Dawn Staley has built a pipeline to the WNBA at South Carolina, and that has been on full display during the 2023 WNBA season.

From rookies Aliyah Boston and Zia Cooke to MVP candidate A’ja Wilson, nine former Gamecocks currently grace WNBA rosters, The Athletic reported. That is the third-highest total in the league behind Notre Dame (10) and UConn (16).

“To see all of us achieving our goals and being able to play against each other, it’s special,” Cooke told The Athletic. The 22-year-old guard played in 39 games for the Los Angeles Sparks in her first professional season.

Players say that Staley’s coaching style helps to prepare them for the WNBA from the moment they step on campus as freshmen. She instills “pro habits,” including mental toughness and work ethic, to help her players flourish at the next level.

The formula has worked. On top of having nine players on rosters, three of the last seven Rookie of the Year winners will have come from South Carolina – Allisha Gray, Wilson and, soon, Boston. A shoo-in for the 2023 award, Boston averaged 14.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game for the Indiana Fever.

“That South Carolina program really grooms these guys to compete,” Sparks coach Curt Miller said.

And former Gamecocks returning to campus and helping out the program helps too.

“When they come back, I try to get them to practice with us,” Staley said. “I try to get them to impart knowledge on how to play at the next level, the type of habits they’ve created to have staying power and to have dominating power once they’re in the league.”

Wilson sees the wisdom Staley has imparted on her as a “huge key” to her success with the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces. That includes twice being named WNBA MVP – with a potential third accolade coming. And she’s been happy seeing her fellow South Carolina alums find success in the WNBA as well.

“To see it all unfold and to see us all here being successful across the league, it’s truly something special,” Wilson said. “I’m always proud to say, I’m a product of Dawn Staley, and that’s the stamp. That’s a big stamp for me and I love it, and you can see it carries out throughout my college teammates. And it’s just a type of vibe that we give, the culture that we built there. It’s no surprise that we’re being very successful in this league.”

Zia Cooke has hit the ground running as a rookie in the WNBA. To those that know her, that’s not a surprise.

“She’s being coached and coached to play, not really coached to sit on the bench and be a roster spot,” South Carolina head coach Dawn Staley told the Los Angeles Times. “She’s primed to just receive her dream.”

A four-year starter at South Carolina, Cooke helped the Gamecocks to three Final Fours and a national championship in 2022. She led the team with 15.4 points per game on 40.5% shooting in her senior season, then went No. 10 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks in the WNBA draft.

And she’s started her WNBA career the same way she ended her collegiate one. In her debut last week, she had 14 points on 5-of-6 shooting through 15 minutes while adding two rebounds and two assists in the Sparks’ 94-71 win against the Phoenix Mercury.

“She’s not afraid of the big moment because she’s played in the big game,” Sparks coach Curt Miller said. “She’s ready.”

While she was limited to just 4 points in the Sparks’ second game, a 94-85 loss to the Las Vegas Aces, she again had two rebounds and two assists. Cooke credits her performance so far to the Sparks allowing her to be herself. Veterans have welcomed her off the court and helped empower her to perform the way she does on the court.

“When you’re a rookie, you don’t know who you should be,” Cooke said. “But for [my teammates] to let me openly be myself, I’m super thankful for that.”

LSU cut down the nets at the end of March Madness, but the games also gave us smaller, individual victories as players improved their WNBA draft stock throughout the NCAA Tournament.

As WNBA teams prepare to make their selections Monday night in New York City, here are four players who could move up the draft board thanks to their tournament performances.

Alexis Morris, PG, LSU

The biggest knock on Morris’ game is that she is undersized at 5-foot-6. But in March, the point guard led her team to a national championship and proved she can match up with bigger guards along the way.

“She played well throughout the tournament, and at times she carried LSU,” Atlanta Dream coach Tanisha Wright said on a pre-draft media call Thursday. Wright’s Dream have two picks in the first round Monday night, including the No. 6 selection.

“She is somebody who got significantly better throughout the season.”

Morris stepped up when LSU needed her most, finishing with 15 points, seven assists and four rebounds to help the Tigers escape Utah in the Sweet 16. She then scored 27 points against Virginia Tech in the Final Four, and finished with 21 points and nine assists as LSU topped Iowa in the championship game.

Another stat that WNBA coaches and executives will love: Morris had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio throughout the tournament. She’s a reliable decision-maker who excels in the midrange after she beats defenders off the dribble.

Zia Cooke, G, South Carolina

Playing for a team as stacked as South Carolina was this season, it can be hard to excel, but Cooke managed the feat throughout her career and particularly during the Gamecocks’ March Madness run this year. She finished with 18 points and eight rebounds to help the Gamecocks advance past Maryland in the Elite Eight.

