By Dorothy J. Gentry
An unexpected injury while in China derailed her offseason plans but ended up providing Azura Stevens just what she – and her body – needed; time off.
“My offseason was good but it was a little different than what I expected,” said the 23-year-old forward for the WNBA’s Dallas Wings. “I planned on being in China (playing for the Chinese WCBA) the whole time but then I got the injury,” Stevens said of ligament damage in her foot that led to her returning sooner than expected back to the states.
Once state-side, Stevens went about the business of gaining some R&R – rehabbing and resting. “I’ve been rehabbing this off-season and letting my body heal and rest. I’ve also been doing a lot of bodywork, trying to get my hips and core tighter,” Stevens said of her off-season focus, adding that she stayed strengthened and worked on “getting more comfortable” with her ball-handling.
In short, she’s healed, feeling better than ever and ready to roll.
Stevens’ off-season could be a blessing in disguise for the Wings as they prepare to tip off the 2019 season in less than 60 days. The young franchise will be looking to fill many voids – both on and off the court – with the likely absence of both Liz Cambage and Skylar Diggins-Smith.
With the current state of the team – Cambage not asking for a trade and Diggins-Smith on maternity leave – Stevens sees this as “an opportunity for all of us coming back to step up and take over the team I guess. We have a good, young nucleus. We know each other better now. It’s a great opportunity for those who were in the supporting cast last year to step up and shoulder some of the responsibility that Sky and Liz had.
And Stevens plans to do just that.
Her size (6’6) – combined with her length and athleticism – makes Stevens a natural go-to for the team this season. And she’s coming off of a pretty impressive rookie season, topped off with being named to the 2018 WNBA All-Rookie team.
The Raleigh, N.C. native – selected sixth overall in last year’s WNBA draft – averaged 8.9 points, 4.6 rebounds (third among rookies) and 1.15 blocks (second among rookies) in just under 21 minutes per game. She scored at least 12 points in every game of Dallas’ season-best five-game winning streak from July 3-12, highlighted by a career-high 26 points against the Indiana Fever on July 5.
Of the All-Rookie selection, Stevens it wasn’t a goal but was definitely “icing on the cake. I had a goal (my rookie year) to come in and make an impact. I just wanted to be inserted into the line-up,” she said. “But when I got the news, it was really special.”
New Wings Head Coach Brian Agler, hired in December, has high praise for Stevens after a successful rookie year
“She is one of the most versatile players in the league, combining her size with her skill set,” Agler said. “She is a very unique player and her best days are ahead of her.”
Agler said it will be Stevens who will “determine how good she wants to be. In my conversations with her she wants to do well. That year of experience will be very beneficial (this season) but we have a new coaching staff so it will be another learning curve to go thru.”
“It will be interesting to see how competitive she will be. If she can do this and still produce with her unique and special skill set, she has the potential to be an All-Star in this League.”
Of Agler, Stevens said she was thrilled when the Wings hired him. “I’m excited for his resume, his repertoire, and who he has worked with. Players like Candace (Parker); she is a player I look up to. I’m ready to work.”
During her conversation with WNBAInsidr.com from her home, Stevens, who said she’ll be in Dallas mid- April, also talked about her rookie season, goals for the upcoming season, a new head coach and more.
WNBAInsidr: Tell us about your rookie year. Did you meet your goals?
Stevens: Playing better defense was a goal. It was a big challenge playing against the greatest WNBA players in the world. I also tried to get 10 boards a game, be effective offensively and defensively. I wasn’t as consistent as I’d like to be. It is preparation and more mental on this level (professionally) and confidence is a big key, believing in yourself.
My confidence fluctuated for me last year. Maybe nervous jitters, I don’t know. The games I played better was when I took what defense gave me. When I look at the great players, they come out calm and cool and know what they’re doing. They’re not really thinking about anything. They’re just playing with ease, playing free, not overthinking. I know a lot of times, I was just overthinking.”
WNBAInsidr: What goals have you set this year?
Stevens: I plan on stepping up more. I’ve got to think about what this looks like for myself. I want to shoulder more (weight of the team) than last year; play longer, my numbers improving and just taking on more with the new season.
WNBAInsidr: What are your expectations for the team this year after last year’s first-round exit?
Stevens: I am thinking we should go farther. A lot of stuff that got in our way last year was us. With new coaching change we can go further. Once the roster is finalized and everyone comes in with a positive attitude and ready to work, then the sky’s the limit.