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WNBA: Letting it fly

Hart grad Taylor Lilley is going to do what she does best — shoot

Posted: June 10, 2010 10:27 p.m.
Updated: June 11, 2010 4:55 a.m.

Hart High graduate Taylor Lilley played in a WNBA game at the Staples Center on Tuesday against the Los Angeles Sparks. She played just two minutes, but the undrafted free agent defied the odds by making the Phoenix Mercury.

 

It was a moment you could say Taylor Lilley had worked most of her life to achieve, and it occurred at a spot where she is perhaps the most comfortable.

Certainly, it's where she's the most dangerous - on a basketball court, ball in hand, behind the 3-point line.

It was in the third quarter of a June 1 game in Minneapolis between her Phoenix Mercury and the Minnesota Lynx. Lilley, playing in her first WNBA game, dribbled around a screen set by teammate Candice Dupree. Dupree rolled toward the rim and for a second, Minnesota defender Rebekkah Brunson hesitated.

That was all the window Lilley needed. The 2006 Hart High graduate and Mercury rookie launched a shot from two feet behind the arc, a little to the right of the top of the key.

Swish - Lilley's first points as a professional.

The journey she began as a skinny junior high schooler with a basketball and an insatiable desire to improve had reached another milestone. The dream that sprouted amid the echo of balls bouncing off gymnasium floors was now bearing fruit on national TV, in front of thousands of fans, for a paycheck.

"I was actually (mad) at myself from (a play I didn't make) earlier," Lilley says about her first points. "After I made the shot I was just kind of fired up. Basketball's basketball."

It may be, but few get to play for a living, let alone for the defending WNBA champions.

Few are recruited and signed by legendary women's basketball icon Ann Meyers Drysdale.

Few begin their careers playing and training alongside legend in the making, defending WNBA scoring champion Diana Taurasi.

As rosy as it all sounds, the transition to professional athlete is still a work in progress for the 22-year old University of Oregon graduate.

In a matter of weeks, she left the chilly dampness of Eugene, Ore. for the sweltering dryness of Phoenix. She traded a crowded campus of college friends and teammates for a single apartment in a city 400 miles from home.

"At first it was tough making the adjustment. Being a rookie you don't want to step on anybody's toes," Lilley says. "They don't know me, I don't know them. They're older, more mature. But now it's getting more and more comfortable because we're around each other every day. It's slowly getting there."

Lilley joined the Mercury officially on April 19, an unlikely signing by general manager Meyers Drysdale. Lilley, who was undrafted, made the team ahead of a pair of players drafted in the second and third rounds, respectively.

"There's a lot of luck involved," Meyers Drysdale says. "It's relationships and it's hard work. Your luck is created by your hard work."

At 5 feet 6 inches tall, Lilley worked herself into a deadeye shooter, breaking career 3-point shooting records at Hart and at Oregon. Mercury head coach Corey Gaines says it's her ability to stretch defenses and her work ethic that earned her a spot on the team.

Lilley is also banking on her versatility.

"They know I can play the one, two or three," she says. "(It's important) for them to feel confident that I can play any position at any time they need me to. That's what's going to keep me here."

For Lilley, productivity on the court - on any court - comes down to just one thing: burying shots. Filling that role is something she's never been shy about, regardless of the situation, regardless of the uniform she's wearing.

"When I'm open and I have space, I'm going to let it fly," she says. "I'm the same player I was in high school and college. My role has changed, but I'm still going to shoot. I'm here to shoot the ball. As long as I can deliver that ..."

Lilley has broken into three games for the Mercury (3-5).
Against the Lynx in her debut, she finished with three points and three rebounds in 10 minutes. On June 8 versus the Los Angeles Sparks at the Staples Center, she recorded one rebound in less than two minutes of playing time.

On June 6, against the Storm in Seattle, she made a statement.

Lilley entered the game in the fourth quarter of a blowout loss. True to her character, she let it fly.

Her line: six minutes played, 3-for-4 shooting, two 3-pointers, 4-for-4 from the free-throw line, one assist and a co-team-high 12 points.

"She's been positive on the floor," Meyers Drysdale says. "For any kind of player you've got to know your role and you've got to be ready because you never know when that opportunity's going to happen. And she's taken advantage of the situations when she's been in there."

Lilley isn't blowing her performance out of proportion.

"That game was not fun," she says. "When I went in there was no pressure. We were just trying to score as much as we could and get back as much as we could. My main focus is always to play hard. When that's your focus, everything comes behind that. You're not pressuring yourself. I felt really comfortable and confident. I wasn't playing scared. I have a lot of confidence from my teammates."

In Gaines' fast-paced offense, Lilley has permission to shoot whenever she gets a good look. She also has the blessing of her teammates.

"They tell me, ‘If you're open let it fly,'" Lilley says. "You want to do well because you don't want to disappoint them."

One of Lilley's biggest adjustments has been to coming off the bench. The rookie has averaged six minutes in the three games she's played - a major shift for someone who's been a starter most of the past eight years.

But Lilley understands that at the WNBA level, everyone has been a starter. She knows the job at hand is filling your role and being ready when the time comes.

She gets a sense of when Gaines is going to put her in when he walks down the bench and starts talking to her about the game. But that's not really her cue. From the opening whistle, she's ready to play.

"I approach it as I'm still a player in the game ... as if I were still at Oregon," Lilley says. "I pay attention and I go over in my head what I need to do. It's kind of nice watching them and observing (my teammates), and also having fun supporting them - not being tight and staying loose ... I'm in a rhythm now and I know what to expect. You kind of wait for that moment that he calls you up and when he does you just go out there and play basketball."

The WNBA minimum salary is $34,500 - not bad for five months of playing basketball and traveling around the country, especially for someone just out of college in today's job market.

"It was a good feeling to get that money in the account," Lilley says of her first paycheck, then added with a chuckle, "I was running pretty low."

And there are additional opportunities.

Lilley may follow many of her WNBA compatriots overseas in the winter. Europe, rich in women's basketball leagues, is a common destination for stateside professionals. The salaries are competitive, especially for players with a WNBA pedigree. It's also a great way for players to stay on top of their games.

"I'm thinking I will play overseas," Lilley says. "It's a hard decision for me leaving my mom because we're so close. But playing all year would be beneficial for me."

In the meantime, she's enjoying life as a professional basketball player in the U.S. She's especially looking forward to seeing New York for the first time, which she will do when Phoenix plays the Liberty on July 3.

It will be another leg on her journey, another court and another crowd.

They'll be another basket to shoot at and Lilley will be looking for space.

She'll be ready to let it fly.

 

 

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