“I can’t believe I actually did it. I’m in the WNBA! Wow,” A’ja Wilson laughed, as the South Carolina forward celebrated being drafted No. 1 overall by the Las Vegas Aces on April 12. She even received a congratulatory message from her idol, Blake Griffin, on an eventful night at Nike New York Headquarters.
She was the clear top pick coming into the draft, but going to the WNBA wasn’t something that was expected from A’ja at a young age, as she didn’t want to play basketball. But that began to change. “The turning point for me would have to be that I hated people having fun with winning when I didn’t contribute to the win. My way of having fun was going out there and working hard and actually being in the game,” Wilson said.
She doesn’t plan on changing her style of play for the WNBA. “[I’m going to] continue to be me, and that’s what I’m gonna do. I’m gonna be A’ja,” she said.
Kelsey Mitchell (Ohio State) went second overall to the Fever and is excited to add to Indiana’s talented roster. “Hopefully I bring competitive edge, a faster-pace type of game, and a good attitude,” Mitchell said.
Mitchell is defying odds at just 5’8”, and she is a message for young, undersized players. “I would just say have fun with the game, do what you can do. Be happy in doing what you do, and whatever you bring to the table, bring it hard.”
Diamond DeShields, who spent her last year of eligibility playing in Turkey, was third off the board to the Chicago Sky. “I think [playing in Turkey] just gave me the opportunity to see what works and doesn’t work for me on the pro level,” she said of her experience.
She wants fans to know just what she brings to the table. “I bring flavor. I bring sauce. And I think that I can help make their team better,” DeShields said. She is excited to begin the learning process with coach Amber Stocks, who is also new to the organization.
Joining her in Chicago will be UConn forward Gabby Williams, who went to the Final Four every year of her college career. She’ll miss UConn, but will value her experiences there. “I’m gonna miss my coach, I’m gonna miss my teammates, and I’m gonna miss what we all did together,” Williams said. “I learned how to compete; we pushed ourselves so hard everyday by playing against the best players in the country every day, and I know how to push myself now.”
Jordin Canada (UCLA) stayed with her Pac-12 roots by going fifth overall to the Seattle Storm. Canada looks forward to learning from Sue Bird, one of her idols. “I’m so excited to learn from her. I think she’s one of the best point guards to play the game. Being able to be with her, and learn from her, and to let that help my game, is going to be awesome,” Canada said.
Canada was also animated about playing with the 2016 Rookie of the Year. “Breanna Stewart is just a great player; I mean, she’s one of the best players in the league, and just for me to get to play with her and run with her and pass her the ball, it’s going to be amazing,” she added.
Canada hopes to get a puppy when she moves to Seattle and had an interesting take on the move. “I’m excited for the weather change,” she said. “I’m a Cali girl, so I haven’t experienced much rain, but there’s a lot in Seattle. I’m looking forward to that.”
A second UConn player went off the board at No. 6, as Azurá Stevens went to the Dallas Wings. She was there with her best friend and had a few ups and downs waiting for her name to be called. “I was really nervous,” she said. “I was waiting for my name to be called, and then when I heard it I was relieved and excited.”
She wants to bring her versatility to the Wings and hopes to get the iPhone X once she gets her first paycheck. She thinks “competing every day at UConn and learning from Coach [Geno] Auriemma” prepared her for this next chapter of her career.
Victoria Vivians (Mississippi State) went eighth overall to the Fever and credits her experiences in the last two seasons for preparing her. “Competing against all the ranked teams helped me get ready because they’re pros, and I’m a pro, and we’re all great competitors,” she said.
She wants to play against many of the women she played against in college because her defense is much improved. “There’s a lot of things I’m going to miss about that place, and UConn has been such a great home to me. [Coach Auriemma and I] made jokes a lot during practice, but they’re kind of like serious jokes. So I think I’ll miss that,” Nurse said.
She is ready to deal with the pressure from New York sports fans due to her experiences at UConn, and is excited to play with Tina Charles.
“I love the way Tina Charles plays,” Nurse said. “When I watched her and played against her in the Olympics, I was in awe most of the time and not playing defense. So I’m glad she’s on my team now. But, when you have a post player as efficient as she is, and you can get the ball in to her at any time, I think that’s so much fun.”
The last draft attendee off the board was Monique Billings (UCLA). She slipped to the second round but was in good spirits nonetheless. She is ready to have fun and be challenged in the WNBA.
“I’m big ball of fun. I’m really lovely and goofy, and I’m ready to have a good time,” she said while laughing. “I tell [young players] to dream and have fun. I’m living my dream.”
These prospects-turned-pros are all ready to have fun and enjoy their new hometowns. After one of the deepest draft classes in years, one thing is certain: When the WNBA season begins on May 18, the Rookie of the Year race is on.
Photographs by (from top): Michael J. LeBrecht II/NBAE/Getty Images; Melanie Fidler/NBAE/Getty Images; Henry Mode