In her first four months in the WNBA, Brittney Sykes has checked a lot of boxes off her professional basketball list. She was drafted with the 7th overall pick by the Atlanta Dream, made it through training camp, picked up Rookie of the Month honors for July, and is now making a great case for Rookie of the Year.
Sykes ranks second in the rookie class in scoring (12 pts), rebounding (3.8 rebs) and minutes (23.1). She also ranks second in scoring for the Dream and has worked her way into the starting lineup, starting 16 of 27 games.
During her Rookie of the Month campaign in July, Sykes averaged 17.8 points per game which put her in the eighth spot in league standings. She has wasted no time making her mark in the W, but there was a time when Sykes faced uncertainty as to where she fit in the basketball world.
Sykes had a stellar freshman season at Syracuse University and an even better sophomore season. She was named to the All-ACC Second Team after averaging 16.6 points per game. Leading up to the end of her sophomore season, her basketball future was clear.
But then Sykes tore her ACL, not once but twice. The first time Sykes tore her ACL was as a sophomore in the first round of the NCAA Tournament and the second time was during the start of her junior season. After the second tear she had some concerns if professional teams would want to have her on their squad. She knew that she would put in the work to rehab and get herself back into playing shape, but her toughest challenge would be to change others’ opinions of the stability of her knee and prove she could stay healthy.
“I didn’t know that was going to be the biggest thing I was going to have to overcome,” she said.
There may have been doubters, but Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman never doubted she could have a professional basketball career after two torn ACLs because of the incredible work ethic and determination he saw in her.
“When she had her second injury, I remember watching her for 30, 40 minutes at a time just sitting in a chair working on her form, just shooting. I think that definitely saved her game,” Hillsman said. “She was more explosive than before she hurt her knee. We were at her workouts going, ‘This is amazing.’ She really played fearlessly, she just played.”
Coming back from the injury during her red-shirt junior season, her numbers dipped. She averaged 10.3 points and 5.1 rebounds per game, but was still third on her team in both categories and helped lead Syracuse to their first NCAA Championship appearance. Based on her junior performance, Sykes could have declared for the WNBA Draft, she didn’t need to come back for her senior season. Sykes called Hillsman to weigh her options.
“He said ‘Well, if you go, you’ll be drafted, I don’t know how high, but if you wait, and you go next year, we can make something happen.’ In a sense of, if you put in that work and you do what you’re supposed to do, the sky’s the limit,” she said.
Both Sykes and Hillsman agree that returning for her senior season was the best decision she made to prepare her for the WNBA. The plan worked. As the 7th overall pick, she became the highest WNBA draft pick in Syracuse history. Added time gave her a chance to hone her skills and eliminate any doubt about her injury.
“I could be drafted, but why when I could have a whole year to make myself better, knock off the doubts of ‘Is her knee ok?’ this year could be the year where it shuts people up, ‘Hey, she’s not wearing a brace, she’s stronger,’” she said.
The rest is history — and hard work.
Sykes worked out two or three times a day in the weight room between her junior and senior season to get her body prepared for physicality of the upcoming season and ultimately the WNBA.
She became a better shooter, forcing players into long closeouts and, in turn, she was able to attack the basket easier. Between her junior and senior seasons she increased her accuracy on field goals by 10 percent (.452 from .352) and 16 percent from three-point range (.393 from .231).
“That was one thing that Coop [Michael Cooper] and I spoke about is that she has a chance to play multiple positions in the league because she shoots the ball so much better,” Hillsman said. “I think if she came out earlier it would have hurt her because she wasn’t as good of a shooter.”
Sykes was home in Newark watching draft night with family and friends. After her name was called and everyone cheered, she settled into a feeling of excitement and relief. “After all that I’ve been through, I finally got to where I wanted to be,” she said.
She was excited about receiving any opportunity to bloom where she was planted, but she really wanted to land in Atlanta.
“Atlanta is my style of play, Atlanta is my type of place to be,” Sykes said. “I have family down there, so I wouldn’t be alone. It’s the perfect set up.”
Sykes played in an up-tempo, high-pressure defensive style of play at Syracuse. Hillsman gives his players freedom within his system and agreed that Atlanta is a good fit for Sykes.
“That’s one thing that he [Cooper] does is he allows his players to get out in space and play basketball and she really is doing well playing in space and doing things she needs to do to be successful.”
Facing adversity has given Sykes confidence that she can conquer any goal she sets for herself. Sykes is extremely athletic and works hard, but is especially motivated to get better because the game she loves was taken from her twice, and when she plays she feels like she’s playing for something bigger than herself, to inspire others.
“It’s overwhelming sometimes when I get messages on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter from kids or even adults writing me, saying ‘You’re a great inspiration, you tore your ACL twice, I can’t believe you’re living the dream,’” Sykes recounts. “I tear up on some of them because it brings me back to when I wasn’t able to play, and now where I’m at, I never take that for granted.”
Like many other rookies in the league, Sykes was inspired by WNBA players when she was younger. Back when the New York Liberty played in the Prudential Center, Sykes would go watch with her high school teammates and she never missed a game. At a Liberty vs. Mystics game she got a headband from then-Mystics guard Matee Ajavon, and she thought to herself that one day she would make the league and give the headband back to Ajavon. Sykes now plays alongside Ajavon for the Dream.
“It was one of those things, like a measuring tool,” she said.
After the Dream’s first preseason game, Atlanta head coach Michael Cooper and Sykes discussed her goals for the season and they were on the same page. Rookie of the Year was at the top of the list.
“The day you picked me I said I was going to get it, and that’s been my goal ever since,” Sykes said.
Sykes isn’t chasing Rookie of the Year, she’s playing her game because she knows if she works steady, success will come. Dallas Wings rookies Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis are also in the top talent tier in the rookie class and are all on teams battling for a playoff spot.
“I’m glad to be competing against competitors like them, they make you better because they’re always getting better,” she said.
At every level of basketball Sykes has experienced she not only meets the standard, she exceeds it. Coach Hillsman isn’t surprised and noted that when Sykes was at Syracuse, the higher the caliber of players that surrounded her, the better she got. In a league that has the best players in the world Sykes will feed off it and no doubt thrive.
“It’s fun watching her. I’m a cheerleader now,” Hillsman said. “I just text and call her telling her to keep doing it, keep killin’ it, keep killin’ it. I give her no coaching, I’m just a cheerleader and hype man.”
She looks back on her coaching experience from Hillsman with gratitude. He put a lot of trust and faith in her as a player and gave her confidence that many players might not get to experience.
“He stayed in my ear, he pushed me to be the best person I could be, the best player I can be and I thank him for that because without that I don’t think I would have realized my own potential,” Sykes said.