Sept. 3, 2015
Photo Gallery - 2015 Irish in the WNBA When WNBA president Laurel J. Richie stepped up to the podium at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut, to announce the league’s No. 1 draft selection last April, it was a moment that raised the University of Notre Dame Fighting Irish women’s basketball program to the league’s loftiest heights.
Jewell Loyd, an All-American guard for the Fighting Irish, was selected as the No. 1 pick overall by the Seattle Storm. It made Notre Dame the first school in the 19-year history of the WNBA Draft to produce lottery (top-four) picks in four consecutive seasons, bettering the three-year stretch produced by Connecticut from 2009-11.
Notre Dame, which has been to the NCAA Women’s Final Four the past five seasons, currently boasts five players in the WNBA, and they have made a tremendous impact on the league.
Irish legend Skylar Diggins, a 5-foot-9 guard, averaged 17.8 points and 5.0 assists for the Tulsa Shock before suffering a knee injury that ended her season. She earned All-Star status.
Kayla McBride, a 5-10 guard/forward, also earned an invitation to the WNBA All-Star game, averaging 14.1 points a game for the San Antonio Stars in her second season.
Loyd, a 5-10 guard, is enjoying a rookie season that has her averaging 10.2 points and 3.7 rebounds a game.
Natalie Achonwa, who has spent a portion of the season leading Canada to gold this summer at both the Pan Am Games and FIBA Americas Championship (the latter securing a spot in the 2016 Olympics), averages 7.8 points and 3.3 rebounds in helping the Indiana Fever clinch a playoff spot for a WNBA-record 11th consecutive season.
Devereaux Peters, a 6-foot-2 forward, owns a 2013 WNBA championship ring with the Minnesota Lynx. She is averaging 3.0 points and 3.4 rebounds a game this season as the Lynx currently sit atop the WNBA’s Western Conference standings.
In addition to Diggins and McBride being named All-Stars, Diggins, Achonwa and Loyd have each won Player of the Month or Rookie of the Month honors this season.
As Notre Dame keeps building a reputation for producing top-level talent in the world’s premier women’s basketball league, it’s clear that a myriad of factors have contributed to the fast track that has been established from Notre Dame to the WNBA.
Indiana Fever head coach Stephanie White, who also is a college basketball analyst for ESPN, said Notre Dame’s towering presence in the WNBA has to be noticed by high school prospects.
“I hope recruits are paying attention to the number of players Notre Dame is sending to the WNBA,” White said. “You want to go somewhere and play for coaches who develop you as people, who develop you as players, and who prepare for the next level of your career, whether it’s in athletics or not.
“One of the great things that (Fighting Irish head coach) Muffet (McGraw) and the coaching staff at Notre Dame do, is they develop their players,” White continued. “The players leave different than when they arrived. They don’t stay the same, so they continue to develop their players to get their game to the next level, but they also develop them from a mentality standpoint.”
According to White, it’s not just the fact that Notre Dame’s women’s basketball culture boosts the IQ of its players. White has observed an admirable toughness among the school’s alums in the WNBA, a toughness that is an Irish trademark.
"I hope recruits are paying attention to the number of players Notre Dame is sending to the WNBA. You want to go somewhere and play for coaches who develop you as people, who develop you as players, and who prepare for the next level of your career, whether it's in athletics or not."
Indiana Fever head coach Stephanie White
“There’s a certain intangible that you have to have to be able to compete and to survive in this league, a certain edge that you have to have, and those are the types of players who come out of Notre Dame” White said. “It’s obviously a great compliment to the staff and to Muffet. It’s not only what they’re about, but how they develop their players.”
McBride has thrived in the WNBA, and she credits McGraw and her coaching staff for getting her ready to step right into the fray.
“Coach McGraw pushed me, and that’s exactly what I needed to be able to play at this level,” McBride said. “She made me understand what hard work was, and if you wanted to be good at whatever you wanted to be good in life, you had to work hard, and she did it the right way. Learning from her helped me a lot. She really helped me understand what it takes to get to this level.”
Loyd also credited the Irish coaching staff for allowing her to step into the WNBA one month after the marathon college season ended and be able to average in double-digits scoring.
One area that Loyd thinks makes Notre Dame so successful preparing players for the WNBA is that the coaches are lifelong learners, and they work hard at understanding the WNBA game. That knowledge is then expressed to the players.
“I really think a lot of help making the transition to the WNBA comes from the coaches,” Loyd said. “Coach McGraw goes out and talks to pro teams and comes back and teaches us.”
According to Achonwa, McGraw and her coaches have long-range view of the player, not just as an athlete, but a person.
“The best thing about Notre Dame getting you ready for the WNBA is you have a Hall of Fame coach,” Achonwa said. “Every day, I was learning something new in the four years I was there, and the bonus year that I had. There was so much to learn about the game.
“Fortunately for Notre Dame players, Coach McGraw thinks beyond the four years that you’re there. The thing that you sometimes have in college — some coaches are so focused on just the four years that you’re there. ‘What can we get out of you?’ But at Notre Dame, Coach McGraw gave me so much that I can use it to transition to all levels, beyond basketball, a lot of life lessons. Coach McGraw taught me so much, that it made it easier to transition to being a pro.”
When Notre Dame players practice, it’s not unusual to see one of the Irish alums on the court, turning up the heat. It’s an opportunity for an Irish player like point guard Lindsay Allen to hone her craft against one of the world’s best in Diggins.
