May 12, 2014

Overseas Success Paves Way for Strong Season for Kayla Alexander

There were many challenges presented to San Antonio Stars center Kayla Alexander as a player for Energy Ivanovo in Russia this WNBA offseason – staying focused on basketball, though, certainly wasn’t one of them.

“We were in a small city, so there wasn’t that much to do,” she said. “I just spent a lot of time in the gym. I looked forward to practice, getting in the gym, getting shots up, getting in the weight room. I think that helped – there weren’t many distractions. I was focused.”

If Alexander went to the movies with her teammates, she was forced to figure out what was going on based on what she saw rather than what she heard, as everything was in Russian. The same went for practices, where she would sometimes watch a drill a couple times through before understanding and jumping in. Alexander’s coach for Energy Ivanovo and seven of her 10 teammates spoke exclusively Russian, while the other three, who could speak varying degrees of English, would sometimes try to translate for her.

“That’s what took the most getting used to,” Alexander said. “I wanted to just go talk to my coach or go talk to my teammates, but I needed someone else to talk for me to communicate what I want to say.”

San Antonio’s first-round draft pick (eighth overall) in the 2013 WNBA Draft, Alexander took full advantage of her first pro offseason, putting in the time and work to improve on a rookie campaign in which she averaged 2.8 points and 3.0 rebounds per game as well as a 41.7 field goal percentage off the bench.

“Whenever I say I went to Russia to play, my teammates look at me like I’m crazy, but I liked it,” she says. “The competition is really good. There were a lot of WNBA players who played over there. I was definitely battling and fighting. I think I improved as a player.”

With Energy Ivanovo, Alexander had the opportunity to play against some of the biggest names in the game – other WNBA players who suited up for Russian teams this offseason include Los Angeles Sparks center Candace Parker (UMMC), Phoenix Mercury guard Diana Taurasi (UMMC), Seattle Storm guard Sue Bird (UMMC), New York Liberty Center Tina Charles (Dynamo Moscow), and Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen (Dynamo Moscow).

While the language barrier proved to be the biggest cultural barrier between Alexander and her teammates, there were a couple other things to get used to.

“They’re not big on lifting over there,” Alexander said. “They might do it once a week. So when I was in there three or four times a week, they looked at me like I was crazy.”

Breaks in the Russian season also made for stretches of two-a-day practices, which gave parts of the season a training camp-like feel. A morning practice would consist of shooting and drills while a second practice in the afternoon would be heavier on scrimmaging or five-on-five play. In addition to being active in the weight room, Alexander also focused on her play on the defensive end of the ball.

“I think when I came out of college I struggled defensively and with my footwork,” she said, adding that she played mostly zone defense in her four-year career at Syracuse and that adapting to the man-on-man defensive philosophies of the WNBA was a challenge. “Coming here and practicing man defense and going overseas and practicing those same things helped me on the defensive end so I can be more efficient this year.”

Alexander had significant success with Energy Ivanovo, averaging 14.7 points per game and 9.1 rebounds per game through 23 contests. The impact of that success overseas has been evident through San Antonio’s training camp and a preseason game against the Tulsa Shock in which Alexander put up two points, two rebounds and two steals in 13 minutes of time on the court.

“She’s an improving player who’s understanding the game better,” said Stars coach Dan Hughes. “In some ways, I don’t know if the average fan appreciates, but she is getting a better understanding of pick-and-roll schemes. She’s understanding relocation better. She’s a really hard-working, diligent personality. She wants to get better. She’s working at it every day. I think the game is coming to her in a greater way, which she’ll benefit from.”

Like most athletes, Alexander is taking the 2014 season one practice and one game at a time, focused on making steady improvements each day. While that mindset won’t change, she also has a slightly different approach as the Stars first game of the season approaches. She’s no longer a rookie, and having a full year of experience in the WNBA as well as overseas has given her the confidence to take her game to the next level.

“I have more experience. I’m familiar with my teammates here and with the plays, and I have that experience of playing overseas,” she said. “It’s time for me to step up and be a leader for the rookies.”