Sparks’ Cameron Brink, Rickea Jackson navigating WNBA’s challenging rookie path

LOS ANGELES — It is not easy to be a WNBA rookie.

Fact is, it’s not easy to become a WNBA rookie. In April’s draft, 36 players were selected. Twelve of them are currently on the league’s rosters, and familiar players such as UCLA’s Charisma Osborne and USC’s McKenzie Forbes and Kaitlyn Davis did not make their respective teams.

Of those who did make it? Well, set aside Indiana’s Caitlin Clark, the No. 1 pick and the player seemingly everyone is talking about, often for reasons that have little to do with her game or her stats (33.5 minutes played, 16.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 6.3 assists in 12 games).

Of the remaining 17 rookies, which include three players taken in previous drafts and three undrafted players, 10 are averaging as much as double-figure minutes. That includes the Sparks’ picks at the top of the draft, No. 2 pick Cameron Brink (24.1 minutes, 8.2 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.8 blocked shots following Sunday’s 96-92 victory over defending champ Las Vegas) and No. 4 Rickea Jackson (23.2 minutes, 9.6 points, 48.1% field goal shooting, 3.0 rebounds).

The Sparks are currently in a rebuild, as Coach Curt Miller has noted. Their rookies are, if not cornerstones, at least key pieces of what this team will look like down the road. But their initial exposure to pro basketball has been a wakeup call.

Start with this: A rookie in this league has weeks to prepare, rather than the months they’d get in other leagues or other sports. College basketball seasons end in March (or, for the lucky ones, the first week of April). The draft was April 15. Training camps opened April 28 – an earlier start than normal in an Olympic year – and the regular season began May 14, the day after final cuts.

Then again, in a sport that has become a year-round pursuit for many players because of the need to play overseas in the wintertime in order to earn something close to their market value, exhaustion is just another hurdle.

“It’s something that I have to do, something that I’ve been wanting to do, and just knowing that’s the process,” said Jackson, whose final game at Tennessee was March 25, a loss in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. “You’re in college one month, and the next month you’re in the league and playing your first WNBA game.

“I don’t think it’s honestly truly hit me yet. I’ve just been taking it day to day, like, ‘Okay, you have to be here. You have to be there.’ So with everything being such a whirlwind, I don’t think I’ve actually got where I could be sitting down and (saying), ‘You was just in college a couple months ago.’”

She’ll have the Olympic break, from July 21 to August 14, to recharge. Brink, who was named last week to the U.S. Olympic team for the 3-on-3 basketball competition, won’t get that chance.

Not that she minds.

“Honestly, even before being a WNBA player, I wanted to be an Olympian,” Brink said in a Zoom interview session last week after being named to the 3-on-3 team. “So it’s definitely like a really big deal for me.”

As for the accelerated runway, and the transition from being a Stanford student to being a professional athlete? It’s busy, but she indicated that she’s used to it.

“I say this a lot: My family, my support system, I have great people around me,” she said before Sunday night’s game against Las Vegas. “It’s not easy to do alone, but I’ve got people around me.”

It has helped that Brink and Jackson have also had each other to lean on, and they’ve gotten support from within the team.

“Really pleased with how they’ve handled everything,” Miller said. “They’re high-profile rookies. There’s a lot of social attention, a lot of expectations of drafting two lottery picks and building our future with the youth in mind, with those two as pieces of the puzzle. So, first of all, they came in with expectations. They came in with a lot of fanfare, and they’ve handled it terrifically.”

As for that runway …

“Their play, as most rookies, is at times a little bit inconsistent right now,” he said. “You know, shortest training camp in the history of the league. We’re in a tough cadence of games because of the Olympic year. So their learning laboratory is in games a lot. And that’s not easy to do when you’re learning in front of 10,000 people every night.”

The pro game is a lot more physical that what the newcomers were used to in college, as has been noted – often hysterically so, largely by those observers exposed to the league for the first time. Jackson said she expected it “to be tougher, but I didn’t expect it to be this tough … when you’re actually in it it’s like, ‘Oh, this is different.’”

And with only 12 roster spots per team, veterans are going to make rookies earn their keep. When Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi made the observation before the season that “reality is coming,” Clark’s fans – among them many of those newbies referenced above – took it personally.

But it’s nothing personal. It’s just the way of the world, especially an environment with 144 available jobs.

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