"Fortunately for Notre Dame players, Coach McGraw thinks beyond the four years that you're there. The thing that you sometimes have in college -- some coaches are so focused on just the four years that you're there … 'What can we get out of you?' But at Notre Dame, Coach McGraw gave me so much that I can use it to transition to all levels, beyond basketball, a lot of life lessons. Coach McGraw taught me so much, that it made it easier to transition to being a pro."
Natalie Achonwa ('14), Indiana Fever forward/two-time gold medalist with Team Canada
“The Notre Dame network is really one of the great things for the players,” Loyd said. “One of the biggest things that has helped me was being able to work with Skylar (Diggins). She lives in South Bend, and every time she would come back, she would workout with us.
“Devereaux Peters would make a point of coming back and working with us. That just made me better. It’s an incredible opportunity to play against professionals, rather than just hearing about it, or reading about it. I think that helped us as a team, but it also helps you as an individual get ready for the WNBA.”
McGraw said that the Notre Dame network is a great help to players when they get to the league.
“I think it’s great when the WNBA players can come back in September and play pick-up with the girls and talk about what it’s like in the pros,” McGraw said. “Our players can use them for role models, they can learn from their experience.
“It’s been great. They’re mentoring them. They know, that if they get in the league, Sky is going to take care of you, K-Mac is going to take care of you, Dev is a veteran … they’re all going to take care of you.”
McBride, Achonwa and Loyd each went to the Final Four in their four seasons wearing Irish colors. They each played a schedule packed with great competition from the BIG EAST or Atlantic Coast conferences, and a non-league schedule that usually includes at least one team from each of the Power Five conferences.
Playing against the best competition in the country has helped the Irish players take on the best competition in the world when they get to the WNBA.
“Notre Dame played in the best conference in the country every year that I was there,” McBride said. “I started out in the BIG EAST, playing UConn, and then I finished in the ACC, playing Duke and North Carolina.
“I think I was ready when I got to the league, at least competition-wise, because I played in so many big games at Notre Dame, the BIG EAST Championship, the ACC Championship, the Final Four, the national championship. Playing against great competition helped me a lot. It was also great that I played in front of huge crowds in such big venues.”
In a recent game between the Indiana Fever and San Antonio Stars, 17 of the players on the combined rosters had played against the Irish in a five-year stretch.
“It has been great to be in the ACC and see all the players who are now in the WNBA, all the people that we’ve played against in the NCAA Tournament, that we’ve seen in the Final Four, and now, we’re seeing them in the pro game,” McGraw said. “It’s great to know that we’re going to play that top competition, and that’s what’s going to prepare you for the next level.”
Notre Dame’s fast-paced attack on offense and defensive relentlessness are perfect for the WNBA style. The basketball intellect that Irish players develop through the coaching of McGraw and her staff is critical in the WNBA.
"Coach McGraw pushed me, and that's exactly what I needed to be able to play at this level. She made me understand what hard work was, and if you wanted to be good at whatever you wanted to be good in life, you had to work hard, and she did it the right way. Learning from her helped me a lot. She really helped me understand what it takes to get to this level."
Kayla McBride ('14), San Antonio Stars guard/forward and 2015 WNBA All-Star
“A lot of the WNBA coaches have said because of our style of play, because of the way that they learn the game, that they make a really good transition into the pro game,” McGraw said. “I think my assistants do a great job, individually, of getting them ready. I think our team style of running Princeton, and the other things that we’re running, really lends itself to an easy transition.
“One of the things that the Princeton offense does is it teaches them to play the game. It’s not plays where you’re just going to A to B and you’re not sure why, and you’re not reading the defense. This is an offense that requires a pretty high basketball IQ. You have to read the defense and react to what the defense is doing. It’s very much based on movement and transition. We’re going to run. The pace of the game is at a very high pace, and it’s very similar to the WNBA.”
San Antonio coach Dan Hughes said that McBride was ready for WNBA play thanks to her development at Notre Dame.
“Kayla, the person, is very special,” Hughes said. “She has one of the most innate, competitive high skill combinations I’ve ever seen in my life. Two, I think she was incredibly well prepared for the WNBA. The things we were doing just seemed like she had been doing. The third thing is, that girl has got a motor inside her that is really special. I threw her to the wolves and started her, and she became our leading scorer. She’s just a well-prepared, special young lady that you want to go to battle with.”
Notre Dame takes care of the student-athlete intellectually and spiritually, as well as physically. From the school's premier Academic Services For Student-Athletes office (which has cultivated seven women's basketball Academic All-Americans and more than 100 women's basketball conference academic honorees) and a cutting-edge sports performance division that features a dedicated team nutritionist and sports psychologist, to state-of-the-art facilities, outstanding conditioning coaches and medical personnel (led by 2015 USA Basketball Pan Am Games athletic trainer Anne Marquez), the Irish are developing student-athletes at an elite level.
“I the biggest thing I learned at Notre Dame is how to be a pro,” McBride said. “For a long time, I thought that it was just, you went to practice for three hours, and whatever, whatever.
“I realize it’s a lifestyle thing. It’s what you eat, how you sleep, and everything goes into it. That’s the biggest change. I think I had to mature in terms of taking care of my body, getting my rest, doing what I have to do to be at the top of my game, because I’m playing in the best league in the world, and I have to be ready every night. I learned so much about that at Notre Dame.”
McGraw said that the Irish program is set up to be comprehensive.
“I think what we do for student-athletes is better and more complete than what they’re going to get in the pros,” McGraw said. “With the nutrition aspect, the life skills development, the strength and conditioning … they’re on their own in the pros. I think our training facilities here are exceptional. We really prepare them for the next level.”
— by Curt Rallo, special correspondent