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WNBA Draft: Surprises reign at first in-person event in three years

Naz Hillmon greets Cathy Engelbert after being selected 15th overall by the Atlanta Dream. (Evan Yu/Just Women’s Sports)

NEW YORK — Cathy Engelbert spent her Monday in an unfamiliar position.

After overseeing the last two WNBA Drafts from her home in New Jersey amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the WNBA commissioner traversed New York City with the prospects and their families Monday morning before calling players’ names and greeting them live on stage in a bustling, intimate draft room. As the selections were made from Spring Studios in TriBeCa, the top of the Empire State Building shone bright orange in honor of the WNBA’s signature color and courtesy of a lighting ceremony with Engelbert and New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney earlier in the day.

Engelbert, entering her third full season as commissioner, embraced the opportunity to send the players into the next phase of their basketball careers with an in-person celebration.

“I get to see and shake hands and hug these players who, as I call them to have them attend the draft tonight, you hear things like, ‘You’re making my dreams come true,’ and you hear things like, ‘It’s an honor. It’s a real honor,’” she said.

“I can see a lot of really powerhouse marketing storytelling opportunities amongst this group. They really have personality.”

Not everyone who heard their name called early in the draft had the chance to shake Engelbert’s hand. The surprises began as early as the sixth pick of the night, when the Indiana Fever selected Stanford guard Lexie Hull, a player many mock drafts had going in the second or third round. Hull was not in attendance Monday, as one of seven players taken before all the prospects who were invited to New York City came off the board.

The draft shake-ups are especially notable this season, when even fewer draftees are expected to make WNBA rosters due to salary cap limitations. The Minnesota Lynx got out ahead of their current roster restrictions Sunday, trading two picks to the Las Vegas Aces in favor of future selections.

From the risers to the fallers, we break down the biggest surprises of draft night.

Lexie Hull: Indiana Fever, No. 6

Given the trades and draft-board maneuvering that ensued in the days leading up to the draft, there were bound to be a few shockers on Monday night. I’m not sure anyone, however, expected it to come this early and this forcefully.

Hull was a standout four-year player at Stanford, helping them win a national championship her junior year and playing some of her best basketball this past year as a senior. She is a lengthy guard at 6-foot-1 and brings scrappy defense and efficient 3-point shooting, but there are questions as to how her game will translate to the speed and physicality of the WNBA.

The Fever had four picks in the first round and seven overall. Could they have waited and scooped up Hull at No. 10 or No. 20? It’s possible — JWS analyst Rachel Galligan had Hull going 16th to the Los Angeles Sparks in her mock draft — but if the Fever wanted her that badly, they avoided the risk by taking her early and still managed to get a potential steal in South Carolina guard Destanni Henderson at No. 20.

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The Aces were not expecting Kierstan Bell to fall to them at No. 11. (Evan Yu/Just Women's Sports)

Mya Hollingshed: Las Vegas Aces, No. 8
Kierstan Bell: Las Vegas Aces, No. 11

For as long as the odds seemed for Hull to go off the board in the first round, the chances (based on projections) were slimmer for Hollingshed. A third-round pick on JWS’ mock draft, the Colorado scoring star appealed to Aces general manager Natalie Williams because of her ceiling and her fit in first-year head coach Becky Hammon’s offense.

Hammon has said she wants to stretch the floor with a high-pace and high-volume shooting attack. So, after acquiring the No. 8 and No. 13 picks from the Lynx on Sunday, the Aces went out to add length, athleticism and shooting ability to their roster. They liked Hollingshed enough to avoid the risk that she might not fall to them at No. 11.

“Mya Hollingshed is not only an incredible athlete, but her 3-point shooting is hard to come by,” Williams said. “The coaches, the staff, everybody’s super happy.”

The Aces got a bit of a surprise themselves when the draft came back around to them and Florida Gulf Coast guard Kierstan Bell, who was a projected top-five pick in many mock drafts, was still available with the 11th pick. Bell said afterward that she, too, was surprised she was heading to Las Vegas since she hadn’t talked to the team’s staff during the pre-draft process.

Christyn Williams: Washington Mystics, No. 14

The Mystics have a case for being the ultimate winners of the draft. After trading away the No. 1 pick for the third and 14th selections and a 2023 first-round pick, the Mystics took Ole Miss center/forward Shakira Austin, a player they believed was good enough to go No. 1, and Williams in the second round.

Washington coach and general manager Mike Thibault didn’t hide his excitement after the draft, indicating that the Mystics believe they got a steal in Williams. The 5-foot-11 guard was a top scorer at UConn during her four-year career and has traits — speed in transition, ball-handling and long-range shooting — that should translate immediately to the pro level.

“Christyn Williams is the kind of player that we were hoping would be at the 14th pick when we made the trade,” Thibault said. “She is an effective offensive player both on and off the ball. She can create her own shot and get good shots for her teammates. She can also defend all three perimeter positions. This is an exciting pick for us.”

Naz Hillmon: Atlanta Dream, No. 15

Hillmon heard the knocks on her size and offensive skill set as a post player entering the draft. One of the all-time greats at Michigan, Hillmon didn’t let the criticisms or the outcome faze her as she fell out of the first round and to Atlanta with the third pick of the second round.

“This has been a dream of mine for a very long time. So just being picked up by a team, for somebody to believe in me, first round, third round, I’m excited to be where I’m at,” she said from the podium in New York.

Hillmon acknowledged that while she can’t change her 6-foot-2 height, she will continue to expand her game to be able to compete with physical bigs in the WNBA. She worked on her footwork and outside shooting during her four years at Michigan, where she became the first player in program history — men’s or women’s — to record 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds in her career. Hillmon’s motor and tenacity on the boards are unquestioned, and the rebuilding Dream walked away Monday night feeling pretty good about their selections of Hillmon and top pick Rhyne Howard.

“Everything is motivation. I could have been picked No. 1 and I still would have been motivated to get better, to perfect my craft,” Hillmon said. “I wouldn’t say disappointed, but always ready to work.”

Hannah Withiam is the Managing Editor at Just Women’s Sports. She previously served as an editor at The Athletic and a reporter at the New York Post. Follow her on Twitter @HannahWithiam.

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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