducted virtually by a pro league as selectees and other participants appeared from where they were sheltering in place across the country.

 

In recent years, the event has been a festive event in midtown Manhattan attended by players, their college coaches, family and friends, and media.

 

Vanessa Bryant will also have a large role in helping to determine the recipient(s) in her husband’s memory.  

 

Engelbert, the fifth head of the league but first with the commissioner title, was hired last summer  and her area basketball background includes playing at Lehigh for Saint Joseph’s Muffet McGraw, who has gone on from there to make Notre Dame a national power with two NCAA titles.


The former chief executive officer of Deloitte US noted Friday was her ninth month on the job, an eventful period that in January saw the death of retired NBA commissioner  David Stern and also of the signing of a new collective bargaining agreement well received by the WNBA players.

 

One of the few events among pro teams to go off as scheduled since the national shutdown of virtually everything last month, the league now heads into uncertainty with a delayed start at an unknown date, if at all, for training camps and the games themselves.

 

The league has one perk in that the original slate included the traditional mid-summer hiatus to allow WNBA stars to compete for USA Basketball besides the foreign brigade in the leaguefor their respective national squads in the now-cancelled summer Olympics in Japan.

 

That affords a window to recover several weeks from the looming late start if the league can proceed with a season.

 

“We continue to scenario plan,” Engelbert said in the afternoon but also acknowledging the national outlook is a daily state of flux. “We haven’t taken any of our scenario plans off the table.”

 

She noted options of events as fans or no fans, neutral sites, or multiple sites, or back inside home team arenas.

 

“We could play into the fall for sure, but we’re going to try to get a semblance of a season into this summer into fall,” Engelbert said speaking from her central New Jersey home in Berkeley Heights outside of New York City where the NBA and WNBA share home offices.

 

She continued to allude to medical and health advisability factors as what will determine how things will move forward if at all.

 

Noting different options to conduct a season, the WNBA commissioner said, “Yeah, so first, on the WNBA playing at the same time as the NBA, I think we don't share as many arenas as you think we share probably across our 12 teams. 

 

“But I also think where we do share an arena, it's a time of opportunity that we could probably do back-to-backs or doubleheaders or look at a variety of things around our current arenas. Or maybe bring some games to -- if it gets to the point where we're in arenas with fans, we go into arenas in other cities where there's not a WNBA team, especially some of these big college markets where women's basketball is extremely popular. 

 

That's all part of the scenarios we're looking at.

 

Meanwhile as what would normally be the main standalone topic, the  process of selection, the pick of Ionescu becomes part of a rebuild in New York, which spent  most of its original life in Madison Square Garden before being tossed to the suburbs in Westchester as New York Knicks owner James Dolan finally sold the team to the Brooklyn Nets owner Joe Tsai, who is bringing the team back to the city in the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, making the Liberty more accessible to the fan base.


A charter member off the launch summer of 1997, New York even introduced a new logo this week though maintaining the torch of the Statue of Liberty.

 

Former coach and WNBA Katie Smith was not retained and is now an assistant with Minnesota, whose former assistant Walt Hopkins succeeds her in New York.

 

Once camps begin with their toughness for newcomers primarily in the lower rounds to make 11-player rosters on the 12 teams, Friday will be a short memory for many who enjoyed the recent moment.

 

But with the season on hold, the joy of selection becomes elongated with Alarie considered to have the most upside among the locals, though it wouldn’t be surprising to see Johnson make opening day rostervwith Phoenix.

 

Alarie talked about Dallas, which is coached by veteran Brian Agler, who led Los Angeles and Seattle to WNBA titles as well as the Columbus Quest to the two American Basketball League crowns in the late 1990s in the ABL’s short existence.

 

The former Princeton star is  coming to Dallas with Oregon’s Sabally and South Carolina’s Harris.

