Rider University’s Stella Johnson led Division I in scoring this past season with 24.8 points per game. She likely would have led the Broncs to their first ever appearance in the NCAA Tournament. But the COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that. First, conference tournaments were cancelled. Then the NCAA Tournament itself before shutting down all college sports for the 2019-20 season. With the cancellations, Rider, Stella Johnson and so many others lost a golden opportunity.
The tournament was a final chance for players like Johnson — small conference players who don’t get the chance to showcase their skills to national audiences enough — to impress WNBA scouts with her on-court prowess. Likewise, it was a final chance for players at larger schools to do the same thing, to firmly solidify themselves as first round options or to give themselves a chance to play their way up draft boards.
None of that happened. Instead, these players had to prepare for the draft not only without the cancelled tournament impacting them, but also with so many other things closed: gyms, parks, stores.
On Friday, the WNBA Draft will happen as scheduled. Though it will be held virtually for the first time. The draft will air on ESPN at 7 P.M. Eastern, with GMs making picks from home and selected players taking part in the ESPN broadcast. While the draft ostensibly goes on as planned, so much else about the sports world has changed over the last month. I reached out to players who might be drafted on Friday with one question: What’s been the most difficult thing about preparing for the WNBA Draft during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Johnson told Winsidr that “the most challenging aspect of preparing for the draft is adjusting to the new way of things.” Johnson added that for the first week, she “would get up to go to a gym and realize [she]couldn’t anymore.”
This kind of adjustment was a common refrain among the players I surveyed for this piece.
Drake University guard Becca Hittner said “the hardest part is adjusting to the different resources I have now that gyms and weight rooms are closed.” Hittner has had to be more creative in figuring out how to workout at this time, adding that it’s particularly challenging because she has “always been so used to working out with others.” Her teammate, Sara Rhine, echoed that concern. Rhine said that, without “normal access to facilities and equipment,” she too has had to get creative with the kinds of workouts that she’s able to do.
Duke’s Haley Gorecki says that the changes have severely limited the kinds of work outs that are possible to do. Gorecki revealed that “the most [she and her trainer]will do is ball handling over Zoom.” Her teammate Leaonna Odom might have offered the best summation of these issues: “It’s really hard to maintain skills or improve them if gyms aren’t open.”
Lack of access to basketball courts has also been an issue.
Gorecki said that where she’s at, local officials have taken down the nets to outside courts, leaving her to do her practice on the goal in her driveway.
Baylor’s Lauren Cox, an expected lottery pick, faces similar issues. Cox says the hardest part of preparing for the draft has been “not being able to get in a gym and get some shots up.” Unlike Gorecki, Cox has been able to find basketball goals at local parks. But Cox remarked that it’s “hard to shoot when it’s windy,” a statement that should ring especially true to anyone who watched ESPN’s HORSE match between Tamika Catchings, who shot outside on a windy Indiana day, and Mike Conley, who had a full indoor court in his home.
Assuming that a WNBA season does happen this year, key players like Cox missing out on valuable prep time and not getting to practice on courts whose conditions are the same as the ones she’ll play on in the WNBA could potentially put players behind as they prepare for the season.
Fellow Lady Bear Te’a Cooper also highlighted how not being able to play basketball has been an issue. For Cooper, her biggest difficulty in preparing for the draft was ”not being able to get up and down the floor, 5-on-5, [and]to be in game shape.” Her concern about staying in game shape is especially pertinent, as traditionally, WNBA players don’t have a ton of time between the draft and the start of the season. Though with the 2020 season already postponed, that might end up being less of an issue than it would have if the season had started on time.
South Carolina’s Tyasha Harris says that “the hardest part is trying to follow the rules and keep social distancing while wanting to stay in shape and be prepared if training camp does happen sooner rather than later.” Because of the closure of gyms, Harris has had to adapt, training in ways that she otherwise wouldn’t have, such as “running on cement.”
Harris, a projected first round pick who will appear on ESPN’s telecast of the draft, also noted that preparing for the actual draft night has been an issue. She told Winsidr that it’s been “tough to find an outfit on short notice.” Because of the closure of non-essential businesses due to COVID-19, Harris noted that “all the shopping centers closed down and shipping time is unpredictable for a lot of places.”
It’s worth remembering that professional sports drafts are meant to be events, a public opportunity to honor the players who are getting selected. Over the years, both men’s and women’s sports drafts have seen players place an increasingly high value on how they dress for them. In the grand scheme of things, it might not seem like the most serious issue, but it’s another piece of normalcy that’s been snatched away by the virus.
Overall, the most prominent concern among the surveyed players was about their inability to train and workout in the ways they had been. At such an important time for these players and their basketball futures, COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into their plans.