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2021 WNBA Draft: The biggest steals of an eventful night

Dana Evans (Justin Tafoya via Getty Images)

Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen called it “the most unpredictable draft” she’s ever been a part of in the WNBA. By the fourth pick, everyone who’d filled out a mock draft prior to Thursday night’s virtual event was feeling the same way.

After the Dallas Wings took Charli Collier and Awak Kuier with the first and second picks, as most expected, the Dream bet big on 5-foot-6 Arizona guard and Pac-12 Player of the Year Aari McDonald at No. 3. The Indiana Fever then shocked nearly everyone by taking guard Kysre Gondrezick out of West Virginia. Most mock drafts projected Gondrezick going off the board in the mid-second or third round, so fourth overall was a downright surprise.

The excitement — and talk of disrespect — picked up from there. With plenty of first-round talent plunging down the board, it seems only appropriate that we address the biggest steals of the draft as we inch closer to the first day of competitive WNBA training camps.

Rennia Davis (No. 9, Minnesota Lynx)

As the draft moved toward Minnesota’s first pick at No. 9, with top-tier talent left on the board, you had the feeling of “here we go again.”

Just a year ago, the Lynx had the steal of the draft when they tabbed point guard Crystal Dangerfield with the 16th overall pick. The UConn product went on to average 16.2 points and 3.6 assists in her first WNBA season and win the Rookie of the Year award.

Rennia Davis has the all-around talent to give coach Cheryl Reeve another dangerous, versatile option off the bench. Davis finished her career at Tennessee as one of only four players to rank in the top 10 in points, points per game, rebounds and rebounds per game — putting her in elite company. At 6-foot-2, she has the athleticism to finish around bigger players in the paint and grab rebounds on defense. The Lynx have championship aspirations after swinging big in free agency, and Davis bolsters their case.

Dana Evans (No. 13, Dallas Wings)

Wings president Greg Bibb couldn’t believe Evans was still on the board as they prepared to make their fourth pick of the night (the first of the second round). The two-time ACC Player of the Year was a standout guard at Louisville who showcased her elite speed and playmaking ability this past season as a senior.

“I can’t even put into words how much it motivates me,” Evans said in her draft press conference after going 13th overall to Dallas. “I told somebody that I’m ready to just get in the gym tonight. I kind of feel disrespected, overlooked, but that’s just been my career, my path and my journey.”

I had the Wings taking Evans fifth overall in my mock draft because of her talent and ability to compete for a starting spot right away. At point guard, Evans can create offense and open up the floor for Arike Ogunbowale. She’s also a nuisance for opponents on defense and is a threat from 3-point range, where she connected on 35.3 percent of her shots in 2020-21.

Natasha Mack (No. 16, Chicago Sky)

Natasha Mack’s senior season at Oklahoma State catapulted her late into the first round of many mock drafts. Named the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year after leading the nation in blocks (4.0 per game) and ranking ninth in rebounds (12.4), Mack looked like one of the most WNBA-ready bigs.

She fell to the Sky with the fourth pick in the second round and, at first, couldn’t believe how long she’d had to wait.

“I got a little frustrated, like I guess I’m not going to be called anytime soon,” Mack said. “I have a chip on my shoulder. I’m ready. Like I’ve been saying, I’ve always been slept on, so this is nothing new to me. It’s just time to go out there and prove myself.”

The Sky are entering the 2021 season with one of their deepest rosters in years. Mack will be able to learn from one of the best post players in the game, 2020 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year Candace Parker, and should provide a spark off the bench as Chicago makes a deep postseason push.

N’dea Jones (No. 23, Seattle Storm)

N’dea Jones’ stats don’t jump off the page, which likely contributed to her drop down the board, but she makes up for it with her basketball IQ and efficiency on both ends of the floor. She also knows how to win, as a key contributor on Texas A&M teams that won over 20 games every year she was there.

“A really big part of my game is rebounding, and it’s really all effort and energy, and I hope I can bring that to Seattle,” Jones said Thursday night. “I hope that the coaches see that I’m a hard worker — I don’t like to quit on plays, I go hard on the boards… I’m a role player, and I think that’s something that’s gotten me far in life.”

Jones averaged a double-double as a senior for the Aggies and was a big reason they lost just one game during the regular season while playing a tough SEC game slate. Developing under players like Breanna Stewart and Katie Lou Samuelson with the Storm will serve Jones well in her WNBA future.

Chelsey Perry (No. 26, Indiana Fever)

The only third-round selection on this list, Chelsey Perry is probably the most accustomed to being overlooked.

A four-year starter at UT Martin in the Ohio Valley Conference, Perry was destroying opposing defenses by her junior and senior seasons. She averaged 22.9 points per game as a senior, 11th in the nation, as well as 7.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks. She also improved her 3-point shooting every year (averaging 42.2 percent from beyond the arc in 2020-21), a skill WNBA teams covet in their bigs. With her well-rounded offensive repertoire, Perry ranked seventh in offensive win shares per 40 minutes this past season.

The 6-2 forward will have to prove herself in training camp — the Fever have 20 players competing for 11 or 12 spots based on salary cap totals — but she has the potential to carry the mid-major torch into the WNBA.

Full draft results

First round

1. Dallas Wings — Charli Collier, F/C, Texas

2. Dallas Wings — Awak Kuier, F, Finland

3. Atlanta Dream — Aari McDonald, PG, Arizona

4. Indiana Fever — Kysre Gondrezick, G, West Virginia

5. Dallas Wings — Chelsea Dungee, SG, Arkansas

6. New York Liberty — Michaela Onyenwere, SF, UCLA

7. Los Angeles Sparks — Jasmine Walker, F, Alabama

8. Chicago Sky — Shyla Heal, PG, Australia

9. Minnesota Lynx — Rennia Davis, SF, Tennessee

10. Los Angeles Sparks — Stephanie Watts, G, North Carolina

11. Indiana Fever (from Seattle) — Aaliyah Wilson, SF, Texas A&M

12. Las Vegas Aces — Iliana Rupert, C, France

Second round

13. Dallas Wings — Dana Evans, G, Louisville

14. Las Vegas Aces — Destiny Slocum, G, Arkansas

15. Atlanta Dream — Raquel Carrera, F, Spain

16. Chicago Sky — Natasha Mack, C, Oklahoma State

17. New York Liberty — DiDi Richards, G, Baylor

18. Seattle Storm — Kiana Williams, G, Stanford

19. Indiana Fever — Unique Thompson, F, Auburn

20. Connecticut Sun — DiJonai Carrington, G, Baylor

21. Connecticut Sun — Micaela Kelly, G, Central Michigan

22. Los Angeles Sparks — Arella Guirantes, G, Rutgers

23. Seattle Storm — N’dea Jones, F, Texas A&M

24. Indiana Fever — Trinity Baptiste, F, Arizona

Third round

25. New York Liberty — Valerie Higgins, F, USC

26. Indiana Fever — Chelsey Perry, G/F, UT Martin

27. Atlanta Dream — Lindsey Pulliam, G, Northwestern

28. Los Angeles Sparks — Ivana Raca, F, Wake Forest

29. New York Liberty — Marine Fathoux, G, France

30. Connecticut Sun — Aleah Goodman, G, Oregon State

31. Indiana Fever — Florencia Chagas, G, Argentina

32. Phoenix Mercury — Ciera Johnson, C, Texas A&M

33. Indiana Fever — Maya Caldwell, G, Georgia

34. Los Angeles Sparks — Aina Ayuso, G, Spain

35. Seattle Storm — Natalie Kucowski, F, Lafayette

36. Las Vegas Aces — Kionna Jeter, G, Towson

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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