Tuesday, September 26, 2023
HomeSportsBasketballHow the WNBA paves the way for new NBA talent

How the WNBA paves the way for new NBA talent

FROM THE OPENING tip, Paolo Banchero asserts himself in his NBA debut, scoring the Orlando Magic‘s first points after he cuts toward the middle of the paint, makes a hard two-handed dribble and absorbs contact from Detroit Pistons forward Saddiq Bey with a spin move before unleashing a turnaround hook shot. Banchero would go on to score 27 points on opening night, the most by a No. 1 overall draft pick in his first game since Allen Iverson in 1996, in front of a sold-out crowd at Little Caesars Arena.

It’s the kind of gaudy stat line Banchero has put up often while averaging 21.7 points during his rookie season, but there’s at least one person usually unimpressed by his scoring numbers alone: his mother. Having a former WNBA player as a mom has its advantages, and Rhonda Smith-Banchero’s high standard for the rookie is what made him who he is today.

“When I was younger I was hearing it after every game, even if I played well,” Banchero told ESPN. “And it’d be like, ‘Oh well, you didn’t do this,’ or ‘Your hands wasn’t up in the midpost.’ She’d find a little stuff to pick at. That’s why I love her.” She always told me she wanted me to just make it farther, be better than she was. She always felt like she sold herself short a little bit with her career. So, she never wanted me to do that and make those same mistakes.”

The Pistons respond to Banchero’s opening basket when Cade Cunningham draws a crowd at the rim but finds 2022 No. 5 overall pick Jaden Ivey cutting toward the hoop for a two-handed layup. Less than a minute into their NBA debuts, both top-five picks are on the board.

Banchero and Ivey will always remain linked as part of the same draft class. They rank first and third, respectively, among rookies in scoring this season, (Indiana’s Ben Mathurin is second). Both Banchero and Ivey — set to meet for the first time since opening night when the Pistons host the Magic on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET) — can also trace their basketball roots through mothers who had their own professional playing careers.

Rhonda Smith-Banchero graduated as the all-time leading scorer at the University of Washington in 1995 (now No. 6 on that list) and played professionally for several seasons in the American Basketball League (ABL) before playing one season for the WNBA’s Sacramento Monarchs in 2000. Niele Ivey played four seasons in the WNBA between the Indiana Fever, Detroit Shock and Phoenix Mercury and is the current head coach of the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. The 2022 NBA Finals featured six sons of former NBA players.

Banchero and Ivey represent the next wave of second-generation players filling NBA rosters who are the proud sons of former WNBA players. The story of demanding fathers readying their sons for the pros has been told. But for this rookie duo, watching and learning the game from their mothers has been the difference-maker.

“To have a mother that just loves the game, her passion for the game every single day, I wouldn’t have had that same passion if it wasn’t for my mother,” Ivey said.

IT TOOK IVEY some time to settle into his first regular-season game as a pro, but once he did, he was electric in the third quarter. His instincts and his speed took over as he scored 10 of his 19 points against Banchero and the Magic.

Weathering an uneven start to the game brought him back to the lessons of perseverance he learned from his mother, Niele, who was in the stands on opening night. It’s a little more than a three-hour drive from South Bend, Indiana, to Detroit, so Niele makes the trip to watch her son play whenever her schedule allows. Although she doesn’t press with many reminders on game days, her lessons still bounce around her son’s mind.

“She just told me whatever you’re doing, just continue to trust your work. It’s not going to be easy,” Ivey told ESPN. “There’s going to be times that are going to be challenging, hard, but at the end of the day, what you take from it and how you take adversity is just going to make you a better person.”

Both Jaden and Paolo grew up watching, appreciating and learning from the women’s game. Paolo would tag along as Rhonda coached at a junior college and an all-girls high school in Seattle, while Jaden accompanied Niele to practices, games, shootarounds and Final Fours while she was an assistant for the Notre Dame women’s basketball team. It gave both NBA players an appreciation for the game by seeing the passion and attention to detail their mothers and the players they coached put into perfecting their craft.

“We don’t play above the rim, but he saw the intangibles,” Niele Ivey told ESPN. “He saw the things that got us to this point and the success that we’ve had.”

Niele Ivey went to the Final Four as an assistant coach at Notre Dame seven times (2011-2015, 2018-2019) and she left an impression on a young Jaden, who remembers how little sleep his mother got as she prepared for big games.

