Despite what you may have heard, "hype" is not one of the explicit four-letter words that we can no longer write or speak about. At least not anymore. If there is one thing that we have learned in the basketball world over the past few months, it is that hype is no longer the cliché that it once was.
Hype is nothing more than a lot of people getting excited about something at a very early, almost premature, stage. Expectations and hype are a big part of sports, and perceptions have become a reality. Few athletes are ever worthy of the amount of praise they receive before ever playing a professional game, but even fewer of those who garner these accolades go on to exceed the lofty expectations.
Like the NBA’s most recent focus of the barrage of early attention, LeBron James, Connecticut’s Diana Taurasi gives us all good reason to believe in it again. Just a few months into their rookie seasons, James and Carmelo Anthony have been even better, even earlier than all of the hype predicted. They were ‘next.’ They are now.
As is Taurasi. She is a guaranteed sure thing. Like LeBron, Taurasi has been a centerpiece of the amateur basketball world for several years. As the preeminent female collegiate athlete for three years, there may be about as much drama and anticipation over who the Phoenix Mercury will select with their first pick as there was when the Cleveland Cavaliers had the first pick in last year’s NBA Draft. Despite the hype, taking an 18-year old with the first pick of the Draft and signing him to million-dollar endorsement deals in the preseason may have been a gamble, but taking Taurasi, one of the winningest players in college sports history, is anything but a gamble.
Basketball Hall-of-Famer and analyst Ann Meyers, who provided commentary for the last four games of Taurasi’s career on ESPN (who enjoyed its highest ratings ever for a college basketball game during the Women’s NCAA Finals thanks to Taurasi and her Connecticut team), thinks that Diana is the biggest impact college graduate to have ever joined the WNBA.
“Diana is the real deal for me because she does everything. She can play point guard and shooting guard, I think she leads her team in blocked shots and her defense is often overlooked. She plays way ahead of her time. She is very savvy and always knows what needs to be done. Talent-wise, she is our Larry Bird while from a marketing perspective, she is our Lebron James.”
Diana Taurasi is the real deal.
Known as “Dee” at first to her teammates and friends and now to the entire sporting world, Taurasi will be expected to make an immediate impact for her team. Seattle’s Sue Bird
was the first pick in the 2002 WNBA Draft and was named a First Team All-WNBA player in her rookie year while the third pick in the 2003 Draft, Cheryl Ford
, led the Detroit Shock to a championship. Taurasi also has the ability to single-handedly turn a franchise around. She would have been the first pick in last year’s WNBA Draft had “leaving early” been something that was even considered.
“She really is a phenomenal player, unbelievable with the things she can do with the ball,” said Bird, Taurasi’s teammate at UConn for two years. “She can shoot the ball from anywhere, pass the ball better than a lot of the people I’ve seen, and she has a great feel for the game. She’s just a winner.”
But can an athlete who has already accomplished as much as Taurasi has be the victim of over-hyping? Taurasi may like to talk a good talk, but she has already done miles of walking and has been a national star with name-recognition for three years already. She first burst onto the scene in 2001, starting as a freshman on the biggest stage alongside current WNBA stars Bird, Swin Cash, and Asjha Jones. Since their departure, she only held off all challengers and led the Huskies to two more successive National Championships.
“Diana Taurasi will be that good right away in the WNBA,” Minnesota Lynx head coach Suzie McConnell Serio said. “When you saw how she stepped up her game in the NCAA Tournament this year, you saw that she can be a scorer, a playmaker and that she can rebound. She is the complete package, and she has the size to go along with it. I believe that she will be a tremendous WNBA player.”
She has won pretty much every major collegiate award possible (Naismith, AP, USBWA Player of the Year, three-time Kodak and AP All-American), and throughout the 2004 NCAA Tournament, she was frequently lauded as talented, competitive, personable, marketable, confident, tough, a great leadership, and “the best ever.”
Taurasi may have been challenged at UConn, but never by the level of competition as great as she will see in the WNBA. And then there are the expectations. No matter the athlete or the sport, the first pick in any professional draft is always going to be associated with big expectations. The team making the pick is coming off of a terrible season and fans need a reason to believe again. The player being considered was dominant at the previous level and is brimming with talent and ripe with potential.
Like another famous Chino, Calif. native, Ryan Atwood from the hit Fox Show "The OC," Taurasi is tough enough to fit into any new situation and turn things around.
“She has developed mentally and emotionally for the game,” said Cash. “She has had to play on some very different teams at UConn, some with people to help her and others where the supporting cast has not been as strong, but she adjusts her game and is a dominant player. She will be a great, great WNBA player.”
Not only is she not afraid to have the ball in tight games, she demands it, thriving on the tense moments and the pressure of the national spotlight. She hits the big shots and has willed her team to victory in every big game she has ever been in. Her ability to excel even while playing injured is yet another testament to her undeniable stardom.
Former teammates Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird could soon be rivals.
“Injuries are tough, but so is she,” Bird said. “She is so strong that if she is even mostly healthy, she’ll be a star.”
Many have compared Taurasi’s strength to that of Minnesota’s Katie Smith, another guard who is extremely difficult to knock off the ball and a potential teammate of Taurasi on the U.S. Women’s National Team this summer in Athens. Even as a rookie, Diana should be able to match up against the experienced WNBA guards.
“I think Diana will come in without a hitch,” Smith said. “There will be some adjustment just because her season will have just ended and this will be unlike anything else she will have done. It has a tendency to be physically and mentally draining, but I think she’ll be fine and come in and be competitive. Otherwise, we’ll bring it right at ‘em.”
Taurasi and Duke’s Alana Beard exhibit qualities and possess gifts that make them stand out from the boatload of returning All-Americans and draw comparison to others who have come before them. Taurasi’s fundamental skills are unparalleled, but she exudes a confidence unlike any player before her. But only because she makes such extraordinary plays that no one else can make (watch that over-the-head touch pass in the lane against Penn State in the NCAA Tournament Regional Finals again), she is accused of showing off or being cocky.
“She is going to bring a lot of flare to the league,” Bird said. “You don’t really get to see too much of it in college because it is such a team-oriented game, but she has the no-look and behind-the-back passes and we haven’t even seen the half of it yet.”
Like Lebron, Taurasi will be an instant attraction. Fans in opposing cities will come out to see her play and she will reap tremendous rewards for the team that chooses her on April 17.
"We offered half of our team, we offered draft picks, I even offered my first born to get Diana Taurasi. That’s no secret,” Connecticut Sun head coach Mike Thibault said. “I actually called (WNBA President) Val Ackerman a year ago and asked her if we could change the system to have a regional draft this year, but that didn’t go over really big. It is no secret that she would mean a lot to our franchise, but if she ends up somewhere else, we’ll have to enjoy watching her and sell out when she comes to town.”
With so many experts saying it, it cannot be hype. It is truth. And the 2004 WNBA Draft will be Taurasi’s coronation no matter how many stories are written about her and magazine covers on which she appears. The hype is big, but her talent is even bigger.