Training camp, 2009. My rookie year.
I step on the court for that first workout, look over, and there’s….
Just standing right there next to me. Dribbling. Putting up shots.
And, I mean….
Maybe even more than winning the title that year with the Mercury, that image — that memory — is what first comes to mind when I think about my early days in the W.
I’d balled out at Auburn, and played in big games, and scored lots of points in college, and all that. But, yeah, this was….
It was just, I don’t know … surreal.
Immediately after practice gets going, though, my feeling of awe is replaced by something I notice about Diana: She’s the hardest worker I’ve ever seen.
She was just going haaaard … in every single drill — sprinting, diving, the whole deal. I’d never seen anything like her level of drive and motivation. And this was the very first practice of the season.
It was awesome to witness, for sure. But at the same time, it was like….
Oh God, am I gonna be able to do this? What have I gotten myself into?
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Fortunately for me, Diana and the other incredible vets on that Phoenix team — Cappie Pondexter, Penny Taylor, and on and on — weren’t gonna let me fail. They supported me, but also pushed me. So I learned so much, so fast.
Starting with that very first practice, they told me what I needed to do, and what I had to focus on, and I pretty much just nodded. It was like, If I need to rebound, I’m going to rebound and keep my mouth shut. Whatever you say.
Then, from there, the vets did basically anything they could to motivate me to play my best. And when I say anything….
I mean pretty much whatever they could think of. My favorite example involves … bags.
That first year I came to the Mercury, all the vets on our team had these amazing name-brand purses and bags. And then there was … me.
I was still walking around with the old black, dusty Jordan Brand knapsack I’d used in college. I stood out like a sore thumb. And I’d hear about it from them, too. It wasn’t a good look. At all.
Anyway, at one point, like midway through the season, Diana comes over to me in the locker room. She has an idea — an offer, actually.
“How about this,” she says. “If you go out and get a double-double tonight, I’ll buy you any bag you want.”
I just kinda laugh.
“Come on now!”
She wasn’t laughing.
“Any bag. Literally. Double-double and it’s yours.”
I had no idea if she was serious or not, but I wasn’t gonna risk it. After that conversation, you better believe I went out that night and balled my brains out and got the double-double. And then … I wasn’t sure what to do.
Or how to act.
Do I say something? Is she gonna say something? Actually, maybe she didn’t even know I got it.
So I basically just did nothing. Like ... Just play it cool, DeWanna. Just be cool.
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Next morning, my phone buzzes. It’s a text from Diana.
“U up? Let’s go!”
I respond, and then a few seconds later she gives me a call.
“You know I wasn’t kidding, right? Meet me at the mall in an hour. Let’s do this!”
And again it’s just like … Play it cool, DeWanna. But I get off the phone and I’m just basically dancing around the room and fist-pumping and just … freaking out.
I hurry up and get dressed, get in the car, and I’m heading over to the mall like: Is this for real? Is she really gonna show up? Maaaaaaan, what if this is a prank!?!?!
But she’s there at the mall waiting because … of course she is. And Diana, she’s just got this huuuuge grin on her face when she sees me. Like, she’s just so, so, so happy. First thing she says is….
“Any bag. Literally. Whatever you want.”
An hour later, I had my first name-brand bag.
And a few weeks after that, we were world champions.
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I still have that bag. I love that thing just as much as I did back then.
And every time I look at that bag, it brings back so many memories for me. I automatically think of Diana, obviously, and her kindness, and how much she’s meant to me over the years. But I’m also reminded of something bigger, too.
It’s a lasting reminder of how vets in this league have always worked really hard to support and lift up and mentor the young players coming into the W.
There’s a lot that’s changed since I came into this league a decade ago — the level of athleticism we have now, our attendance numbers, NBA guys showing us love, little girls wearing our jerseys everywhere … it’s all been incredible to witness in real time — but one thing that hasn’t changed is our vets being there to support the young guns.
And, right now, I gotta say: Wooooooow are there some awesome young players in our game.
It’s pretty special to see. It really is like the W has entered into some golden age of exciting young players. As the season kicks off, I felt like it’d be cool to shine some light on the best of the best by giving you a list of my top five young guns in our league. (And believe me, it wasn’t easy to limit this thing to just five.)
But before I get to the list, I just want to offer up one piece of advice to all the young players in the W. It’s a simple one. It relates back to my experience as a rookie and what I wrote about above.
