By R.L. Bynum
After another detour to Los Angeles, albeit a much shorter one, and winning a battle for one of 11 Chicago Sky roster spots, Stephanie Watts is ready to start her WNBA career.
And she’s thankful.
In a league where there are only 12 teams and few available spots, a lot of terrific players aren’t on rosters as the season starts this weekend. Of the 36 players picked in April’s WNBA draft, only 18 made an opening-day roster.
“Nothing short of a blessing,” Watts said Thursday during the Sky’s preseason media day. “I’m just thankful every day I get to do this, and do what I love, as a job. So, this whole experience has just been such a blessing for me. ”
The opener for the Sky, considered one of the favorites to contend for the league title, is at 1 p.m. Saturday on the road against the Washington Mystics, and it will be televised on ABC.
“I can’t express enough how overwhelmingly fortunate I feel to be able to do this,” said the former UNC star, who led the Tar Heels last season in assists, steals and blocks while averaging 12 points per game. “It’s not something I take for granted. So, I just want to go out and give everything I can every chance and second that I have the opportunity to do so.”
Getting to this point wasn’t without its hurdles.
The Los Angeles Sparks made Watts the 10th overall pick in the first round of the draft April 15 but dealt her to Chicago on May 9 along with the rights to forward Leonie Fiebich, in exchange for forward Gabby Williams. Her most recent stay in Los Angeles was significantly shorter than when she spent an injury-plagued season at Southern Cal before playing at North Carolina last season.
The trade wasn’t expected but it didn’t faze her.
“To me, basketball is basketball,” said Watts, who holds the UNC school record for 3-pointers in a game with 10 and is second all-time in 3-pointers. “Obviously, I’m very new to this whole process. So, my agent called me and told me what was going on and I was ready. I mean, OK, next opportunity and you’re ready. I am a firm believer that everything happens for a reason. Just being here for a short time, it’s the right place for me and I’m just so blessed to be here.”
It’s the most time she’s spent in Chicago since playing in the McDonald’s All-America Game at the United Center in 2015, when she scored 16 of her 19 points in the second half.
Watts likes the Sky’s up-tempo style.
“They play fast, so I’m excited to play fast,” Watts said. “I think anybody who knows my game, knows that’s what I like to do. I like to shoot threes, play fast, play defense, run and steal — get steals and go — so, I’m excited to contribute in any single way that I can.”
Sky coach and general manager James Wade said the team interviewed Watts before the draft and liked her.
“We thought that she’s someone that has WNBA attributes,” Wade said. “She had long arms, ran the floor really well, athletic, really good at spacing, good at changing directions and she was a good teammate. That’s what we’ve heard from across the board wherever she was. We were excited with someone that we looked at to draft, but she was off the board earlier than we would have liked. So, we’ve had our eye on her.”
Watts knows that it’s hard to get a WNBA roster spot with so few roster spots. She’s seen many terrific players waived in the last couple of weeks, including her UNC teammates Janelle Bailey and Petra Holešínská. Both signed training-camp contracts after going undrafted, but the New York Liberty released Bailey on May 7 and the Sky released Holešínská on May 9, the day Watts was traded.
Watts said she’s talked to both former teammates but chatted with Holešínská a bit more since the trade happened the same day Holešínská was released. She says that there is so much talent that the league needs to expand.
“There are so many good players that can’t find a team or can’t get on a team, which shouldn’t be the case,” Watts said. “There’s great talent out there that needs to be in the league.”
It hasn’t taken long for Watts to see the huge difference between the ACC and the WNBA.
“You’re playing against the best of the best every single night, so that’s definitely an adjustment,” Watts said. “In college, some days you’re playing a little bit of a lesser team here and there and the WNBA, that’s never the case ever. There are only 12 teams. It’s competition every single night. You have to come and bring it every day.”
There is plenty of buzz around the Sky being one of the best teams in the league after acquiring Candace Parker in the offseason to play with veterans Courtney Vandersloot and Allie Quigley as well as Diamond DeShields, who played her freshman college season at UNC and will start at the 3 spot.
“I’m excited to contribute whatever I can to a team with such high aspirations,” said Watts, who will backup Quigley at the 2 spot. ”I’m just excited to do whatever I can to help reach that championship.”
Playing with Parker is special for Watts.
“I grew up watching her,” Watts said. “I had posters of her on my wall at some point. She’s obviously an idol of mine. She’s helpful. She’s a coach on and off the court, just always helpful no matter what I’m doing. If she’s on the sideline, she’s still helping me from the sideline. Her basketball IQ is so high that it’s infectious and spreads and helps us in every single way possible.”
It’s not “the ceiling is the roof,” but the team’s hashtag for the season is #NoCeiling. Even with such a talented team, Watts is ready to help however she can.
“One big thing on my end is just bringing energy every single day and that’s something that I know I can control,” Watts said. “In basketball, it’s a game of ups and downs. You can’t control everything. But one thing that I can bring every single day to practice to games on the court, off the board is just energy and just making sure everybody’s up and able to play to their best of their ability.”
Being around a veteran team has helped her get better during the regular season.
“They help me learn defensive principles because they’re all so good and tough to guard, so I think I’m getting better every single day, being in the gym with them,” Watts said. “Just hearing them talk about the game and different movements and, you know, being around them on and off the court, I’m learning so much already in a little bit of time that I’ve been here. So, I think I’m going to grow so much as a player.”
The only other former Tar Heels besides Watts and DeShields on WNBA rosters are Indiana Fever forward Jessica Breland and Dallas Wings guard Allisha Gray. Breland is slated to start at the 4 spot for the Fever and Gray at the 3 spot for the Wings.
The Sparks released Tierra Ruffin-Pratt before training camp.