COLUMBIA — Zia Cooke will always think about 2023 WNBA Draft like the happiest day of his life.
When the future All-American signed with South Carolina women’s basketball in 2019, making it to the WNBA was her only goal. Coach Dawn Staley knew this, and she immediately began harnessing this ultimate goal in Cooke’s training.
“You use the fact that they want to be a pro, well, if you want to be a pro, then those habits are ones that you need to develop very quickly,” Staley said. “They don’t get it the first or second year, but they usually get it…and now it’s just a matter of letting their habits do their job.”
Barely a month after she was drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks, Cooke delivered a career performance in her first WNBA game against the Phoenix Mercury. She scored 14 points in 15 minutes off the bench, shooting 83 percent from the field and a perfect 2 of 2 from 3-point range. Staley sat on the field at this game to celebrate Brittney Griner’s return from detention in Russia, and being part of Cooke’s brilliant professional debut was a nice bonus.
“It was amazing to have her there, and to be able to put on a performance like I did with her in the building was even better,” Cooke said. “Since then, I’ve had times where I’ve been down, and she’s the one I call to pick me up… She has a whole team to worry about, but every time I call ( she is) there for me and I appreciate her.
Dawn Staley players on WNBA rosters
There are 55 NCAA institutions represented among the 144 athletes on WNBA rosters, but only three schools have at least 10 active players in the league. Unsurprisingly, Geno Auriemma and UConn lead the way with 16, while South Carolina is tied with Notre Dame for second place with 10.
What stands out about the Staley Group is its recent growth. Of Auriemma’s 16 alumni, four entered the league in the last three seasons, and the group averages four years of experience. None of Notre Dame’s players have less than four years of experience, and they average nearly six years in the league.
Four of South Carolina’s ten alumni are rookies and three others have entered the league in the last four years. Only two, Tiffany Mitchell and Allisha Gray, played more than five seasons – seven and six, respectively.
The Gamecocks outpace the rest of the SEC in WNBA player production — although it’s worth noting that LSU coach Kim Mulkey has seven in her 21 years at Baylor. The second most productive program is Tennessee with six active players, followed by Mississippi State with two and Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M with one each.
Dawn Staley groomed A’ja Wilson and Aliyah Boston for instant WNBA impact
Cooke vividly remembers a meeting with Staley and his father Stratman during his first season at South Carolina. At the time, the topic surprised Cooke: Staley thought she was working too hard.
“When my shots weren’t coming or I felt like I was having bad games, I would just go to the gym and hammer them, and it ended up hurting me instead of helping me,” said Cooke. “She sat me and my dad down and told both of us… that she was at the gym when she should have been relaxing or watching a movie. On a professional level, listening to her “Your body is one of the most important things you have to do, especially if you want to play for a long time.”
Of the five South Carolina players selected in the 2023 WNBA Draft, four have been selected and two have already earned multiple starts. Aliyah Boston, the overwhelming favorite to win rookie of the yearis the only player in the league to shoot above 60% from the field and is averaging a near double-double for the Indiana Fever with 14.8 points and 8.2 rebounds per game.
For Staley, WNBA preparation is all about preparing players for the challenges of the professional level beyond the competition itself.
“The things that most kids worry about going into training camp, our players don’t worry about,” Staley said. “They don’t worry about fitness. They don’t worry about nutrition. They just worry, conceptually, about what they’re running? So they’re just ‘running their basketball’ at this point .”
A smooth transition is nothing new for the players Staley coaches. Las Vegas Aces star A’ja Wilson, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2018 draft, was named Rookie of the Year and named an All-Star in her first season. Gray also won Rookie of the Year in 2017 and Mitchell was an All-Rookie selection in 2016.
“I remember when I scored my first legitimate basket (in the WNBA), I was like ooh, OK, I can still get to the basket. It was pretty cool to see that I could translate well… and I I think that preparation came from coach Staley,” Wilson said. “Maybe not necessarily what she’s explaining to us with X’s and O’s, but more about the mentality of how to approach the league and how to go in there and do exactly your job.”
Fever coach Christie Sides, who drafted Boston and South Carolina teammate Victaria Saxton in 2023, said she saw firsthand the way Staley prepared her athletes while monitoring the draft class during Gamecocks practices.
“I’ve seen some of their workouts over the last couple of years, and it looks like professional training sometimes the way they go,” Sides said. “(Boston and Saxton) play at a certain level, if I ask them to go to 10, they give me a 10 or just below because it’s just something that’s been instilled in them… It’s It’s really amazing how competitive they are, how they can turn it on when they’re supposed to and turn it off and become good teammates right after.”
Dawn Staley has WNBA advantage as South Carolina coach
Of the 69 Power Five programs, only eight coaches played in the WNBA, and Staley was by far the most successful of the group. She was a six-time WNBA All-Star during her 12 seasons in the league, tied with Duke coach Kara Lawson for the longest professional career. Lawson is the only other active coach to earn WNBA All-Star honors, once in 2007.
When Cooke went through the recruiting process as the No. 4 prospect in the 2019 class, Staley’s own success as a professional was a huge point in the Gamecocks’ favor.
“When I got to South Carolina, a lot of people talked about how close Coach Staley was to the WNBA and how he knew a lot of people, but I wasn’t too worried about that,” said Cooke said. “With her already playing in the W, as a U.S. coach and a U.S. player, all the accomplishments she had…I just felt like it was the right thing to start my college career with She.”
Although nearly two decades have passed since Staley has been playing, she still has a unique understanding of the demands players face in the WNBA. She also spends a lot of time in the league: Staley is a season ticket holder for the Atlanta Dream, and the WNBA presents the Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award each year in her honor.
“I texted him a few days before training camp and told him thank you so much for preparing me,” Cooke said. “Usually the beginner is the person who delays the exercises and slows things down, but that wasn’t the case because I already knew a lot of the things I was learning. They gave their own take on things, but the concept is the same. , and I wouldn’t be able to learn this quickly without what I was taught at university.