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Chelsea Gray Talks Ionescu’s Potential, Draft Day Memories

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Chelsea Gray plays point guard for the Los Angeles Sparks. The eleventh pick in the 2014 WNBA Draft out of Duke University, Gray is a 3x WNBA All-Star. In 2016, she helped lead the Sparks to their third WNBA championship in team history. Below, she talks with Just Women’s Sports about her draft day experience, why she think Sabrina Ionescu will be successful at the next level, and the difficulties of rebooting the WNBA season amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The WNBA draft was a little over a week ago. It’s a huge transition for so many players, but a lot of them already made life-changing moves when they went to college. Looking back, what do you remember about your first year at Duke? 

I went to Duke in 2010, the summer after I graduated high school. That was a big adjustment for me to go to what felt like the other side of the world. I’m a Californian, born and raised, so being in North Carolina was a definite change. I wasn’t able to go downstairs to Mom’s home cooking. I had to figure out how to get my car to drive on snow. It took some time to get settled, but I loved being at Duke. It was a great experience and being on the east coast for a while helped me really understand that way of life, which is totally different than California.

Fast-forward a few years. What was the lead up to draft day like?

Leading up to the draft, I was a nervous wreck. I couldn’t sleep the night before. I was excited to be there, and I tried to just embrace it, but, unless you’re supposed to go in the top three, you don’t really know when your name is going to be called. I was jittery at the table, and every time the person walked up to the podium with the little draft card in their hand I was like, “Is it me? Oh my God, my name didn’t come up. Okay, breathe, drink some water.” I was too nervous to eat. But that’s all part of the experience, having those jittery feelings, and having the anxiety and nervousness. That all goes into the draft.

Even though there’s no guarantees, did you have some sense of where you might be taken? 

I had no clue when I was getting chosen, or if I was at all! I was just sitting there like “Oh my gosh, is it the time? Nope, not the time. Is this the time? Nope, not the time.” It’s exciting, it’s exhilarating, it’s one heck of an experience. I was on the edge of my seat. I didn’t think I would go top five, but I was hoping for the first round. It started getting to seven, eight, and I was like “Okay, this might be it.” Then I finally heard it, and there was just so much joy. I think I paused for a second. I was like, “This is real. Oh my gosh, this is really happening.”

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Looking at this year’s draft class, how do you think Sabrina Ionescu’s game will translate to the WNBA?

I think she’s a great player. She’s done something very special at the University of Oregon. She’s lifted up every single athlete that she’s played with and made that university a household name. That’s something that you really appreciate.

I look at her game from a point guard’s perspective, and to achieve triple-doubles the way she does? That’s not an easy thing to do. That’s hard. You have to fight for rebounds and go take them from post players. That’s hard. And you have to rely on your teammates to make shots for you to get assists. You can control your points, but sometimes you have an off day. What she was able to do is so difficult, you really have to appreciate the way she plays the game.

When she gets to the WNBA, it’s a different level. There’s a lot more in depth scouting, so I think it’ll be an adjustment, but I think she’s capable of succeeding at the highest level.

What advice would you give her for handling the transition?

I don’t want her to put so much pressure on herself because she’s such a big name already. She’s still going to be a rookie. I hope and I think she’s going to be great, but I just want her to play as freely as she did at Oregon, because all of these fans, and the fame… it puts a lot of weight on people. I hope she doesn’t have that. I hope she’s able to play free, play the game, and get triple-doubles. I hope she achieves at the highest level until she plays the Sparks. Then she can have a bad day [laughs].

How would you describe your own transition from college to the next level?

I had a very difficult experience my rookie year. I was injured, I gained weight, I didn’t play as much as I thought I should. Only three to four hours a day were dedicated to the team, and I didn’t know what to do with the rest of my time. I didn’t have school anymore, I was in Connecticut, there wasn’t a lot to do. So I had to try to figure out what to do with that time, and that was difficult. On the court, players are just stronger, faster, smarter than they were in college. You have to rethink how you’re going to achieve at the highest level and play your best basketball.

Do you have any sense as to when or if the upcoming WNBA season will begin?

