By R.L. Bynum
After one season back in Chapel Hill, it’s a return to Los Angeles for Stephanie Watts after she became the 21st player in Carolina history to be picked in the WNBA draft and the ninth to go in the first round.
The 5–11 guard became only the second Carolina player to be picked in the WNBA draft since 2013 and the first selected in the first round since 2008 when the Los Angeles Sparks made her the No. 10 overall pick in the first round Thursday night. She’ll join UNC alum Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, an eight-year veteran guard, on the Sparks’ roster, although she heads into training camp on a non-guaranteed contract.
“I think my dream was to go back to L.A. I had talked to Coach [Derek] Fisher a lot,” said Watts, who played only four games two seasons ago with Southern Cal because of an injury. “We had really good conversations and I’m just overwhelmed and so excited to be headed back to L.A.”
It’s the second consecutive year that Coach Courtney Banghart has had a player who she coached drafted in the first round. In the 2020 draft, Dallas picked Princeton’s Bella Alarie fifth overall.
“This is something that I’ve expected,” Watts said. “A lot of people don’t believe in me but I know my capabilities. I know what I can do on the basketball court. A lot of people counted me out with after injuries and I like that. I like when people sleep on me because I know me and I know what I can do.
“I’m just fortunate to be here and to be in this conversation to be in this position after going through so much and being counted out. But I just kept betting on myself,” Watts said.
It was a long six-year road to get to the start of her pro basketball career after she was the ACC freshman of the year in 2016. She was the first ACC player selected, with Louisville guard Dana Evans picked first in the second round as the 13th overall selection.
“I have the mindset that I can do whatever I believe enough to do. I think I can do whatever I put my mind to and I have the work ethic to get through it,” Watts said. “I have the motor. I stay in tip-top shape. I have the mindset. I think I’m just going to come play my game and do what I know I can do.”
Neither UNC center Janelle Bailey nor guard Petra Holešínská was selected in the three-round, 36-player draft. On Saturday, though, Holešínská signed with the Chicago Sky.
Picked two ahead of Watts by Los Angeles was forward Jasmine Walker, who was part of the Alabama team that eliminated UNC in the first round of the NCAA tournament. In the third round, Los Angeles selected Wake Forest forward Ivana Raca.
“Jasmine and Stephanie are both players that we’ve had circled on the board for a while,” said Fisher, the Sparks’ general manager and coach. “We continue to add versatility in both of those players, providing floor spacing, being able to shoot the three really well and at a high level and they also give us the versatility on the defensive end.”
Watts, who turned 24 Monday, averaged 12 points per game last season in her return to the Tar Heels. She ranks second in program history and eighth in ACC history in career 3-pointers with 275. She was third in the ACC last season in steals with 40.
“I point to her personality and her mindset,” said Fisher, pointing out that Watts has overcome her share of setbacks. “They have to learn to bounce back from really difficult things at early ages and Stephanie is one of those people. She’s a grown woman and she can come in and handle the responsibilities that come with being a pro.”
In Watts’ final college game, the loss to Alabama in the first round of the NCAA tournament, Watts scored a season-high 26 points. She just missed the program’s first triple-double when she collected 25 points, 12 rebounds and nine assists in a Jan. 24 home win over Notre Dame.
“She’s a great player,” Walker said of Watts. “She gave us a run for our money when she was playing against us. She’s definitely one of the great players that I’ve played against.”
She is the fourth-highest Carolina pick in the WNBA draft behind Nikki Teasley, who was the fifth overall pick of Portland (traded to Los Angeles) in 2002, Tracy Reid, who was the seventh overall pick to Charlotte in 1998, and La’Tangela Atkinson, who was the ninth overall pick of Indiana in 2006.
Watts is the first Tar Heel picked since the Indiana Fever made Paris Kea the 25th overall pick in the third round in 2019. The last UNC player to be picked in the first round was Erlana Larkins, who New York made the 14th overall selection in 2008.
All-time UNC WNBA draft picks
1998 — Tracy Reid, first round, 7th overall, Charlotte
1999 — Charlotte Smith, third round, 33rd overall, Charlotte
2001 — La’Quanda Barksdale, first round, 12th overall, Portland
2001 — Juana Brown, fourth round, 49th overall, Seattle
2002 — Nikki Teasley, first round, 5th overall, Portland (traded to Los Angeles)
2002 — Jackie Higgins, second round, 32nd overall, Los Angeles
2003 — Coretta Brown, first round, 11th overall, San Antonio
2003 — Marion Jones, third round, 33rd overall, Phoenix
2005 — Nikita Bell, second round, 20th, Detroit
2006 — La’Tangela Atkinson, first round, 9th pick overall, Indiana
2007 — Ivory Latta, first round, 11th overall, Detroit
2007 — Camille Little, second round, 17th overall, San Antonio
2008 — LaToya Pringle Sanders, first round, 13th overall, Phoenix
2008 — Erlana Larkins, first round, 14th overall, New York
2009 — Rashanda McCants, second round, 15th overall, Minnesota
2011 — Jessica Breland, second round, 13th overall, Minnesota (traded to New York)
2011 — Italee Lucas, second round, 21st overall, Tulsa
2012 — Chay Shegog, second round, 21st overall, Connecticut
2013 — Waltiea Rolle, third round, 36th overall, Minnesota
2019 — Paris Kea, third round, 25th overall, Indiana
2021 — Stephanie Watts, first round, 10th overall, Los Angeles
ACC pool photo