It’s basically this: Soak in as much as you can from the vets on your team. Learn as much as possible, and then … just keep on learning, year after year.
I can honestly say that I didn’t ever stop learning from Diana, and Penny, and everybody on those first couple Mercury teams I played on.
Those women … they just showed me so much love. And, honestly, at the end of the day, they kept me in the league. They’re why I’m still around almost a dozen years later to run down a list of the young guns who are ready to take the W to even greater heights.
So with that said, let’s goooooooo!
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O.K., you ready for this?
Here’s what happened the first time I ever matched up against Diamond DeShields. (And please just let me remind y’all that I’m six-foot-four.)
This was during a game from her rookie season. I was all alone at the top of the key thinking I had a wide-open shot, and Diamond came out of nowhere and just … whaaaaam!
Shot … blocked.
It was legit not even fair. It was … not right.
I’m like: Wait … This is a rookie?!?!?! A rook just did THAT to me?
She had my respect immediately. That block? I wish it hadn’t come at my expense, but credit where credit is due. It was just super impressive.
And, I gotta say, things didn’t go all that much better for me against her from there.
Every time we played the Sky, I’d have to guard Diamond. And it was always the same story. Like: Sloooooooow down, lady! I can’t catch you. I can’t….
I’ve never seen someone so athletic. She’s just an absolute freak athlete.
And I’d love to give you a comp here. I mean, I really, really would. But there’s no one. No one I’ve seen has her level of athleticism.
For anyone trying to guard her, believe me, it’s a big problem. She can jump out of the gym, which means she can elevate over you to get her shot off. So you can’t hang back. But if you get up on her too close, it’s over. Literally. You’re done. She’s gonna blow right by you and get to the basket.
She can take over a game at any moment on offense.
And for sure that’s what people talk about most with Diamond. But when you watch her play, look a little bit deeper. Watch her on the other side of the ball. Notice her defensive intensity.
Do not sleep on her defense.
Don’t make the same mistake I did.
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I’ve been an A’ja fan since back when she was still in college.
It wasn’t even so much her game back then — although her game was definitely on point — it was actually her story. I loved the fact that this supremely skilled, dominant player went out and told the world that when she first started playing she was terrible at the game of basketball.
That caught my attention.
It was like: Hmmm, how did she fight through that? How did she grow so much? How did she get so good?
Then, when A’ja came into the league, I saw firsthand how hard she works and realized that her instincts are just second-to-none. I saw that, sure, she may have been bad for a second when she was young but … it was only a matter of time.
She persisted. And fought through. And now she’s one of the best players in the world.
Trying to game plan against A’ja is pretty much a nightmare. Imagine a modern-day version of Tina Thompson — just maybe not with that same three-point game. Now imagine trying to stop that. All those post-up moves? The killer instinct? The diversity of her game? She’s just so difficult to stop.
The other thing I love about A’ja, though, actually has nothing to do with her skillset. It’s not X’s and O’s stuff. It’s just her personality and the energy and fun that she brings to our game.
She’s honestly one of the most hilarious people I know. And she’s always upbeat. Always dancing. A’ja will break out a dance move at any moment like it’s nothin’. She keeps all us old heads young, you know what I mean? When she’s at the free throw line and a song starts playing, and I look over and see her singing and dancing along to the song….
I love everything about that.
At first, vets like me were like … Hmm, she’s not really focused on the game. She’s not dialed in. She’s gonna be in trouble.
But then we watched her go out and drop 20 and 20 on all of us like it was nothing.
We realized pretty quickly that her dancing and having fun wasn’t a negative to her game, or a flaw. It’s a huge positive.
She has fun while also dominating at the same time. The two go hand in hand.
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I feel kind of weird about saying this, but … Naphessa Collier reminds me of my younger self.
Can I say that in one of these? Is that bad?
Trust me, I’m not saying this to make myself look good. It’s really just that with how she seemed to approach her rookie season … I see some similarities.
She’s still very green, but she just worked her butt off last year and did whatever she needed to do to help that Lynx team. She didn’t try to do too much, or try to take over. She just did whatever was needed. What was asked of her.
And she caught some people off guard, I can tell you that much.
If people tell you they predicted she’d be the rookie of the year, they’re straight up not being truthful. No one saw that comin’.
But Napheesa earned it.
She just works so hard when she’s out there on the court, and I can tell you straight up that we all hate playing against people like that. It’s hard to chase around somebody who goes hard after every rebound, and back-cuts like crazy, and can step back and hit a three if need be.
