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Forward’s unconventional ‘hardship’ path leads her to Aces

The game was already decided when Alaina Coates caught a pass on the left sideline.

Her teammate, A’ja Wilson, was closing in on the WNBA’s single-game scoring record as the Aces faced off with the Atlanta Dream on Aug. 22.

Coates, all alone as the Dream triple-teamed Wilson, rose up and nailed the uncontested mid-range jumper. Hours earlier, Aces coach Becky Hammon had offered Coates a rest-of-the-season hardship contract to stay with the Aces.

“Glad I hit that jump shot for her,” Coates said.

Coates’ contract marks a high point in an unconventional WNBA career. She’s played on seven teams in five seasons. Since joining the Aces on a hardship contract Aug. 2, Coates is averaging 1.1 points and 1.3 rebounds in 3.3 minutes per game.

Yet she considers this to be the best professional season of her career.

“I’m still here,” Coates said. “I’m with the best team in the WNBA.”

Coates entered the WNBA seemingly destined for a place among its brightest stars. She had won accolades at every level and helped elevate South Carolina into a women’s basketball powerhouse playing next to Wilson.

An ankle injury ruled Coates out of the Gamecocks’ 2017 NCAA championship run, but it seemed like a minor bump in the road after the Chicago Sky selected her second overall in the 2017 WNBA draft, one pick after the Aces took All-Star guard Kelsey Plum.

Instead, the ankle injury lingered, causing Coates to miss her entire rookie season. She made her WNBA debut in 2018, averaging 3.4 points in 11.4 minutes before being traded to the Minnesota Lynx for a third-round pick in 2019. She had stints with Atlanta (2019) and the Washington Mystics (2020). In 2022, Coates appeared in eight games for the Indiana Fever.

She began the 2023 season in training camp with the Dream again, before being waived and signing a seven-day hardship contract with the Mercury. She was training in South Carolina and helping her former coach, Dawn Staley, as a practice player when she got the call from Aces general manager Natalie Williams offering her a hardship contract in Las Vegas.

Coates said every hardship contract she signed was “a blessing.” However, she admitted she had to mature a bit to be able to take advantage of those opportunities.

Early on, Coates said she’d get stuck in her own head trying to prove she had the talent to stick in the league. She’d try to guess what coaches wanted instead of simply asking.

Her approach since joining the Aces has been different. She said she came in with an open mind and no expectations. She also had prior connections. Besides winning a national championship with Wilson, Coates played with All-Star wing Jackie Young in Israel and joined Plum on Team USA at the 2015 Pan-American Games.

“It’s amazing, I love it here,” Coates said. “It’s a great environment, and I feel like it’s a perfect environment for me to grow.”

Hammon said Coates earned the coaching staff’s respect quickly. The Aces needed frontcourt depth following Candace Parker’s left foot injury, and they liked Coates’ rebounding and size.

Hammon also sees a timeline beyond this season for Coates and hopes the Aces can keep her around at least for training camp in 2024.

“It’s not just about this year,” Hammon said. “I want to get her some development because I think there’s some untapped talent in there I’d certainly like to pull out.”

Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on X.

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