She’s the WNBA threat no one warned you about

By Erica L. Ayala

The Minnesota Lynx never planned to give Crystal Dangerfield many minutes this season. Yet somehow the former Connecticut guard was on the floor in the closing seconds of a tight game last Thursday.

She had been announced as the WNBA’s Rookie of the Year that afternoon. She started her first professional playoff game that night.

Entering the playoffs, Dangerfield averaged 16.2 points a game to lead the Lynx in scoring. Yet at halftime of Thursday’s single-elimination game, the Phoenix Mercury had contained her to 2 points. Dangerfield maintained her composure, found her shot and ended the night with 17 points to give Minnesota an 80-79 win. Dangerfield was overcome with emotion afterward. He voice was shaky during a postgame interview on ESPN as she fought back what she later called happy tears.

She wasn’t supposed to be doing postgame interviews or helping eliminate Diana Taurasi, who is the WNBA’s career scoring leader, and the Phoenix Mercury from the playoffs. Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve had been transparent with Dangerfield about not intending to play her much at all.

“I’m like, OK, you can let that bother you, sit, pout, just let it be. Or you can turn things around for yourself, try to go and earn some minutes and change their mind about what the situation was going to look like,” Dangerfield said in a telephone interview.

The Lynx have now advanced to a best-of-five semifinal series, which was set to begin Tuesday, against the Seattle Storm, who tied the Las Vegas Aces for the league’s best record. It would have been easy for the rookie to be overcome by her nerves last Thursday and even easier now. But that’s not how the Tennessee native was raised.

Chris and Davonna Dangerfield, who both served in the U.S. Army, emphasized discipline for their three children.

“They didn’t let us get away with anything,” Crystal Dangerfield said. “It was, schedule here, schedule there, do this the right way, and at the end of the day be a good person too.”

That foundation served her well at UConn, where players are expected to buy into a team-first mentality and learn humility.

“Freshman year at UConn is unlike any other. You go in having felt like you could do anything on the court, and that is stripped away,” Dangerfield said. “You have to learn that system, learn what they’re asking you to do about playing hard and stuff like that.

“I feel like after you go through that, you’re good. Nothing’s going to have you too high or too low.”

UConn coach Geno Auriemma was tough on his backcourt facilitators, and Dangerfield was no exception.

“When Crystal was here, we wanted to — as she mentioned one time — to make her grow up fast,’’ he said. “And there were some great moments that she had as a freshman, but not enough of them.”

Auriemma watched from home as Dangerfield faced off against the Mercury. He was reminded of the 2019 NCAA Tournament game against UCLA in which Dangerfield scored 11 of her 15 points in the fourth quarter to give UConn a 69-61 win and a trip to the round of eight.

“During the game and after the game she was very emotional because there was something that she wanted to do, and she felt great about her accomplishments. And I saw that the other night,” Auriemma said.

Entering the WNBA, Dangerfield again had to grow up fast. Picked in the second round of the 2020 draft, her place on the Lynx roster was not secure.

But with veteran guard Odyssey Sims arriving late as she worked her way back from maternity leave and Lexie Brown entering concussion protocol after the second game of the season, Dangerfield started July 30 and has each game since. She is the lowest-drafted player to win the Rookie of the Year Award.

“She’s got a motivation about her,’’ said Katie Smith, a Lynx assistant. “She knows that she can hang in this league, but I think that also has helped fuel her.”

“She just shows up every day and doesn’t talk a whole lot, just goes out, does it,” Smith added. “I’m not necessarily surprised, but just happy because she’s really been a huge piece of why we are where we are right now.”

Smith, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2018, knows what it takes to win. As a player, she won two titles with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock, two more in the American Basketball League before that and three Olympic gold medals. She said she was impressed with the way Dangerfield approached her work.

That said, the coaches, including Reeve, are not shy about telling Dangerfield what she needs to improve — mostly because Dangerfield has proved she can take it.

“I was talking to Katie earlier today and was like, I have a long list for her in the offseason,” Reeve told reporters Saturday. “And then I thought, what the hell am I going to wait for the offseason for? Why don’t I tell her now, and let’s see if she can’t evolve? Anything we’ve given her, she’s done a great job of.”

Reeve, who last week was named coach of the year, would not divulge what was on Dangerfield’s to-do list. But the rookie had a few extra days to make plans to execute them before Tuesday’s game, which was postponed from Sunday after multiple Seattle players received inconclusive results on their coronavirus tests. The league is playing out its season in a bubble at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., in which players and staff are tested daily.

Dangerfield said she could not say what this season means for her WNBA career beyond that more hard work is in store.

“Honestly, the only thing that changed is where the bar would have been at the end of the season,” Dangerfield said, adding: “I just want to not let my level of play drop below where it’s at right now. That’s all it is. It’s just wanting to get better each day, each game, really.”

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