No idea, actually. We’re all waiting to see and hear back. I think a lot of things depend on the CDC, what they come up with, and what other sports, like NBA, decide to do as well. Their season has already started and it’s toward the later half of it. So how do we combine that with our season, when a lot of teams have NBA affiliates? What does that look like now? Trying to figure that out has been a little tough. And there’s no clarity on exactly when the season could start.

What are some of the logistics problems you see arising?

Well, we’re going to have to figure out a lot more than the NBA will in terms of travel, because they fly private, so they’re able to keep a tighter circle. Flying commercial, we won’t have the ability to keep different people from coming in and out of the plane, so we’re going to have to figure out how we manage our exposure to the public.

Rose Lavelle hoping to return to play ‘in the next couple of weeks’

uswnt midfielder rose lavalle trains on a soccer field in florida
When healthy, Rose Lavelle is a trusted asset in the USWNT's midfield. (Megan Briggs/Getty Images)

Rose Lavelle is hoping to return to the field soon. 

The 28-year-old midfielder has been sidelined with a lower leg injury since the Gold Cup in early march. Since then, she has yet to play for new club Gotham FC in the NWSL. She also missed a potential USWNT appearance at the SheBelieves Cup in April, where senior team newcomer Jaedyn Shaw saw success assuming Lavelle's role in the attacking midfield. 

At the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee media showcase on Monday, Lavelle told reporters that she’s doing well and hopes to be back soon.

"I’m doing good — I’m hoping I’ll be back in the next couple weeks," Lavelle said. "It’s frustrating to start the year off with an injury, just because I feel like you come off preseason and you’re revving to go, so it’s so annoying."

Lavelle is still looking to compete for one of just 18 Olympic roster spots. When healthy, she ranks as one of the national team’s most trusted assets, but considering this most recent injury, her health is an obvious concern. Faced with an onslaught of experienced competitors and young talent, incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes will have some big decisions to make when selecting the Paris-bound squad — a reality Lavelle seems to be taking in stride as she works to regain full fitness.

"We have so many special players, we have so much depth, and so many different weapons to utilize on and off the bench," Lavelle said. "Unfortunately that means really good players are going to get left off, too. And I think for all of us, it’s just about being ready for whatever role is given to us, embracing that, and looking to put it into a collective picture so that we can go into the Olympics ready to go."

Kate Paye tapped to take VanDerveer’s place at Stanford

new stanford head coach kate paye spins a basketball on the court
Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye has officially been promoted to head women's basketball coach. (Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports)

Stanford has found its replacement for legendary head women's basketball coach Tara VanDerveer in associate head coach Kate Paye.

The Cardinal confirmed the hiring on Tuesday via a press release. Paye was largely expected to replace the longtime head coach, as the college mentioned they were still negotiating Paye's contract when they announced VanDerveer's retirement.

In Tuesday's statement, Paye reported that she was "humbled" to have been tapped to lead the women’s program.

"Stanford University has been a central part of my life for as long as I can remember and I am humbled to have the opportunity to lead its women’s basketball program," Paye said. "I’d first like to thank Tara, who has played such a pivotal role in my career for her friendship and guidance. It’s not what she’s done, but how she’s done it, that has had such a profound impact upon me."

A Woodside, California native, Paye played under VanDerveer from 1992 to 1995, taking home a national title her freshman year. After graduation, Paye briefly joined San Diego State as an assistant coach before making her professional debut with the ABL's Seattle Reign in 1996. After finishing her playing career with the WNBA's Seattle Storm, she joined the team’s coaching staff in 2007 and has been with the organization ever since, picking up another national title win — this time as associate head coach — in 2021. Paye's brother John played quarterback for Stanford from 1983 to 1986, while also serving as a point guard on the basketball team.

In her own response, VanDerveer said that she was "grateful" that Stanford picked Paye to follow in her stead. Last week, the decorated coach stated that this year would be her last after 38 seasons at the helm and three national titles under her belt.

"She has long been ready for this opportunity and is the perfect leader for Stanford at this time of immense change in college athletics," VanDerveer noted. "Kate was the choice for this job and I am confident she will achieve great success as head coach."

