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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

WNBA draft: Aliyah Boston goes No. 1 to Indiana Fever

Aliyah Boston, right, with W.N.B.A. Commissioner Cathy Engelbert at the draft on Monday. Boston had been expected to go to the Fever since Indiana landed the top pick at the draft lottery in November.

By Kris Rhim

When Aliyah Boston was 12 years old, she took a 1,700-mile journey with her sister to their aunt’s home in Massachusetts from the Virgin Islands, hoping to become a good enough basketball player to go to college for free and maybe one day make it to the WNBA.

Boston fulfilled that dream Monday night at Spring Studios in New York when the Indiana Fever selected her with the first pick in the WNBA draft. Boston is the University of South Carolina’s second-ever No. 1 pick in the draft; A’ja Wilson was the first, in 2018.

The Minnesota Lynx selected Diamond Miller, a guard from the University of Maryland, with the No. 2 overall pick. At No. 3, the Dallas Wings chose Maddy Siegrist, a forward from Villanova University.

The Wings, who also had the fifth pick, shook up the night by trading future draft selections to the Washington Mystics for the fourth pick, Iowa State center Stephanie Soares. They took Connecticut guard Lou Lopez Sénéchal with the next pick.

Boston’s selection didn’t come as a surprise. She had been linked with the Fever since they landed the first pick at the draft lottery in November. Boston, a forward, will join a former South Carolina teammate, guard Destanni Henderson, in Indiana.

Henderson was in the audience recording on a phone and before Boston headed into a news conference they embraced and celebrated loudly.

“She was like, ‘We’re reunited and we’re teammates again,’ and I was like, ‘And it feels so good,’ you know that song?” Boston said before singing her version of the song “Reunited” by the R&B duo Peaches & Herb.

With Henderson in 2021-22, Boston had the best statistical season of her college career, ending it with a national championship win over Connecticut. Boston and Henderson will look to re-create that winning chemistry for the Fever, who have been something of a punching bag for the rest of the league.

Indiana has not made the playoffs since 2016 and has finished with the league’s worst record in the past two seasons. Last season, the Fever finished with five wins; the second-worst team, the Los Angeles Sparks, had 13.

“She’s going to have an immediate impact on this league,” Fever general manager Lin Dunn said at a predraft news conference Thursday. “And I’m just thankful — I think we all are — that she opted to come into the draft.”

It was a South Carolina-laden first round as forward Laeticia Amihere was selected eighth by the Atlanta Dream, and guard Zia Cooke was taken 10th by the Sparks. Brea Beal, who anchored South Carolina’s perimeter defense, was selected by Minnesota at No. 24. Alexis Morris, the star Louisiana State guard who helped the Tigers win their first championship just over a week ago, was selected by the Connecticut Sun with the 22nd pick.

Boston had been a top player in college basketball since she arrived in South Carolina in 2019. She is a post-scoring, shot-blocking forward who anchored the Gamecocks as they amassed a 129-9 record over her four seasons. Boston was the consensus national player of the year in 2022 and won the Naismith Award for the defensive player of the year in each of her final two seasons.

In her final year, Boston led South Carolina to its first undefeated regular season in program history. Boston’s numbers were down, partly because of South Carolina’s depth and a defensive strategy used by many opponents that made it difficult for her to get loose. The Gamecocks averaged the most bench points per game in Division I in the 2022-23 season with 36.1, almost 5 points per game more than the next closest team.

With Henderson gone, South Carolina never found a reliable scoring guard next to Cooke. So all season, teams sagged off the other guards, daring them to shoot and helping in the paint to deny Boston the ball. That’s a strategy teams can’t employ in the WNBA, because of both the scoring ability of professional guards and the league’s defensive three-second rule, which forbids defenders from standing in the paint for longer than three seconds unless they are within an arm’s length of an offensive player they’re guarding. So Boston will likely see much more 1-on-1 defense and space to roam than she had over her college career.

“I’m really excited for that type of spacing,” Boston said in a recent interview. “Because I think it just shows everyone how they’re able to, you know, just use their talent and go to work.”

For that reason, South Carolina coach Dawn Staley encouraged Boston to enter the draft this year, after the team lost to Iowa in the Final Four.

“There are defenses that are played against her that won’t allow her to play her game. And then it’s hard to officiate that,” Staley said.

Staley added: “She’s meant everything to our program. She has been the cornerstone of our program for the past four years. She elevated us. She raised the standard of how to approach basketball. She’s never had a bad day.”

Boston still had a year of eligibility remaining, the extra year granted to athletes by the NCAA due to the coronavirus pandemic. She likely would have been in the conversation for player of the year again, and South Carolina would have been a favorite to win the national title with her back. But perhaps the most significant incentives to stay were the earnings she could have made in college, thanks to rules that allow athletes to make money from their name, image and likeness.

Many women’s basketball players, like Boston, can make more money from collectives and endorsements as college athletes than they can earn from WNBA salaries alone; the base pay for rookies this season will range from $62,285 to $74,305, depending on the draft round.

That earning potential likely played a role in the decisions of the stars who weren’t at the draft this year. Several eligible players who may have been first-round picks opted to return to college, such as UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Stanford’s Cameron Brink, Virginia Tech’s Elizabeth Kitley, Indiana’s Mackenzie Holmes and UCLA’s Charisma Osborne. (The WNBA requires players from the United States to turn 22 years old in the calendar year of the draft.)

That makes next year’s draft all the more exciting. It could be loaded with talent: Angel Reese and Caitlin Clark, the two stars who headlined the Division I women’s tournament with their scoring and showmanship, will be eligible. (For her part, Reese said on a podcast that she is in “no rush” to go to the WNBA because she is making more than some top players in the pro league.)

Still, there are only 12 teams and 144 roster spots in the WNBA. Only 36 players are picked in the draft, and only about half of those players typically make an opening day roster. And without a developmental league such as the NBA’s G League, some of the best basketball players end up going overseas to play professionally.

“Our top players will not make a pro team,” Arizona coach Adia Barnes said, adding: “You’re competing against, like, 30-year-old women. It’s hard. It’s competitive.”

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