View Original Notice ? Going pro doesn’t get WNBA rookies out of class

TORRANCE — Passing college exams is tough.

Proving yourself in a WNBA training camp is really tough.

Try pairing those tasks.

That’s life for so many WNBA rookies, who are starting their new jobs – which is to say, fighting to land one of only, at most, 144 available positions – in the few weeks before the regular season tips off on May 6.

That includes in the Sparks’ camp, where five of the players on hand for media day on Wednesday were both cramming for tests while also learning a new playbook and acclimating to the rigors of professional basketball – including whatever lessons come from Saturday’s 2 p.m. preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury at Cal State Northridge.

Rookie forward Olivia Nelson-Odada competed for UConn in the NCAA championship game on April 3, the last of 33 games she played in her senior season.

Then the Sparks drafted her on April 11. Training camp opened in El Segundo on April 17. And, on Wednesday, she was seated, in a purple Sparks uniform, on the dais at the team’s practice facility in Torrance, facing reporters at media day.

And acknowledging, yes, that sequence of events is head-spinning.

“It’s crazy thinking I was just playing in a national championship two weeks ago, two-and-a-half weeks ago,” said Nelson-Odada, whose pursuit of an economics degree includes four spring courses that didn’t end when the Sparks called her name on draft night, 19th overall.

“And now you’re going against grown women and you have to figure out how to fit in with that and adjust your game. So it’s definitely been a process, definitely been an interesting process.”

It’s an unmitigated accomplishment, too.

“If you asked us, that would be the dream spring quarter,” said former UCLA standout Chantel Horvat, a geography/environmental studies major. “It does kind of feel like we’re living a double life, but I think it’s also really cool. We still get to enjoy finishing up our college experience and getting our education, and at the same time, we get to play and train with a WNBA team.”

“This is the most important thing that’s ever happened to me up until this point in my life,” said guard Lexi Gordon, a graduate student at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business who recounted taking a final on Monday after Sparks practice and then another Tuesday at 6 a.m. “It’s been a crazy experience.”

On Friday, the Sparks waived Horvat and Gordon (along with center Lauren Cox), cuts that came as the team began to pare its 20-player preseason pool to its final 12-woman roster.

About two-thirds of the players drafted don’t make a WNBA team, let alone those who go undrafted, such as Gordon and Horvat.

In the NBA, there are, of course, more jobs to be had, with 450 regular roster spots across 30 teams, in addition to 60 two-way roster spots and also 29 G League teams.

NBA prospects also have three months or so of pre-draft preparation, including opportunities to work out for teams. And then there’s an entire summer – including summer league action – to absorb a new team’s system while learning what it takes to perform at the highest level.

For WNBA players, the transition from collegian to pro happens at warp speed, which is why Nelson-Odada was so keen to express gratitude to the Sparks’ veteran players who are doing what they can to ease an abrupt acclimation: “The vets have really helped us get adjusted with that, and kind of made that process a little bit easier.”

Off the court, Amy Atwell credited her teachers at the University of Hawaii for doing their part to assist in the final few weeks of classes.

“All of them have been really helpful and very good about it,” said Atwell, the No. 27 pick who set Hawaii’s program records for 3-pointers made in her career (205) and a season (76) – and who is on her way to earning a master’s degree in marketing and management.

“Because of the time difference, my (online) classes back in Hawaii are 6 from 9 p.m. – so it’s 9 to 12 over here and it kind of isn’t realistic to be in them, so they’ve been really understanding.”

Guard Kianna Smith won’t graduate from her master’s business program at Louisville until August.

“I’m just trying to manage all that throughout the whole season, so we’ll see,” said Smith, the Sparks’ 16th overall draft pick, a Moreno Valley native who starred at Fullerton’s Troy High School before making a name for herself collegiately.

Rae Burrell, the Sparks’ No. 9 pick, said she finished her communication studies curriculum at Tennessee before arriving in camp, much as Lexie Brown had before making the jump from Duke to the Connecticut Sun, who drafted her 18 days after her final college game.

“I was actually trying to take my finals early, which was also a struggle, but I wanted to just get it out of the way, so I was able to lock in,” remembered Brown, who graduated from Duke’s business school in 2018 after having previously earned a degree in sociology along with a markets and management certificate.

“I feel for them now because a few of them are still in classes and stuff, and I couldn’t even imagine.”