When you’re putting up the kind of scoring numbers that Minnesota guard Rachel Banham has been, people are going to notice. Especially when they see that Kobe Bryant has noticed.
Banham’s 60 points against Northwestern, her game-winning 3-pointer against Iowa, her 52 points against Michigan State, her 27.5 points per game, her taking over as the Big Ten’s all-time leading scorer (2,921 points) — these are things not lost on the best in the women’s pro game.
Several of those players are gathered here at UConn for the USA Basketball women’s national team training camp, and they include some outstanding scorers. But perhaps no one here better understands what Banham might be feeling right now than Chicago Sky star Elena Delle Donne.
The WNBA’s MVP last season, Delle Donne led the league at 23.4 points per game. And she was a scoring wizard in college at Delaware too. It’s fair to say that Delle Donne rarely has had games — playing with Team USA’s huge collection of talent might be the only exception — where she didn’t have the expectation that shehad to score a lot for her team to win.
Sounds dreamy, right? