COURTSIDE: Learning from the Best

How the women’s basketball team’s relationship with a WNBA team shapes their purpose


Photo Courtesy/Athletic Communications

Dylan Hornik, Co-Sports Editor

Imagine watching Picasso paint a masterpiece, sitting next to the canvas and seeing the unrelenting potential glow in his eyes. Or watching Mozart compose a piano sonata, working through his ideas to realize a finished product.

It would be an absolute privilege to watch some of the leading minds in any discipline go through their creative processes. The St. John’s women’s basketball team had that opportunity over the summer when the Washington Mystics took time out of their WNBA season to visit and practice in Taffner Field House.

“Anytime we have a chance to be around great players and coaches, especially at the pro level, it’s a great experience for our players,” Head Coach Joe Tartamella said at the time. “We are thankful to Coach Thibault and the Mystics organization for giving us the opportunity to watch and learn.”

It’s not all that often that a pro team, men’s or women’s, voluntarily opens up shop next to a campus bookstore, but it has actually happened twice in an 18-month span at St. John’s. In February 2016, the Golden State Warriors took the day after a tilt against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden to visit with the men’s team.

Just like Golden State, for which men’s Head Coach Chris Mullin played for 13 seasons, the basketball program has a healthy relationship with the Mystics. They were the recipient of the first-ever WNBA Draft pick to hail from St. John’s in 2013, when they selected standout guard Nadira McKenith with the 17th overall pick.

Just three years later, after the 2016 season, Washington selected that season’s Big East scoring champion, Danaejah Grant, with the 31st overall pick. McKenith played two years in the WNBA and Grant just signed a contract with Gigantes de Carolina in Puerto Rico, one of the most successful teams in the island’s top-flight women’s league.

And that’s the dream for most, if not all, of these St. John’s players. They all have their sights set on playing after college, which at one point was thought to be impossible for a Red Storm graduate.

Since 2013, St. John’s has moved four players — McKenith, Grant, Shennika Smith and Aliyyah Handford — from their program to the WNBA draft, one of the largest totals in the country.

“We’ve just had really good players and great staff,” Tartamella said. “The University, in 2002, really started to give support to the program and that’s when you see a change…We’ve been able to show a track record of being able to [send players to the pros].”

It’s an interesting catch-22. A college program isn’t elite unless they produce professional players, but the best way to raise the level of a program is by interacting with and learning from professionals that are, in some way, connected to said program.

Luckily for the Johnnies, their strong relationship has allowed this year’s roster to meet with WNBA great Elena Delle Donne. The players cherished the opportunity to meet the 28-year-old former MVP and four-time All-Star.

“She’s really down to Earth,” junior guard/forward Akina Wellere said of Delle Donne. “She just said to not take anything for granted, just work as hard as you can everyday and hopefully someday we’ll be able to be in her position.”

Tartamella agreed with his players, saying that Washington’s willingness to teach was refreshing in a summer of grueling workouts.

“We’re fortunate to have a great relationship with the folks at the Mystics,” Tartamella said. “It was a great opportunity for all of us to sit with their coaching staff, watch the players and I think always makes an impact, moreso for your players than anybody, because they have a chance to interact and a chance to watch what it means to be a pro.”

Hopefully for the Red Storm, Mystics Head Coach Mike Thibault and his squad’s wisdom can push the Red Storm back to the forefront of the Big East. They were picked to finish seventh in the conference after finishing fourth last season and winning the Big East Tournament in 2016.

It’s not like St. John’s really cares much for rankings and predictions though. Tartamella remains confident in his squad, which he said has made notable improvements in key areas over the summer, including consistency from the floor.

“We always talk about, ‘Hey! We got better shooters,’ but the numbers are bearing out that we actually are,” he said. “To me, that’s a big piece.

“In 15 years, I’ve seen a lot, but I’m sure I haven’t seen it all. Certainly we have challenges every year and we go into every year looking at the ways we think we can be successful with the players that we have and our job is to get the best out of them.”

Tartamella has led St. John’s to a playoff berth in each of his first five seasons. With 100 regular-season wins already under his belt, it’s not like he needs help getting his squad to play to their potential. In fact, watching his success is quite like watching Picasso or Mozart. In this case, though, the master knows that there’s always a way to improve and push his players to new heights.

“Players that come here have dreams of getting drafted,” he said. “For years, we heard about how that would never happen here. For our players to continue to strive to be a part of the WNBA or playing overseas, that’s something that we want to expose them to as much as we can.”