 

“Satou is a super versatile player, really fun to watch, kind of does everything on the floor exceptionally well, and so I'm really excited to play with her and also with Ty Harris,” said the native of Bethesda, Md., which is next to the nation’s capital.

 

“I think this is a team, they want young players who are skilled, versatile.” Alarie said. “We're going to play fast basketball. It's an exciting team. 

 

“I'm really excited to play alongside some really amazing professional women's basketball players, so it's a huge opportunity, and I'm just really excited and looking forward to it.”

 

In talking with media on the teleconferences set up with the first round picks from their locales, Alarie described the moments leading to her name being called.

 

“Yeah, I mean, my heart was pounding all day. I didn't think I'd be so nervous leading up to it. 

 

“Yeah, I mean, I was just waiting to hear my name, and when it came, it was the most exciting moment.


“ A lot of love in the room with my family, but it's kind of the culmination of all my hard work over my life as a basketball player, and yeah, it's just a really, really special moment. 

 

“Just really excited, also relieved to hear my name. I love Dallas. Having conversations with the coaches and the GM, I'm really excited about the future, my future in Dallas and our future as a team.”

 

 In answering one of several questions relating to the Ivy League and Princeton, Alarie said, “Yeah, so to answer the first question, yeah, you can get the best education in the world with the Ivy League. 

 

“I think that's what it shows is you can get an Ivy League degree, a Princeton degree, and I get to play at the highest level in the WNBA, and I'm just so proud. 

 

“I think it shows the future trend of basketball, definitely more respected mid-major players possibly, but I'm really glad to be the face of that this year. 


“And then yeah, family bragging rights, I'm the highest pick out of my dad and my Uncle Jay (Bilas of ESPN), so I'll definitely be using that to my advantage.”

 

Princeton was the No. 1 defensive team in the country last season, its first under former Division III Tufts coach Carla Berube, a former UConn star, after being led for 12 seasons by Courtney Banghart, now at North Carolina.

 

Talking about her own game, Alarie said, “Yeah, I think I'm confident in just my versatility as a player, being comfortable. 

 

“I've played for two college coaches now and Team USA teams under different head coaches, so I'm coachable as a player and I can fit into different systems, and whatever is asked of me I can do, so I think that will translate especially to the WNBA where we see players that are extremely versatile that are super successful in the league, and I think that will translate for me, just being able to be in different situations and contribute in whatever ways I can.”

 

As for Banghart, a former Dartmouth star who turned Princeton into a national powerhouse who finished 22nd this season, its third ever in the rankings and only Ivy to ever be voted in the polls, Alarie spoke of her former coach, saying, “Yeah, I mean, one thing about Coach Banghart, she's a relentless competitor, and that's something I've always admired in her and something that's an intangible quality that you can bring anywhere and that hard work is important to getting better. 

 

“You can't just show up on game day and be a great player. There's unseen hours and the hard work you've got to put in. And I was lucky to play for her. 

 

“She instilled a lot of great advice to me, made me a really confident player, trusted me, and yeah, I'm really glad I got to play for her for three years, and I know the lessons I learned, the lessons Blake learned from playing with her definitely will be super important going into the WNBA.”

 

Meanwhile, there was joy among Rider faithful and Johnson after the disappointing end of the season when the MAAC tourney joined the rest of conferences in closing down, which came a day after she scored 37 in a quarterfinal win over Niagara in Atlantic City.

 

“I feel excited just to be able to get picked up by a team and get my foot in the door and show them what I’ve got. But it was a cool feeling to see my name across the draft board,” Johnson said.

She watched the draft with her Broncos teammates, like so many others these days, using zoom software to be virtually together.


“It was kind of weird, just seeing how they were doing the first round and everything,” Johnson said. “I Zoomed in with the whole team and the new incoming people for next year. 

 

“So, it was just awesome for them to be there for me. I know it was kind of late – some of them were six hours away and it was 2 a.m. there. So it means a lot.