I had to guard her a couple times, and it’s just … a lot.
You think you’ve got her. You do. It’s like: O.K., she’s over in the corner right now. We’re good. I don’t have to move out of my defense position. Then before you can even blink, she’s back-cutting to the basket for an easy layup. Or you go up for a rebound that’s a gimme — no one around you, just raise up and grab it — and she comes flying in out of nowhere from behind you and snatches the ball right before you get your hands on it.
Napheesa just does all the little things that a team needs to win games. And she always stays within herself. She knows her game so well. She doesn’t try to come off a screen and do something crazy. She’s gonna do what she does — what she knows she can do well.
And she’s just always going to outwork people. She understands something that isn’t always top-of-mind for young players who have gotten used to scoring big and being the go-to player for their entire lives: If you work really hard, and that becomes part of your game — part of everything you do, really — that’s something that won’t ever be going away. No one can take that away from you, and it will still be there as you get older.
Your leaping ability may go. Your shot may get shakier. But your work? If you’re on point with that, it will always be there for you.
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Let me just throw something out there.
Not to put too much pressure on Arike … but yeah.
She can be that good. For real. If she keeps improving every single day, I honestly think she could be one of the all-time greats.
And, yeah, I know it didn’t start out looking that way for her. It took her some time to figure out what this league was like. That’s fine. Sometimes it’s like that.
And, you know what? It actually makes me like her even more as a player. It’s like: She had to fight through some stuff and work and find her footing. So that’s what she did.
After she got over that hump, though? Wow.
She’s one young player that had everyone in the league taking note late in the season last year. You don’t see too many rookies that can get 30 one night, and then go back out and get another 30 the next night.
People were like, “This is a rookie? For real?”
I know I definitely got put on notice during this one game we played against the Wings in Phoenix, where she just completely took over. It wasn’t any more complicated than that. She took over. She won the game for her team. She did it all — with some swagger. She just wasn’t gonna let her team lose. It was incredible.
And she did that to a lot of teams last year.
Arike can come off the screen and dish it. She can shoot the three. She can pull up on you. And her body control is amazing.
She’s not tall at all, but don’t let that fool you. Because she’s very strong — especially up top. So she creates a matchup problem. You can’t put a small guard on her, because she’s gonna post the ball. And you can’t put somebody too long on her, because then she’s just gonna blow by them to the hoop.
Now that she’s got it figured out, I feel like she can score at will on pretty much anybody. Like, a lot of people gotta watch out for her this year. And now that the Wings have Moriah Jefferson? It’s gonna be a problem.
They can move Arike to her natural position, which in my opinion is the two. And she’s going to be freakishly amazing out of that spot.
She’s gonna put a lot of hurt on people in this league for years to come.
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Kelsey is such an interesting player because in some ways she’s kind of a sleeper. She’s just getting started in terms of maximizing what she can do with her game.
Here’s my scouting report as of right now: When Kelsey’s on, forget it. You’re done. You can’t stop her. She’ll hit any shot she wants. If she’s feelin’ it, she’ll pull up from 10 feet behind the three point line and just drill that shot like it was nothing.
She’s not always on.
The next step for her — the one that determines whether she’s gonna be a good player or something much, much more — is going to be about consistency.
And, you know what? I’m not betting against her making that leap. There’s just so much growth potential there.
I actually love that she’s someone who has never seen a shot she doesn’t like, that she’s not scared of any shot. I love that confidence. All the great ones have that.
To me it’s one of the best mentalities you can have in the WNBA if you’re looking to ultimately become something special.
I missed a shot? So what. Let me shoot it again. Miss that one? I’m putting it up AGAIN.
She’s absolutely fearless. And she really does make some crazy shots.
As an opposing player, it’s like a punch in the gut when those go in. You just kind of shake your head. You’re looking at her shoot from basically the other end of the gym, and you’re psyched at first because it’s such a tough shot, but then it’s like: Oh man, come on. For real? Please, please, please don’t let that go in.
And with her, lots of times it does. So all you can do is shake your head.
Then add to that her handle, and the fact that you cannot give her a single step because she’s also just so dang quick to the hoop. There’s just a lot to like with Kelsey.
Once she really learns the ins and outs of this league, people better look out. She could legit end up being one of the most impressive players I ever seen. If she figures out how to be consistent, no one is going to be able to guard her.
It’ll just be like: Good luck!