KNOXVILLE, Tenn. – The WNBA tips off its 25th season Friday, and as the new campaign begins there will be seven former Lady Vols on rosters around the league on opening night.
Tennessee once again leads the SEC in the number of alums on WNBA teams, with South Carolina ranking second with five, followed by Texas A&M, Mississippi State, LSU and Arkansas with two apiece. Auburn, Alabama and Missouri have one player each in the league, while Georgia, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Ole Miss and Florida have no players currently holding roster spots.
LVFLs in the WNBA include Shekinna Stricklen (Atlanta Dream), Diamond DeShields and Candace Parker (Chicago Sky), Isabelle Harrison (Dallas Wings), Rennia Davis (Minnesota Lynx), Cierra Burdick (Phoenix Mercury) and Mercedes Russell (Seattle Storm).
In a poll of league general managers, DeShields led all vote-getters as the league’s best 2-3 swing player.
All-time, 49 Lady Vols have gone on to play in the WNBA. A total of 43 of those Tennessee products were taken in league drafts, including 18 first-rounders and three No. 1 overall selections.
Davis, a three-time All-SEC and All-America honorable mention selection at UT, was the latest to join the professional ranks, going with the No. 9 overall pick in round one of the 2021 draft by the Lynx. The franchise announced on May 1, however, that she sustained a stress fracture in her left foot and would be out indefinitely.
Nonetheless, Minnesota opens the season at home on Friday against Phoenix at 9 p.m. ET in a game carried by CBS Sports Network. LVFL Cierra Burdick plays for the Mercury, and sets sail on her fifth year of duty in the league. She saw action in a career-high 13 games (0.3 ppg., 0.4 rpg.) with Las Vegas last season as a reserve for the WNBA runner-up Aces before moving to the Valley of the Sun.
Parker is Tennessee’s most experienced WNBA veteran and enters her 14th year in the league but initial campaign in her hometown of Chicago after playing her first 13 seasons in Los Angeles. Parker, a five-time WNBA All-Star forward, two-time league MVP and 2016 WNBA Finals MVP, is ranked by ESPN as the league’s No. 4-rated player entering 2021.
Last season, the 6-foot-4 standout started 22 games and produced an average of 14.7 points, 9.7 rebounds, 4.6 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 steals per contest while shooting 51 percent from the field. She was chosen as the WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and was voted All-WNBA First Team for the sixth time.
DeShields, meanwhile, begins her fourth season with the Sky and joins forces with Parker to make Chicago one of the league’s most promising teams. A member of the WNBA All-Rookie Team in 2018 and a WNBA All-Star in 2019, the gifted wing player is hoping for a bounce-back year after struggles with injuries in 2020 forced her to curtail her season after 13 games and leave the “Wubble.”
Though she only put up 6.8 ppg., 1.8 rpg. and 1.5 apg. a year ago, DeShields’ 14.4/4.9/2.2 and 16.2/5.5/2.4 lines in 2018 and 2019, respectively, demonstrate she is a force to be reckoned with when healthy. ESPN concurs, placing her at No. 19 on its list of the WNBA’s top 25 players.
Parker and DeShields tip off the 2021 season on Saturday at 1 p.m. ET, as they travel to D.C. to take on the Washington Mystics in a contest televised by ABC. Among those coaching them will be another LVFL, assistant coach Tonya Edwards, who starred at Tennessee from 1986-90 and played in the WNBA from 1999-2002.
Stricklen is the second-most experienced UT player in the WNBA, heading into her 10th year as a pro. She was originally drafted second overall and spent three seasons with the Seattle Storm, played five years with the Connecticut Sun and now embarks on her second season with Atlanta. The Dream will open up by hosting the Sun on Friday at 7:30 p.m., with Twitter providing coverage.
Last season, Stricklen started 15 of 22 games with her new team. The 6-2 guard/forward averaged 6.1 ppg. and 1.9 rpg. while playing 21.7 minutes per contest. She knocked down 33 three-pointers in 99 attempts.
Harrison, meanwhile, embarks on her fifth season in the league and third year in Dallas. After sitting out the 2018 season due to medical reasons, the 6-3 forward bounced back in 2019 by starting 29 of 33 games and averaging 8.6 points and 4.9 rebounds. A pair of ankle injuries in 2020, however, limited her output to 6.4 ppg. and 4.6 rpg., and effectively ended her campaign after 13 games.
After a winter/spring of playing abroad, Harrison appears ready to get the 2021 campaign started. She’ll do so on Friday at 10:30 p.m. ET, as the Wings visit the Los Angeles Sparks with Facebook providing live coverage.
UT’s seventh active player is Russell, who enters year four with defending WNBA champion Seattle and is a two-time league champ (2018, 2020). A year ago, Russell played in 22 games, starting two, while contributing 3.5 ppg. and 3.2 rpg. and playing 13.8 mpg. as a key reserve.
Russell, who has been playing in Turkey and just arrived back in the U.S., may not be active as the WNBA slate gets under way. Her Storm teammates, however, will tip on Saturday at 3 p.m. ET, hosting the Las Vegas Aces in a tilt carried on ABC.
Two former Lady Vols are active in the front office of a pair of franchises. Tamika Catchings, who played her entire 15-year career with the Indiana Fever and is being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame this weekend, is the vice president of basketball operations and general manager for Indy.
Additionally, Nikki (Caldwell) Fargas, who spent 13 seasons as an NCAA women’s basketball head coach, most recently at LSU, was named the president of the Las Vegas Aces on May 11. Fargas had two stints on the UT staff after her Lady Vol playing career, serving as a graduate assistant for Pat Summitt in 1998-99 and returning as an assistant from 2002-08.