After a record-breaking Draft Night, WNBA roster cuts loom

2023 WNBA no. 1 draft pick Aliyah Boston playing for the indiana fever
Despite going No. 1 overall in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Aliyah Boston had to fight hard to make it onto Indiana's roster. (Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images)

The 2024 WNBA Draft has officially concluded, leaving the newly minted rookie class facing a tough road ahead.

Only 144 roster slots are available throughout the league’s 12 teams, the reason why the players are sometimes referred to as the “144.” And Monday’s draft picks are set to join a large group of established players competing for those same roster spots, from seasoned veterans to young athletes determined to prove their value on the court.

Last year, just 15 of the league’s 36 draftees made it onto their drafting team's opening-day squad.

In reality, there are oftentimes fewer than 144 spots available, as not every team maxes out their roster. Per the league's CBA, each team roster must maintain a minimum standard of 11 players, but those lists can include players out with injuries or on other forms of leave. Players can also be assigned to short-term hardship contracts, something waived players must be prepared for at any point during the season.

Earlier this week, Laeticia Amihere — a 2022 national champion with South Carolina who currently plays for the Atlanta Dream — took to TikTok to provide some insight into the WNBA training camp process. 

"You can either get drafted on Draft Night, or you can get signed by a team," she said. "Once that happens, you go to training camp literally like two weeks later... Basically everybody's got to try out. There's 12 roster spots, and there's like 18 people at the at the trial."

@laeticiaamihere Replying to @dantavius.washington #wnba #draft ♬ original sound - Laeticia Amihere

Amihere also had an important point to make: Getting cut does not signify a player’s abilities. 

"If you get cut after training camp, that does not mean you're not good," she said. "That does not mean that player sucks, don't stop supporting that player. Literally, there's so many reasons somebody can get cut."

"If you guys look at the best players in the league, most of them have bounced around teams," she added. "And I promise you it is not a bad thing, it's just how the league is."

Things, however gradually, are changing. With Golden State's WNBA team scheduled to launch in time for the 2025 season, league expansion is just around the corner. On Monday, Commissioner Cathy Engelbert announced that the league is aiming to grow to 16 teams by 2028. But by then, it might be too little too late for the generation of talent emerging from an increasingly competitive NCAA system.

WNBA draft shatters records with 2.45 million viewers

wide shot of BAM during the 2024 WNBA Draft
It wasn't just attendees that were glued to the on-stage action at the 2024 WNBA Draft. (Photo by Melanie Fidler/NBAE via Getty Images)

Monday night’s WNBA draft added to the nationwide uptick in record-breaking women's sports viewership, pulling in 2.45 million viewers throughout the nearly two-hour broadcast and peaking at 3.09 million, according to an ESPN release. 

That number shatters the previous draft viewership record — 601,000 in 2004 — which was fueled primarily by then-No. 1 pick Diana Taurasi entering the league after UConn's historic three-peat March Madness performance.  

The 2023 WNBA draft drew 572,000 viewers, the most for any televised WNBA event since 2.74 million tuned in to NBC for a Memorial Day matchup between the New York Liberty and Houston Comets back in 2000.

While many came to watch Caitlin Clark get drafted No. 1 overall, it’s important to note that viewership didn’t take a massive dip after the superstar shooter left the stage. The numbers show that a bulk of the audience stuck around to watch the remainder of the show, making 2024's event not just the most-viewed WNBA draft in history, but also the most-viewed WNBA program to ever air on ESPN platforms.

Draft Day's popularity is yet another sign indicating an expected rise in WNBA regular season viewership. Clark and Iowa's NCAA tournament showdown with the Chicago Sky-bound Kamilla Cardoso's South Carolina side drew a record 18.7 million to ABC's Sunday afternoon broadcast. Banking on this trend, 36 of Indiana's upcoming 40 games are set to be shown on national television. In-person ticket sales are also soaring, leading the defending WNBA champion Las Vegas Aces to re-home their matchup with the Fever to a venue that can accommodate some 6,000 more fans.

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