NEW YORK – With the WNBA getting set to tip off its 22nd season, the players that are about to join the league can’t recall a time without professional women’s basketball in this country.
The 10 players invited to Thursday’s WNBA Draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2) were born between 1994 and 1996, with a handful born after the league was founded and announced “We Got Next” in April 1996. They were toddlers when the league tipped off the inaugural season in 1997, which means there have been role models for them to look to as soon as they were introduced to the game.
We spoke with the draft invitees about the players that inspired them to play, the players that made a significant impact on their lives and the players they looked to model their game after as they pursued a career as a pro baller. Some are legends, while others are contemporary players that they’ll meet on the court next season.
Lexie Brown, Duke: “[Washington Mystics guard] Kristi Toliver; she’s my favorite. She was one of the reasons why I picked Maryland. I love the way she plays and I love the freedom and confidence she played with as a freshman at Maryland when they won that national championship. When she hit that shot in the title game, at that moment she became my idol.
“I’ve been able to watch her throughout her career and her game has changed a little bit, but that’s definitely someone that I was compared to in high school and of course going to play in the same system as her was a dream, then to meet her was a dream. I got to meet her and talk to her for about an hour one day after practice. It was awesome. She’s an awesome person and an even better player. When I left Maryland she texted me like, ‘You went to Duke, but I respect it. If you need anything, just reach out.’
“Now, there’s a chance for me to even be her teammate and that would be amazing. I would probably latch onto her and she’d probably be like go away (laughs). When I get drafted and settled in hopefully and make the roster with whatever team picks me, I definitely want to reach out to her and pick her brain a little bit more.”
Monique Billings, UCLA: “I would say [Los Angeles Sparks Hall of Famer] Lisa Leslie is someone who I definitely looked up to for inspiration because I’m a California girl and she was playing local so my parents would take me to the games. [I admired] just seeing her dominate, but still seeing her be like a woman and being feminine and being okay with being that way. That’s how I am, so how she carried herself I really respected that and I really looked up to her and still do. I was 8 or 9 when I was going to those games; I was really young so it was inspiring just seeing that, she was like a goddess to me.
“Just watching her I thought to myself, I can do that one day and now I’m here with this opportunity to where I can. It’s just a blessing. I started playing around five years old, and I would say when I started going to the Sparks games, that’s what kind of gave me the vision of this is why I’m playing, this is where you can be one day.”
Jordin Canada, UCLA: “I have two. Growing up I watched Ivory Latta at North Carolina. I loved her game. I think she was the female version of Russell Westbrook when she was at North Carolina. Just her passion, her aggressiveness, she loved the game; you could tell that she was definitely a leader.
“And now Sue Bird is very influential to me. I just watch how she leads her team, the way she sets up her teammates and creates for others and takes over when need be. So I try to follow those two players from the women’s side. They’re two different kinds of styles, but I love both because you obviously need to have both playing this game. Especially getting to the next level and playing in the WNBA, I feel like you have to have that balance of both, so I think those two are just the top of the top.”
Diamond DeShields, Cukurova (Turkish League): “There are people who’s game that I admire. I love Russell Westbrook. I love Seimone Augustus’ game. I love Kevin Durant. I love Kyrie [Irving]. I admire those people and the way they are able to display themselves.
“But as far as me wanting to kind of model after anybody, no. I didn’t see myself in a lot of people, especially on the women’s’ side. I’m a big guard, so you have Maya Moore, you have Seimone Augustus, but there’s not too many wings that are like 6-foot-1 and up, so I feel like we’re kind of like hard to come by. There’s not a big pool of guards like us to compare to, so I’m just trying to create my own style and have that be something that can benefit a team moving forward.”
Kelsey Mitchell, Ohio State: “Finally seeing Cappie Pondexter in person was great because I’ve enjoyed her game. I love the way that she goes about it. Her finesse and her creativity is one that is through the roof. So [she’s] a player that I just always enjoy watching.” [Note: Pondexter was one of three veteran players to meet with the draft invitees on the eve of the draft to discuss the transition to the WNBA.]
Kia Nurse, Connecticut: “For me, when I was growing up there wasn’t a ton of women’s basketball on in Canada and we don’t have ESPN and that kind of stuff. So, when I saw Maya Moore play for the first time at UConn, that was kind of what inspired me to want to continue to play basketball, want to make it to the States, want to make it to a great school.
“I think I wrote on my dream board I wanted to go to UConn back then and never would have imagined that it would actually happen. My parents say this happened when I was in seventh grade, but I think it was before that because I wouldn’t have had a dream board in seventh grade I don’t think. Then, I would say I absolutely love Sue Bird’s game. I love her ability to read the game, to see a play before it happens. If I could ever have that in my game I would be really happy.”
Azura Stevens, Connecticut: “A couple of players that I’ve looked to and admired their games are Elena Delle Donne and Candace Parker. Just their versatility, the way they are able to be these players that can exploit different mismatches because of their size and their skills that they have. Those are definitely a couple of players that I really love to watch and look forward to learning from.”
Victoria Vivians, Mississippi St.: “I like Elena Delle Donne, I like Candace Parker and from the old days Lisa Leslie. I like them because of their game, but I like them off the court too because they venture out and they help people. They’re giving back all the time and I feel like I want to be that person to give back to my community all the time.
“But on the court, they have progressed in so many ways; like Candace Parker you got her out here looking like she’s a guard at the height she is, so I just like how her game has grown ever since she started. Then you have Elena Delle Donne; put it like this, they are all scorers and that’s what I want to do. I want to come in and be a scorer as well. So, I just feel like looking up to them will help me a lot.”
Gabby Williams, Connecticut: “I loved watching Tamika Catchings. I think her energy and doing the intangibles for her team, I saw someone that was kind of similar to me growing up, so I always kept an eye on her and she was always one of the most underrated players I felt like. So yeah Tamika Catchings is my biggest inspiration. I loved watching Jen Rizzotti because I used to be a point guard way back in the day, so I loved watching Jen play.”
A’ja Wilson, South Carolina: “Lisa Leslie. My aunt got me her jersey when I was young. She was someone that I really looked up to and modeled my game after as well. I don’t think that was my plan but it kind of turned out that way. Just her hard work and dedication and the way she carried herself in the post and also off the court, she was definitely someone that I looked up to.
“And for me to receive the Lisa Leslie Award [honoring the top center in women’s NCAA Division I college basketball] this past year, it was crazy. That was really a dream to just meet her and be there, and she kind of talked to me and I’m like wow, I was star struck honestly. I had to play it off but I was definitely star struck and just honored because she’s a trailblazer in our game, she helped us out a lot and for me to be the first person to receive that award, it was really touching, I really appreciate that. And just having talks with her and she’s telling me about the league and how things are different from college and the transition of course. It was just an honor to be talking with your role model like that.”