Since the inception of the inaugural Women’s NBA Academy Games, Monica Rogers has been there every step of the way.
The former No. 2 overall pick in the WNBA has been amped up since she arrived in Atlanta a week prior to the start of this year’s event. She’s admittedly exhausted from the many hours she poured into this project, but there’s a tone of excitement in her voice that’s impossible to overlook.
“I literally might not even sleep tonight because I’m just so excited for these girls to have this opportunity and to play hard and have fun,” Rogers said a day before competition got underway. “I think they enjoy being with each other. They’ve made friends with their teammates who don’t even speak the same language as them, and it’s fun to see them come out of their shell and perform like I know they can to earn a chance at a future in basketball.”
While the NBA Academy Games has showcased international prospects for four years on the men’s side, this year marks the first for women. The two-day competition began Thursday and ends Friday evening, with a total of 38 top prospects from more than 20 countries outside the U.S. descending upon Atlanta.
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The showcase takes place during the NCAA women’s basketball live period, allowing coaches from across the country to make the trip to Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School in Atlanta to evaluate some of the top prospects the rest of the world has to offer.
A number of Division I schools are represented at this year’s event, including Wisconsin, Auburn, Michigan, Virginia Tech, Georgetown, Columbia, Liberty, Florida Gulf Coast, Rhode Island and UTSA, as well as a handful of Division II and JUCO schools. On top of that, several WNBA teams also sent scouts to assess talent, including the New York Liberty, Atlanta Dream and Seattle Storm.
In many ways, the Women’s NBA Academy Games mirrors what has been implemented on the men’s side. Rogers has seen firsthand the challenges international players face, both as a player for seven seasons in the WNBA and as an assistant coach at Liberty University in 2018-19.
“From a player’s perspective, I think most international players want to play at the highest level possible, and the NCAA offers not only that but an education as well,” Rogers said. “A lot of the issues players run into is they don’t even know they can get a full NCAA scholarship for playing basketball, and then beyond that, they have no idea how to obtain that and all the steps that are required to achieve that goal.
“There’s a lot of issues from a player’s perspective, but our goal for this event is to educate them and give them the experience of exposure from the NCAA and WNBA, and also just give them the experience of playing against other international players who share the same goal.”
Agata Makurat of Poland is among the top prospects featured at this year’s showcase. The 6-foot-3 guard comes from a family with no shortage of greatness on the hardwood, as her mother coached her for half a decade when she began playing and her father played basketball.
Her two older sisters were also both Division I players. Her oldest sister, Ola, played for three different schools during her college career, starting at Liberty before leaving her mark at Utah and finishing up at Arkansas State. Her other sister, Anna, played two seasons at UConn (2019-21) before returning to Europe to compete professionally.
“We were always competing, and I always wanted to be better than them,” Agata said with a laugh. “They are my motivation right now because they are already pros, and it’s the place I want to be in a couple years.”
Last month, Agata verbally committed to Vanderbilt, but she’s using the summer to step back on the court and regain her confidence after undergoing surgery earlier in the year. While she’s made the trip three times prior, the Academy Games marks her first time competing in the U.S.
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“It’s completely different than my country,” said Agata, who will graduate in 2023. “The girls are more athletic, and the game is tougher. I’m really enjoying it so far.”
Agata’s favorite players are WNBA stars Breanna Stewart and Katie Lou Samuelson, both of whom play a similar style to the one she wants to play.
“I’m trying to be as versatile as I can and maybe play as a guard even when I’m a post player, so it’s easier for me because most of the post players are not as fast,” Agata said. “I have the opportunity to show my skills as a guard.”
Still a year removed from her final high school season, Erica Marie Carr Ramos of Mexico is using the Academy Games to leverage her own interest from college coaches. Ramos hails from Chihuahua, Mexico and has been playing since she was 4 years old.
The 6-3 Ramos has been in the U.S. for a little over a year and has been working hard at improving her hookshot and footwork in the post. Before arriving in the U.S., Ramos was used more as a shooting guard/small forward, but her unique size gives her an advantage down low. And coaches have taken notice.
Ramos is excited to get the opportunity to play with players from all around the world, and she hopes the exposure from the Academy Games will help her gain valuable experience.
“Getting to play in front of coaches, getting to be coached by other coaches and be adapted to their plays and their system — feeling comfortable, that’s new,” Ramos said. “It’s normal to feel uncomfortable when you learn a new position, a new play.”
Several schools have already shown interest in Ramos, including UNLV, UTSA, Tulsa, North Texas and Baylor. Much of that interest can be attributed to her first summer on the AAU circuit, which has allowed her to gain a heightened level of exposure.
Still, her year in the U.S. has been a learning experience on the court. Ramos’ parents were both basketball players as well, and they trained her to be a versatile presence who could play inside-out.
“When I moved back to the States, it was kind of difficult because they only wanted me to be in one position because I’m tall,” said Ramos, who tries to model her game after WNBA MVP favorite A’ja Wilson. “I kind of struggled with that the first year. Slowly, I’m starting to get my rhythm back and my skills back with being versatile.”
With teams composed of players from various countries, Ramos has been an asset at the Academy Games, helping facilitate communication between Spanish- and English-speaking players. She’s enjoying the multi-cultural aspect of getting to know her teammates.
“It’s been great,” Ramos said. “It gives me the opportunity to meet girls from other countries, learn about their cultures, talk with them, make friends and also have these relationships, hopefully, in the future and continue them.”
The Academy Games began with three days of practice that allowed players to adjust to time-zone changes, settle into their teams and prepare their bodies for exhibition games on Thursday and Friday.
For the exhibition games, international players are divided into four teams — black, green, blue and red — while two select teams of top local players from Atlanta-based The Skill Factory are also on hand to compete. The women’s event also included a panel discussion about leadership and player pathways, led by former WNBA players Rushia Brown, Chasity Melvin, Nakia Sanford and Tracy Henderson.
In 2021, the WNBA had seven international players drafted for the first time since 2001. Three of those players from the 2021 draft were taken in the first round alone, including the Dallas Wings’ No. 2 overall pick, Awak Kuier of Finland.
Rogers believes the importance of international players thriving in the WNBA is “imperative” because it allows the league to advance the game globally.
“I think it’s great,” she said. “I have a lot of respect for international players because I played overseas for five seasons, and the commitment, the work ethic — there’s so many great things about international basketball. We see it in the NBA as well. It just brings the game full circle, and it really evolves the game as well.”
Trent Singer is the High School Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @trentsinger.