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Chelsea Gray Thinks Sabrina Ionescu Has What It Takes

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Sabrina Ionescu #20 of the Oregon Ducks reacts after a teammate hit a 3-pointer against the Utah Utes during the Pac-12 Conference women’s basketball tournament quarterfinals at the Mandalay Bay Events Center on March 6, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Ducks defeated the Utes 79-59. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

The production of the 2020 WNBA draft made it clear that the stage belonged to Sabrina Ionescu, as a stream of feature videos and pre-prepared Ionescu-to-the-Liberty content followed New York’s selection of the Oregon star. It almost felt like the actual draft only began after Ionescu was picked first overall — when the prospect of uncertainty was introduced for the first time.

That is why it may have come as a surprise when WNBA legends, and UConn teammates for two years, Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi openly debated who from this year’s draft class would have the best career in a wide-ranging discussion on Instagram Live.

In addition to all their other credentials, like Ionescu, both were drafted first overall when they entered the league. So when they hopped on Instagram to deliver hot takes, people listened.

Bird said her top two were Chennedy Carter, drafted fourth overall to the Atlanta Dream, and Satou Sabally, Ionescu’s Oregon teammate taken second by the Dallas Wings. Taurasi chose Ionescu.

“Sabrina did all the things in college that you and me did,” Taurasi said.

The Los Angeles Sparks’ Chelsea Gray, however, would tend to side with Taurasi. The Duke product came into the league as the 11th overall pick, having to spend time in a role off the bench until breaking out in 2017 with her first of three consecutive All-Star appearances.

Put three guards in a room and there won’t likely be much agreement on anything. That both Gray and Taurasi came away from the draft thinking Ionescu was the best in the class speaks volumes.

“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,” Gray told Just Women’s Sports. “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,” Gray added. “What she was able to do is so difficult, you really have to appreciate the way she plays the game.”

Ionescu finished her Oregon career with an NCAA-record 26 career triple-doubles. In the WNBA, the feat has historically been much more difficult to accomplish, with only nine ever recorded in the league’s 23 seasons.

While acknowledging that the WNBA is a different level from the college game, especially considering the adjustments that come with playing against teams with in-depth scouting, Gray is betting on Ionescu.

“I think she’s capable of succeeding at the highest level.”

To her credit, Ionescu had phenomenal games even against schools and coaches known for their scouting. Hall of Fame head coach at Stanford Tara VanDerveer saw Ionescu quite a bit and always struggled to contain her.

Ionescu is coming into a difficult environment in New York. The franchise had the opportunity to draft her first overall by virtue of a 10-24 record last year. It will be a challenge to find success immediately.

For comparison, Bird was drafted by a Seattle Storm team that went 10-22 the year prior and won her first championship in year three. When the Phoenix Mercury took Taurasi in 2004, it was coming off an 8-26 record in 2003. In season four, the Mercury and Taurasi each had their first championship.

So, whatever the case, it would be fair to allow Ionescu time to acclimate in the league. Then again, she joined an Oregon team that had not made a tournament appearance since 2005, had not won a Pac-12 regular season title since 2000, and had never advanced past the first week of March Madness. But in just her freshman season the Ducks made the first of three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight. By the end of her sophomore season, they had won the Pac-12. And during Ionescu’s junior year, Oregon was a Final Four team for the first time in school history. In her senior year, Matthew Knight Arena was consistently selling out and Oregon was the talk of national media.

It’s that kind of transformative potential that Gray was referring to when she said Ionescu is a great player.

“She’s done something very special at the University of Oregon,” Gray said. “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.”

Now, the challenge for Ionescu is to not just live up to but somehow try and exceed the lofty expectations surrounding her professional career. Ever since the Liberty faced the Sparks in Los Angeles for the league’s inaugural game, the two franchises have played in front of some of the league’s largest media markets. But the Sparks have won three titles. The Liberty? Zero.

Gray, after four seasons in Southern California, offered Ionescu some advice on how to navigate the heightened scrutiny.

“I don’t want her to put so much pressure on herself because she’s such a big name already,” said Gray, who like Ionescu, went to high school in the East Bay. “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,” Gray added. “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.”

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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