“She’d be watching film all night before the big games, wouldn’t get any sleep before,” he said. “I would wake up, it would be 7 in the morning, and she’d still be watching film from last night.”

That grind imprinted in Jaden from an early age is part of the reason his rookie campaign has gotten off to such a fast start. He is averaging 15.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.0 assists on 42% shooting and has been thrust into a larger role with Cunningham out for the season with a shin injury.

“He knows the game,” Pistons coach Dwane Casey told ESPN. “He may make a mistake, but it’s an honest mistake. You say one thing to him and he knows what the correction should be. He’s the first one to know it when I get on him about something. So that, to me, tells me that he’s been taught well and he’s been around good coaches his entire career. Even as a toddler he was around the game … I love kids like that.”

PAMELA AND JAVALE MCGEE were the first mother-son duo to have played in the WNBA and NBA, making history when JaVale was drafted in 2008, but there have been only a few other instances of sons following in their mothers’ footsteps.

Magic guard Gary Harris is the son of Joy Holmes-Harris, who played one season for the Detroit Shock in 2000. Each of the women who have sons in the NBA had stopped playing professionally by 2005. A few other dominant women’s basketball players have sons who pursued the sport — Tina Thompson’s son, Dyllan, is playing high school basketball in Houston, and Sheryl Swoopes’ son, Jordan Jackson, plays professionally in the Lebanese league.

The relative youth of the WNBA, which just completed its 26th season in 2022, plays a role in the lack of mother-son duos, but so do the choices women’s basketball players have often had to make between prioritizing their playing careers and raising children.

“There’s a lot of mothers back then that either decided to not have or decided to walk away from a career of balancing both, there’s probably many stories out there,” said Niele Ivey, who was pregnant with Jaden during her WNBA rookie season in 2001 but didn’t tell the Indiana Fever until exit interviews.

“I know for myself I had a lot of worry, a lot of anxiety of will I be back? Securing a spot, just continuing my career, you just never know of having a child.”

Skylar Diggins-Smith made the same choice in 2018, playing that entire season pregnant without telling the Dallas Wings, and then missing the entire 2019 season while getting back in shape and dealing with postpartum depression. It was not an uncommon situation throughout league history — Swoopes was at the top of her game but missed a chunk of her rookie season in 1997 to give birth, and Candace Parker found out after the fact that she had played part of her rookie season pregnant with her first child.

The experience turned Diggins-Smith into an advocate for improving conditions for working mothers in the league, both on social media and at the bargaining table for the Women’s National Basketball Players Association during its latest collective bargaining agreement with the league. The new CBA, ratified in 2020, includes changes aimed at providing increased resources for mothers and help for raising their children, including paid maternity leave at full salary for the first time in league history, a child care stipend, two-bedroom apartments for players with kids and mental health services.

“Now there’s so many success stories out there, you see so many mothers that are having the opportunity to do both, balancing motherhood and a career,” Niele Ivey said. “There’s so many success stories and so many women out there that you can relate to now. The resources are so much stronger now. I love that because I know how it was.” The changes in the CBA are notable, but current players are also noticing the shifting attitudes from teams toward raising children.

“I know for myself and my organization, it feels more accepted,” Las Vegas Aces guard Dearica Hamby told ESPN. “I couldn’t imagine back then. Now, I feel comfortable bringing my daughter, Amaya, to practice. I wouldn’t say that five years ago. So it’s been more about that than the actual CBA.”

Hamby helped the Aces win their first WNBA championship this year, and during her speech at Las Vegas’ championship parade, she announced she was expecting her second child, a baby brother for Amaya.

Hamby knows her children are going to grow up around basketball; their father played college basketball, and their aunt, Olivia Nelson-Ododa, plays for the Los Angeles Sparks — but she doesn’t want to put any extra pressure on them to pick up a basketball, even if she figures they will eventually gravitate toward the sport.

With more chances for women to raise kids and play their sports, the number of players following in their mothers’ footsteps seems almost certain to grow in the coming years.

“It’s going to be a new wave,” Jaden Ivey said. “The love you have for the game, it translates to women and men, it doesn’t matter what it is.”

This story originally appeared on ESPN

- Advertisment -

Most Popular

Recent Comments