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Aces recount their experiences with WNBA draft

More than 12 years have passed since Aces star wing Angel McCoughtry was selected No. 1 overall in the WNBA draft by the Atlanta Dream. But her draft day memories are still vivid.

“It was just a really humble, hard-working moment,” she said.

Even all these years later.

McCoughtry and teammates Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum shared their draft day memories with the Review-Journal ahead of Thursday’s WNBA draft. The event is being conducted virtually for the second straight season and will be televised at 4 p.m. on ESPN.

“It’s an amazing experience,” Gray said. “I know this year and even last year was a little bit different with (draft prospects) being at home. But it’s still an amazing achievement and amazing to hear your name called.”

The waiting game

McCoughtry is a five-time All-Star, a two-time scoring champion and seven-time all-defensive first team selection. But before that, she was an unheralded high school prospect spurned by her hometown program, Maryland. With that in mind, McCoughtry built herself into one of the top players in the country at Louisville and the eventual No. 1 overall pick.

Or so she thought — save for a couple nerve-wracking minutes at the draft in Secaucus, New Jersey.

The Atlanta Dream had the top pick in 2009, and McCoughtry expected to be the selection when the draft officially began. Atlanta was on the clock, and one minute went by.

Then another.

“If the last minute would have gone by, the next team gets that pick,” McCoughtry recalled. “So I’m like, ‘Oh my God, did they change their mind?”

Not a chance.

The Dream were simply delayed in relaying the pick to former WNBA president Donna Orender. They selected McCoughtry, who went on to spend 11 years with the franchise before signing with the Aces last offseason.

“I wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American. I wasn’t top 50, in the top 100,” the 34-year-old said. “I worked my butt off to be here. I wasn’t the top high school player that had it all. I’m proud of that story.”

Getting the call

Gray fractured her right kneecap midway through her senior year at Duke in 2013-14. That came one year after dislocating the same knee the previous season.

That said, she wasn’t sure she’d be invited to the 2014 WNBA draft in Uncasville, Connecticut. She certainly wasn’t sure she’d be a first-round pick.

“So when I got the call that I was invited to go to Connecticut and attend the draft, I was excited. … I was a little bit surprised,” said Gray, now 28. “If you take into consideration the injury history that I had at Duke, a team was taking a gamble.”

Gray conceded that she had doubts about playing in the WNBA, given her injuries, but she committed to intensive rehabilitation with the intent of playing professionally. Her doubts were quelled when she was drafted No. 11 overall by the Connecticut Sun, with whom she debuted in 2015.

She was traded in 2016 to the Los Angeles Sparks and blossomed into a three-time All-Star and one of the league’s best point guards. She signed with the Aces in February and is in the prime of a career that began that April evening.

“I did not want to trip up the stairs,” Gray said. “Holding up the jersey is something super special.”

Being present

Plum began her senior season at Washington in 2016-17 as a likely first-round pick. She did not expect to be the No. 1 overall pick.

Her brilliance with the Huskies that year propelled her up the draft boards and into the top spot that April, when she was drafted by the Aces.

In hindsight, the experience was overwhelming for the 5-foot-8-inch guard, who recently recovered from an Achilles injury and is set to take the floor again this season.

“It kind of happened so fast,” said Plum, now 26 and still the NCAA’s all-time leading scorer. “These women play college, within a week they’re getting drafted and then they’re in the city that they’re drafted in the next day. Everything happens so much faster. Then you add in other media stuff and you’re trying to sign with maybe a shoe brand. There’s a lot of stuff going on.”

With that in mind, Plum offered a piece of advice to those preparing to be drafted Thursday.

“Be present,” she said. “I think I was so caught up the whole year with so many different things, that when the moment finally came, I didn’t enjoy it. … For me, looking back, if I could tell somebody now, I would say really soak it in. And it sounds so cliche, but you know, I didn’t.”

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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