“My parents were just sitting up there, waiting for it. They kept shouting because they couldn’t see the names at the bottom. My mom starting screaming, and my dad was like, ‘what happened, what happened?’ It was kind of cool. Just a lot of chaos.”

She spoke about going to a team that has Taurasi as well as former Baylor sensation Brittney Griner and former Notre Dame standout Skylar Diggins-Smith.


“I feel like it’s so cool,” Johnson said. I’ve gotten a lot of texts saying, ‘you’re playing with all the legends like Griner, Taurasi and Diggins.’ I think it’s just an opportunity to learn from three of the great players in the WNBA. I think it’s just awesome to be a part of.


“I think it’s going to be interesting. Very interesting. Because you’re a rookie again,” she said. “You’re starting over basically. You have to adjust to a new way of things. But I think it’s going to be an exciting process.

“I think I’m going to have to change a little bit. I’m going to have to get stronger and all that. But it’s about how I adjust to the whole team and what they want me to do so I can help them.”

 

For veteran Rider coach Lynn Milligan, who has finally seen her program blossom the last several seasons into a mid-major power, it’s an extra thrill to see the Broncos have one of their own taken on draft day, even though Johnson likely would have earned a training camp contract if bypassed.

 

“I have been incredibly anxious all day,” Milligan said. “I was texting Stella this morning. I was checking on her, but it was more for myself. 

 

“It was to see how she was doing, but I was trying to talk myself off the ledge, too. 

 

“It’s been a great day. It’s been exciting waiting for it. You see every pick and from 15 on, I thought we could see her name at any time. I was just anxiously waiting to see that ‘Stella Johnson – Rider.’ 

 

“And to see that on the screen on ESPN in the WNBA Draft, it’s history for Stella, it’s history for the program and it’s a great feeling.”

 

“It’s big,” Milligan said. “For someone to come into our program the way Stella did and to put in the work that she did and, when you look at a lot of players, her starting point was not where some players’ is. 

 

“She came in not being heavily recruiting, all that stuff. That story has been told. 

 

“But for her to go where she started and end up being drafted by the WNBA, it says something about Stella. I think it says something about how we do things at Rider. I think it says something about our program overall.” Milligan continued.

 

“She may have been looked over because of the name on the front of her jersey. But there are a lot of great mid-major players out there that all they need is an opportunity. And Stella did the work to put herself in the situation to have this opportunity by leading our team to a championship, by being the leading scorer in the nation. 

 

“She forced people to look at her game. They looked, they broke her game down and they saw what we all knew – that versatility and that very unique skill set that she has that a lot of players don’t have – there’s a lot of players that are scorers or they’re defenders or they’re good passers. 

 

“Stella does all of that. I think the more a lot of these coaches and scouts broke her game down, I think that’s what they saw. They saw a unique skill set and versatility at the next level that could carry her to that point.

 

“Stella’s represented this program better than anybody could’ve imagined, and she’ll continue to do that,” Milligan gushed.

 

“Arizona is going to know where Rider is really quick. Stella’s going to make an impression on Phoenix. She’s going to make an impression on Arizona. 

 

“And they’re going to love her out there. She’s going to play the way she’s supposed to. And I think those veteran players are going to like that a young player can come in and just do her job and find her role and find her place and have the attitude of, “hey, what do you need from me to help us win?’ 

 

That’s what Stella has and she’s going to represent Rider well doing that the way she always has,” Milligan continued.

 

“To be honest with you, I was like a little kid. I was screaming louder than any of the kids.

 

“I’m just so proud of her. This is something that Stella and I have talked about for a couple of years. To really see all of her hard work pay off like this, it’s an amazing feeling. 

 

And I’m just so happy for her, that she’s able to realize this dream. Her foot’s in the door now, and that’s all we ever wanted – for someone to give her a chance.

 

“She’s going to take advantage of that opportunity. We all know that. I’m excited that Phoenix saw something in her and wants to give her that opportunity.”

 

 

 




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

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