UConn forward Azura Stevens will be selected early in the first round of Thursday's WNBA Draft
With scores of friends and family members inside Nike Headquarters for the WNBA Draft or gathered elsewhere in Midtown for a celebration to follow long into the New York night, Azura Stevens on Thursday will cross the finish line of a unique amateur-to-professional journey.
Given her size and athletic gifts, Stevens has long been destined for this. A 6-foot-6 forward with versatility, she has been a surefire WNBA prospect for years. So any questions about her participation in Thursday night's event, during which she is expected to be among the top four selections, have nothing to do with how or what.
There's just one: Why now? Stevens, a transfer from Duke, announced last week that she will forgo her final season of NCAA eligibility after one season at UConn, realizing a professional dream in lieu of returning as one of the top college players for the 2018-19 season.
"It was something I knew I would have to face at the end of the year," Stevens, who is on track to graduate next month or this summer, said Wednesday from New York. "I think a lot of people forget I'm a senior. I did sit out [2016-17]. I spent a lot of time just praying about it, getting advice from various people — family, mostly — but really just praying about it. … I think the biggest thing for me was what people would think and their opinions. But once I got over that, it was looking at what, ultimately, I wanted to do and what was best for me. Once I got over that people are going to have opinions and think what they want, it was just me making my decision."
The draft begins Thursday at 7 p.m. The first round will be on ESPN2 and the second and third rounds on ESPNU. South Carolina forward A'ja Wilson is considered a lock to be selected No. 1 overall by Las Vegas. Stevens, of Raleigh, N.C., will likely be selected second (Indiana), third (Chicago) or fourth (also Chicago).
UConn teammates Gabby Williams and Kia Nurse are considered mid to late first-round selections. The Connecticut Sun have the ninth pick and would likely eye Nurse, if she remains available.
Stevens didn't come to Storrs with Williams and Nurse, but she's leaving with them.
"Anytime you're presented with choices, you have to factor in pros and cons," Stevens said. "You can hear from a lot of people, but at the end of the day, it's your life, it's your journey and your path and not everybody is going to be on board.
"In the beginning of the year, I had thought about it a little bit more than towards the end. After a certain point I blocked it out and just focused on the rest of the season because I didn't want that to get in the way of anything we were trying to do. I tucked all that away and my mind was completely and totally focused on our current task. Obviously, after the Final Four, I knew I had a couple of days to decide. But at that point, I kind of knew what I was leaning more towards. It was just a matter of telling people."
"Obviously any time you're departing from a program — and I've experienced this before, leaving Duke — it's not going to be a happy-go-lucky conversation the whole time because, ultimately, you're leaving these coaches who have done a lot of things for you and helped you in different ways and care about you," Stevens said. "So it's not a conversation I was expected [coaches] to be super thrilled about at first, but toward the end, Coach said if this is a decision I'm confident in, then they're behind me 100 percent and they would do anything they can to support me."
Stevens knows some wonder whether she was unhappy at UConn, where Auriemma's voice — publicly, privately — was constantly pushing her to do more, be better.
She did improve, markedly, in the second half of the season. While she would have been a year better, a year stronger, a year wiser for the 2019 WNBA draft, she will enter the league in position to contribute immediately.
"I wasn't unhappy there, at all," she said. "On campus, the support I received from them, and the things they were able to help me do as a player and a person, that's what I was looking for when I decided to go to UConn. And they did that for me. I know the fans think X, Y and Z about different things, but the bottom line is I wasn't unhappy. This was just my choice and my decision to just move on to a new adventure."