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Ex-Liberty High star could be 1st-round pick in WNBA draft

Updated April 12, 2022 - 3:09 pm

At first glance, former Liberty High standout Rae Burrell seems like she was destined to play in the WNBA.

“She’s a big guard that can score. She can shoot the 3. She knows how to win,” Aces president Nikki Fargas said. “That’s a recipe for success.”

Burrell has spent the past four years cultivating her game at Tennessee, growing into a potential first-round pick in Monday’s WNBA draft. One of 12 athletes invited to attend the event, s.he has a chance to become the first Las Vegas native to play in the WNBA since former UNLV star Sequoia Holmes last appeared in 2018.

A 6-foot-1-inch guard, Burrell’s perseverance, fight and determination are the traits which have taken her to the threshold of the league.

“I feel like I’ve always been an underdog,” she said.

Chad Kapanui, Burrell’s high school coach, said several top college coaches began reaching out to him about other local prospects while she was in his program, especially after Burrell’s strong performances on the AAU circuit. The interest was more proof of Las Vegas’ growing reputation for women’s basketball, with Burrell helping pave the way.

“For the longest time, kids out of Vegas weren’t really looked at,” Burrell said.

A highly touted soccer player while growing up in Las Vegas, Burrell originally thought her athletic future was on the pitch, not the court.

John Burrell, her father, remembers watching her seemingly natural ability with awe. While she wasn’t the most technical player, she scored and moved around the field with ease. Her determination showed up early too.

When she was 10, Rae suffered an injury that prevented her from playing with her dominant right foot. So she spent hours practicing with her left, demonstrating a level of discipline her father never imagined a child her age could possess.

Basketball was a similar experience. Watching her play with all-boys teams when she was in third grade, John was stunned during a local tournament when she came up with a steal, took a dribble and made a 3-pointer in a few seconds.

“The form, the accuracy, the ability not to travel — I mean, it’s not like this was a little girl that played all the time,” he said.

By the time Burrell was a sophomore at Foothill, she decided basketball was her true calling, partially because she learned women’s basketball offered full-ride scholarships to college.

Her renewed interest and some training from former Southern California star Desmon Farmer began to get her noticed by college programs. So by the time she transferred from Foothill to Liberty for her senior season, she still hadn’t committed.

At Liberty, Burrell teamed with Dre’Una Edwards to play for Kapanui. While they didn’t win a state championship, Kapanui believes Burrell helped lay the foundation for Liberty basketball’s emergence.

She finally committed to Tennessee midway through her senior season. She wanted to be part of the school’s legendary women’s basketball program, but arrived with lots to prove as the only player not named to the McDonald’s All-American game in Holly Warlick’s 2018 recruiting class.

She fought her way into the rotation though, playing in every game her freshman season. However, Warlick was fired after the season, and the Las Vegas native had to prove herself again, this time to new Tennessee coach Kellie Harper.

Her perseverance paid off. Burrell became the team’s first option off the bench before eventually taking over as a starter in her final nine games of her sophomore season. She further established herself as a junior. Entering her senior season, she looked like a lock for the top of the draft.

But a knee injury derailed her senior campaign. She missed 12 games, but began to find her rhythm near the end of the season. She played 37 minutes and scored 22 points in Tennessee’s 76-64 Sweet 16 loss to Louisville.

Burrell had the option to return using the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but decided now was the right time to turn professional.

There’s a chance Burrell’s next step will lead her back home. Her injury has made her standing on draft boards uncertain, so it’s possible she will be available when the Aces pick at No. 8 or No. 11. The Tennessee star admitted representing Las Vegas would be an incredible experience.

“That would be really special,” she said.

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

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