In a disappointing loss to Iowa in the Final Four, Cooke kept her team in the game, finishing with 24 points and eight rebounds. Iowa packed the paint and made it difficult for the South Carolina guards to attack, but Cooke was able to navigate the defense, a feat that didn’t go unnoticed by WNBA coaches and executives.

“In the last month and a half, she really showed up for them and progressed through the tournament as well,” Wright said.

Jordan Horston, G, Tennessee

Horston was already an attractive prospect to WNBA teams because of her build. At 6-2, the guard is long and athletic, making her an asset on both ends of the floor. Tennessee clearly felt her absence due to injury during last year’s NCAA Tournament, and this time around, her importance to the Vols was on full display.

She led Tennessee to a Sweet 16 with three complete performances. In the first round, Horston had 21 points, eight rebounds, four assists and two steals. She followed that up with 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals against Toledo, in a game where she only logged 18 minutes. Horston was solid once more during Tennessee’s Sweet 16 loss to Virginia Tech, registering 17 points, four rebounds, three assists and three steals.

(Eakin Howard/Getty Images)

While she’ll need to clean up her turnovers, after averaging 4.5 per game this season and committing seven in the Sweet 16, Horston’s ability to impact the game in multiple ways is a good sign for her future in a league that values versatility.

“She demonstrated that she will be a really great fit for whatever team drafts her,” said Dallas Wings president Greg Bibb.

Monika Czinano, F, Iowa

Iowa’s fifth-year post player doesn’t necessarily fit today’s mold of a WNBA player. There is less room for traditional, back-to-the-basket post players as the WNBA moves toward positionless basketball, but Czinano has the potential to make an impact because her specialized skills are elite. She doesn’t do a little bit of everything, but she excels at her strengths.

“I’m a big Monika fan,” said Indiana Fever GM Lin Dunn. “She has no fear, she’s physical, strong, and high energy. The only thing for Monika is she needs to get selected by the right team.”

Czinano was one of the most efficient players in college basketball this season, shooting 67.4 percent from the field. She maintained that efficiency against top competition, including when matched up against 6-5 Aliyah Boston and 6-7 Kamilla Cardoso from South Carolina. Czinano had 18 points in their Final Four matchup, going 6-for-8 from the field and 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

This year’s WNBA draft class features a stacked lineup, led by Aliyah Boston and South Carolina’s “Freshies.”

The Gamecocks’ freshmen from the 2019-20 season are now primed to enter the professional ranks.

Boston is expected to go No. 1 overall to the Indiana Fever, and her teammates could follow closely behind her. Brea Beal, Laeticia Amihere and Zia Cooke all are potential first-round picks, with Beal and Amihere going in the top 12 in the latest mock draft from ESPN, while Cooke is in the top 12 in the most recent mock from Just Women’s Sports.

All four were part of a senior class at South Carolina that went 129-9 during their careers, advancing to three Final Fours and winning the 2022 national championship. 

“We wanted to be the best class to ever come in. I feel like we did that,” Beal said following the team’s Final Four loss.

Boston, Beal and Cooke were four-year starters. Beal hit career-highs in shooting 3s this season, at 38 percent. Cooke, meanwhile, had a career-best season this year with the Gamecocks, averaging 15.4 points per game. She won the Ann Meyer Drysdale Award this year as the best shooting guard in the country.

And if you ask Cooke, their time together isn’t done. 

“It’s not over, we’ve got so much success in front of us,” she told ABC 25 Columbia. “All of us. I think this was just a chapter of our life that we were able to spend together. And now we’re all gonna all divide off and go our separate ways. But I just know there’s greatness that’s going to happen throughout all of us and I can’t wait for us to get back together.”

Zia Cooke led South Carolina women’s basketball to a comeback 68-51 win Monday with a career night against Georgia.

The Gamecocks trailed at halftime, but Cooke – who went 3-for-11 in the first half – took over in the second. She finished with a career-high 31 points and was the only South Carolina player to reach double digits.

“She took great shots. She didn’t force anything,” Staley said. “I just wanted her to continue to shoot the ball. Don’t second guess. Don’t jab. If you feel it, go ahead and shoot it.”

While Cooke started the game 0-for-5 from beyond the arc, she didn’t get discouraged. She hit four of her next seven 3-point shots.

At one point in the fourth quarter, when she nailed yet another 3-pointer to give the Gamecocks their largest lead of the game, she turned around and celebrated before the ball even hit the net.

“Coach kept telling me to keep shooting my shot, so I listened to her,” Cooke said. “It just felt good.

“I actually practiced doing that because I watched Steph Curry do it a lot. Sometimes in the gym I just play around and do that, and it felt as good (tonight).”

The senior has experienced exponential growth this season, averaging 15.3 points per game after averaging just 10.7 points per game last season. She currently sits first on the team in scoring, and was third on the team last year.

“We held two of their go-to players down, and Zia Cooke just got loose,” Georgia head coach Katie Abrahamson-Henderson said. “She put her team on her back.”

