A seven-hour time difference makes it difficult for Miky Panait to watch her two favorite WNBA players live. But when the 16-year-old Romanian guard looks to pick up moves from future Hall of Famers Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi, she turns to YouTube and down a rabbit hole in search of two decades of basketball magic.
Last week, however, Panait didn’t need the internet to connect with members of the WNBA or to further develop their repertoire. Instead, the 5′ 7” guard was one of around 40 top international prospects who attended the inaugural Women’s NBA Academy Games in Atlanta. There she competed for two days in one of four teams of international players mixed with girls from 21 countries. More than 50 NCAA coaches from schools like Michigan, Texas A&M and Clemson signed up for the event, and three WNBA teams — Storm, Liberty and Dream — also had staff on portions of it, according to Monica Rogers, the elite head of basketball -Women’s surgery in the NBA.
“I see some interesting moves here,” says Panait. “Of course I can steal some of them.”
As the WNBA looks to continue to add international players to its ranks — the league had 24 players who were born outside the United States in mid-May — events like last week will help clear the path. According to Rogers, who was also the No. 2 pick in the 2010 WNBA draft, awareness was key in establishing the camp, whether it was in the form of players developing skills and learning about the W or coaches nurturing young talent experience firsthand.
But as a starting point, Rogers says, “A lot [the prospects] don’t even know they can get full scholarships to college and graduate,” which is why an NCAA official also hosted a session earlier in the week to help those in attendance understand possible college paths.
The NBA launched its Academy Women’s Program in 2018, hosting camps in Mexico, Australia and Senegal and a virtual program amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Thirty-five participants have committed to or participated in an NCAA Division I program, and 38 others have played at prep schools, junior colleges, or other non-DI schools. To date, only one player, Liberty center Han Xu, has participated in an NBA Academy program and been drafted into the WNBA.
“The measure of success is definitely how many coaches reach out to the girls we invite,” says Rogers. “How many touchpoints they have with these NCAA and WNBA coaches. Long-term, who eventually gets accepted into a four-year program on a scholarship and then drafted.”
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Ebony Hoffman, an assistant storm coach who was present at Thursday’s action, says there were “definitely WNBA prospects” in Atlanta. And Hoffman adds that as the “league continues to grow and become even more vacant, international basketball is exactly where” it’s headed. It’s one of the reasons why showcases like last week’s are becoming increasingly valuable to talent assessors, and why Rogers says it’s already her “plan and hope” to hold a similar event next year.
While there, 17-year-old Agata Makurat got a taste of what a positionless future means. At 6′ 3” tall, Makurat, who has already signed on to play at Vanderbilt from fall 2023, will be deployed as a guard in her native Poland. But she says that during the last showcase, the trainers helped her develop as a post player and gave her tips on screen adjustment and box-out technique.
Makurat comes from a basketball family as both of her parents were players and her two older sisters Ola and Anna were also college players. (Ola played at Liberty, Utah and Arkansas State. While Anna spent two seasons at UConn before returning to Europe to play professionally.) Agata says that while she has the opportunity to go pro straight out of high school, but has decided to go to college to continue to develop both as a player and as a person and to get her degree. From there, Makurat says, “My biggest dream is to play in the WNBA one day.”
Panait, the Romanian Guard, has not yet decided where to continue in their basketball journey. “That’s why I wanted to have this experience here,” she says. And among the most influential parts of her time last week was a panel discussion with four former WNBA players, where they discussed their career paths.
The key to eventual promotion will be performing well in front of basketball decision makers, and both Panait and Makurat appeared to be doing just that. Along with their seven other teammates (all from different countries), Panait and Makurat’s team went unbeaten and were the unofficial champions of the event.
“It’s a great experience for me,” says Makurat. “It’s really good to play against the best girls in the world.”
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