As the 2020 WNBA draft unfolded, Crystal Dangerfield sat in her home in Murfreesboro, Tenn., waiting ... then waiting some more ... waiting longer than she had ever really anticipated.
Most projections had the 5-foot-5 Dangerfield, a three-year starting point guard out of UConn, getting taken in the middle or late in the first round. But here Dangerfield was - still around after the first round, after the 13th pick, then the 14th, then the 15th - before she was finally drafted 16th by Minnesota.
Dangerfield didn't understand why she dropped as far as she did, but she didn't allow herself to dwell on it any longer.
"I was like, 'You can either pout because you went 16, or you can go play,'" Dangerfield said.
That's exactly what she did. A confluence of determination and opportunity helped Dangerfield emerge as a major force for the short-handed Lynx, the No. 4 seed heading into the WNBA playoffs. And she became the first second-rounder to capture the league's rookie of the year award.
Along the way, she's not only surpassed others' expectations, including those of her own coach, Cheryl Reeve. She's far exceeding ones she had for herself.
"I'm still kind of mind blown," Dangerfield told The Courant before she was crowned rookie of the year. "Obviously, I wanted to come in and have an impact and be what my team needed me to be, whatever the minutes were going to look like. But if you had told me, 'You're probably going to be playing 30-plus minutes in some of these games, have the ball in your hands as much as you do,' I wouldn't have believed it, honestly."
As surprising as Dangerfield's drop in the draft was, the destination made perfect sense.
For one, with Odyssey Sims out for at least part of the season after giving birth in April, most figured the Lynx could use a true point guard. But Minnesota also has a rich history with UConn players - their 2015 championship team alone featured four former Huskies - and the connection was fortified when Reeve drafted former Husky teammates Napheesa Collier (last year's rookie of the year) and Dangerfield in successive years.
The parallels are readily apparent. Coach Geno Auriemma has led Husky teams to 11 national titles. Under Reeve, Minnesota won four championships in nine years, the most of any active WNBA franchise. UConn legend Maya Moore, currently on a sabbatical from basketball but a career member of the Lynx, was a huge part of that run.
After the draft, Reeve described former Huskies as "plug-and-play players" who are groomed for success by Auriemma's demanding program. But Reeve downplays the notion that former Huskies shine any brighter under her tutelage, insisting that players like Moore and Collier would've done just as well with different franchises.
Those who have played for both teams however see the UConn-Lynx connection as more than coincidence. The cultures in Storrs and Minnesota - Dangerfield, Collier and former Lynx guard Renee Montgomery all say - are incredibly similar. Reeve favors a disciplined, no-nonsense approach, demands accountability and promotes a team-first environment.
"I think that's a reason why we do so well," Collier said. "The transition is really nice and pretty easy for us because it feels so much like college in what their expectation level is and what their goal is for the team. Everything is 100 percent team-oriented, which I don't think you necessarily see all the time especially in a professional league like this."
As Auriemma sees it, Reeve goes the extra mile to evaluate players. And rather than fixating on talent, she tries to assess how a player would fit into her organization. She also does her homework, contacting coaches like Auriemma to find out all she can about potential draftees.
Reeve's pre-draft intel indicated that Dangerfield would likely still be around for Minnesota with the 16th pick, allowing her to prioritize a front-court need in the first round. Dangerfield may have been disappointed that no one took her sooner, but Reeve couldn't have been happier.
"Crystal should have gone in the first round, but the fact that she didn't ended up really, really, really helping her," Auriemma said. "She ended up on the right team, in the right system with the right teammates to allow her to do what she does best."
"For someone like myself," Dangerfield said, "this is exactly what I needed."
In her first weeks with the Lynx, Dangerfield's "tremendous thirst for information" and passion stood out, Reeve said. The rookie requested one-on-one time outside of team meetings to speak with Reeve about what she should focus on prior to training camp. The coach told her come to Florida ready to knock down three-pointers, finish at the rim and hit mid-range shots and floaters. Dangerfield would also have to get accustomed to working in more of a pick-and-roll system.
Reeve was upfront with Dangerfield. She didn't envision her seeing much playing time right away with several guards in front of her on the depth chart. But it didn't take long for Dangerfield to prove otherwise. Reeve first realized Dangerfield belonged on the court in training camp during intra-squad scrimmages and pick-up games against other teams. Then, in their season opener, Dangerfield's second half sparked the Lynx's comeback from down 11 to beat the Connecticut Sun.
On consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, Dangerfield picked off a pass for a steal-and-score before showcasing her lethal hesitation move off a pick-and-roll for another lay-in ("That was my moment," Reeve said, "where I was like, 'OK, I've got a pick-and-roll player.' ")
After the game, Reeve told reporters that Minnesota probably wouldn't have won without Dangerfield's minutes, a precursor of what was to come. Among her more impressive achievements this season, Dangerfield finished the regular season second in the league in fourth-quarter scoring average at 6.5 points.
Some rookies are intimidated to go up against pros. Dangerfield admits she wasn't then and isn't now. In a league with only 144 roster spots, she knows she belongs. Plus, she's used to benefitting from the intimidation factor that comes with putting on a UConn uniform.
Being an undersized rookie bypassed by eight teams - including her own initially - just added fuel.
"Whenever a player does that against all expectations," said Montgomery, "that says a lot about the player and what they have inside of them."
"I knew, and she's proven, that her heart is so big that she more than makes up for (her size)," Collier said.
"Her will, I would say, she's not ordinary in that way," Reeve said. "She's got something special about her, for sure."
Collier encouraged Dangerfield to take advantage of any opportunity she was given, especially entering an abbreviated season in which a premium would be put on health.
Sure enough, the Lynx lost future Hall-of-Famer Sylvia Fowles for all but seven games of the regular season and Karima Christmas-Kelly to a season-ending injury. Both initial starters in Minnesota's backcourt also went down with early injuries.
Someone had to step up. Dangerfield was ready.
Dangerfield secured a starting spot by the third game and would not relinquish it. She finished the regular season as the team's top scorer (a hair better than Collier at 16.2 points per game) on 47% shooting - better marks than what she posted in her senior season at UConn. Her eight 20-point games were also a team-best.
"It was fortuitous for Crystal that (she was) thrown right into it," Auriemma said. "You have no choice. You can't (say), 'Well, can I just play my role?' No. You have to play a big role. ... Sometimes you don't know what you have until you throw them out there."
"She went, in a very unusual season, a very difficult season to perform well, and she did it," Montgomery said. "It was a fast-paced season. Usually for a rookie, that's not good because the more time they can get, the better, to learn the system, to learn what it's like to play in the WNBA. ... You could try to just ease your way into the position, you could just try to have an okay season and survive your rookie year. She didn't try to do any of the above. She went out there and she killed it."
In Minnesota's single-elimination playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury, Dangerfield overcame a slow start to score 15 second-half points, finishing as Minnesota's second-leading scorer in an 80-79 win.
Things will only get tougher for Dangerfield vs. the No. 2 Seattle Storm in a best-of-five semifinal series. This is playoff basketball, and she'll face more defensive attention than ever before. And once this season is over, the focus will turn to expanding the ways in which Dangerfield can impact the game beyond scoring. "Believe me," Reeve said, "my list is long."
Dangerfield doesn't want to rest on her rookie season success. She'll keep setting the bar high for herself moving forward.
And maybe, just maybe, she'll continue to surprise herself.
"It's really just me going out there and playing basketball," Dangerfield said. "That's all it's ever been."
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