For Cooke, the turnaround has been influenced by former teammates Destanni Henderson, who now plays for the Indiana Fever, and Tyasha Harris, who plays for the Dallas Wings.

“I definitely think I’ve got to put my big girl pants on and bring it every single day wherever coach needs me to be at to get it done,” Cooke told The Greenville News. “Henny was one that always pushed it down the floor, so I take that with me to know I always have to push it down, and with Ty I took making sure you see the floor and the people around you and make sure you’re getting your teammates open.

“I know I’m going to have to play a big role and mentally be in a great space because at this point, all of us seniors have to lead the ones under us.”

The NCAA’s ruling allowing students to profit off their name, image, and likeness (NIL) has opened up a lucrative new world for college athletes. As brands and agencies move to embrace NIL opportunities, several female athletes are well-positioned to take advantage of the new policy.

These are the Top 10 in line for a payday:

1. Paige Bueckers, University of Connecticut


Paige Bueckers has been making headlines since high school, and after a dominant freshman year at UConn, the basketball star is now a household name. With 906,000 followers on Instagram and a strong national profile boosted by a memorable appearance at the ESPYs, Bueckers is one of the most popular college athletes in America today. Singing with Wassermann Media Group, a Los Angeles-based sports marketing and talent company, Bueckers is likely to leverage her platform for lucrative NIL deals, with some estimates predicting the basketball star could make $1 million a year in partnerships and endorsements.

2. Suni Lee, Auburn University


Suni Lee was the breakout star of the Tokyo Olympics after winning individual gold in women’s gymnastics and capturing the world’s attention. Lee’s Olympic success earned her a spot competing on this season of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars, only elevating her growing profile. Now at the Auburn University, Lee is set to benefit the most from NIL deals due to her rising fame (and 1.6 million Instagram followers).

3. Hailey Van Lith, University of Louisville


Haley Van Lith had a strong debut season for Louisville, leading the women’s basketball team to an Elite Eight appearance and the ACC Championship game while earning a spot on the ACC All-Freshman Team. The breakout Louisville star also boasts a sizeable social media following, including 703,000 fans on Instagram, making her a true beneficiary of NIL changes. In August, Lith signed with Octagon, a talent management agency, embracing the potential for forthcoming partnerships and endorsements.

4. Cameron Brink, Stanford University


Cameron Brink is quickly becoming one of the most recognizable athletes in college basketball after helping Stanford take home the NCAA 2021 Women’s Basketball Championship in her freshman year. Off the court, Brink is a savvy social media influencer, with 160,000 followers on Instagram and a series of brand deals. The Stanford star is among a growing group of young athletes to sign with Wasserman, adding to her NIL earnings potential.

5. Sarah Fuller, Vanderbilt University


Last year, Sarah Fuller made NCAA football history, becoming the first woman to play and score in a Power Five football game as a kicker for the Vanderbilt University football team. She’s a uniquely marketable talent who has also signed with Wasserman, leveraging her 146,000 Instagram followers. She currently plays goalkeeper for North Texas as a graduate soccer transfer.

6. Sedona Prince, Oregon University


Sedona Prince is not afraid to speak up. Last year, Oregon’s power-forward and center took the sports world by storm after highlighting the weight room disparities between the women’s and men’s 2021 NCAA basketball tournaments. Now, the basketball star boasts a loyal social media following on both Instagram and TikTok, making Prince one of college’s most marketable athletes.

7. Haley Jones, Stanford University


Haley Jones is one of the most talented college basketball players on the court today, having led Stanford to a 2021 NCAA Championship while being named the MOP of the Final Four. Her impressive run to a national title catapulted Jones to prominence, with the basketball star throwing out the first pitch at a San Francisco Giants game over the summer. Jones’s on-court success, combined with her charisma off the court, makes her a compelling and viable college sports figure.

8. Caitlin Clark, University of Iowa


Caitlin Clark is lighting up the court for Iowa basketball and Team USA, leading the U.S. Under-19 squad to a gold medal in the FIBA World Cup in August. As one of college basketball’s top talents and scorers, Clark will likely be a magnet for NIL deals, something the Iowa star has expressed interest in. “As a female college athlete, valuable opportunities could come in our college career that may not be given at a professional level, especially with the support of female athletics we have here in the state of Iowa.”

9. Zia Cooke, University of South Carolina


University of South Carolina basketball guard Zia Cooke is one of the first athletes to take advantage of the NIL rulings, inking a deal with Bojangles and putting on a for-profit basketball camp in her hometown of Toledo, OH. With 196,000 followers on Instagram, Cooke’s NIL profile is likely to continue to grow.

10. Kaila Novak, UCLA


Kaila Novak, the UCLA soccer star, had a breakout 2020 season, earning her stripes as a Pac-12 All-Freshman honoree. The sophomore also has a significant social media following, including 131,000 followers on Instagram, where she promotes specific brands, including nate, a shopping app.