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Even this diehard WNBA supporter questioned why South Carolina players would leave school early

What was the rush for Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis? Seattle’s Jewell Loyd sheds some light

Hard work with little payoff. Underappreciated. Phenomenally gifted, yet unfairly slighted. These are just a few thoughts I have when I think about the WNBA and its players.

Have your own opinion about why there are so many discrepancies between this league and the NBA. But it remains unfortunate that naysayers disrespect and undermine these women and their undeniable ability to perform at the highest level. To be an expert professional and get paid equivalent to an entry-level position is degrading, but we’ll save that story for another day.

Still, learning that South Carolina guards Kaela Davis and Allisha Gray decided to forfeit their final season to enter the WNBA draft — both were drafted by the Dallas Wings — made me ask, But why? What’s the rush?

We see men do it all the time and don’t second-guess it. It’s almost more of a shock when the top college player in the country remains in school past his freshman year or decides to stay and finish his degree. There is an entire 30 for 30 film dedicated to Mr. One-and-Done himself, Kentucky coach John Calipari. When Michigan State’s Miles Bridges turned down the draft to return for his sophomore season, it prompted the internet to take “dramatic” to another level:

 

 

 

But I was disappointed with my initial reaction when I first found out about Davis’ and Gray’s decisions.

Thankfully, an opportunity to speak with a player who was one of the first to break that stereotype in women’s basketball changed my whole perception of this league and why these talented players are eager to make an early exit from college.

“I played tennis growing up. That was my first sport, and I played all the way through my sophomore year of high school,” Seattle Storm guard Jewell Loyd said. “I kind of wanted to continue on basketball, and for me to really focus on basketball, I knew I had to soon give the sport [of tennis] up.”

When a rare opportunity arose for Loyd during her junior year of high school, she knew basketball was the path she wanted to go down.

“I had a really good opportunity to practice with the Chicago Sky, and I was practicing with them for a while,” Loyd said. “I was going there seeing what it took to be a professional athlete and playing with them and being a part of that atmosphere, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I kind of want to do this.’ So, I quit tennis and got serious about basketball.”

What started as a sport she played to hang with friends turned into one she wanted to pursue at the highest level. Loyd’s talent earned her a scholarship to play under Muffet McGraw at Notre Dame. She was named ESPN’s women’s college basketball player of the year as her team advanced to back-to-back NCAA championship game appearances.

She was at a highly ranked women’s basketball program at a prestigious academic establishment less than a two-hour drive home to Chicago. What more could you ask for? Well, for Loyd it was a professional career.

And in her junior year of college she decided it was time to go to the next level, forfeiting her senior year.

“For me to get better and for me to improve, I wanted to play against the best people in the world,” Loyd said. “I would have to play against [Diana] Taurasi, Maya Moore, play with Sue [Bird] or against her. Play against [Brittney] Griner, and all the Olympians before they retire. Because I [didn’t know] if Sue or Diana or people I looked up to, Tamika Catchings, would be around if I waited two or three years.”

It wasn’t about the money. It wasn’t about the recognition. It wasn’t about the whats, ifs and hows. It was a pure desire to not only play with the best, but to be the best.

What if you get hurt? What if you don’t get drafted? What if something doesn’t work out? You don’t get paid as much. Loyd overlooked the negative identity of the WNBA and deleted all possibilities that her dream wasn’t feasible.

“That really didn’t cross my mind. I was just really confident in my decision,” Loyd said.

“I know that it’s definitely more of a grind … and I understood that, [but] I don’t really care. If I’m happy in a good situation and I’m enjoying what I do every day, that’s more important than me making millions and be miserable.”

And so far, so good for the 23-year-old baller. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft was voted the 2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year, along with being named to the WNBA All-Rookie Team and All-WNBA Second Team. Her explosiveness and dynamic skill set on the court earned her the nickname of the Gold Mamba, cosigned by her mentor: the Black Mamba himself, Kobe Bryant.

As she enters her third WNBA season, she not only continues to set high expectations for her professional career but is also determined to fulfill a promise she made once she entered the draft.

“My mom’s a teacher. … All my aunts are teachers. Everyone is pretty much a professor or some kind of teacher in my family, so I promised my mom that I would finish my degree for her,” Loyd said.

But not just her mom. After a diagnosis her sophomore year of high school, she also wants to get a degree for herself. “I wanted it for me just because everything I dealt with schoolwise, with being dyslexic and having ADHD like all that stuff, school was always something I could be very proud of,” Loyd said.

Although her mom was concerned about Loyd leaving school, her support on and off the basketball court contributed to the success Loyd has enjoyed thus far.

“She was freakin’ for sure,” Loyd said, laughing about her mom’s reaction to her decision. “Once she saw how my first year was going it was validation for her to be like, ‘OK, wait, she did [make] the right decision.’

“She definitely is always on me and making sure that I’m still focused on my schoolwork, and that I haven’t fallen behind and always helping me when I need it.”

With a few classes left, Loyd is projected to finish her degree in 2018.

Despite my high regard for female athletes, my hesitation and ignorance still made me question why Gray and Davis would be so eager to join a league that is so underrated. But I quickly realized it’s not a decision for me to understand, but rather for me to respect.

“I think a lot of people don’t know people’s stories … what they’re dealing with, what they’re doing,” Loyd said. “People see what they see. You don’t know if [players] are working three hours extra after practice, before practice. It’s all about what that [player] wants. And for me it was a simple question: ‘Am I happy or am I not?’ ‘Do I want happiness, or do I want to be here and struggle, or whatever it is?’

“People go to school to be doctors, lawyers, teachers, [and] people want to go be professional athletes to play against the best and learn from the best. … If that’s what you’re wanting to do, you want to be the best at a sport? You go play against the best competition.”

And if you’re wondering whether Loyd has any regrets, guess again.

“Not at all,” she said. “I’m totally happy with my decision. The people I’ve met during the whole decision, my teammates where I’m playing right now. Everything’s kind of been really a great transition. I think that’s why I talk very highly about Seattle itself, too. I came into a great organization. With great leadership and things like that. So I think I made the right decision.”

“I don’t really regret anything. It’s been pretty sweet so far.”

Kayla Johnson is an associate editor for the ESPN social brand. She is an avid Kobe fan and may consider retirement if given the chance to interview him one day.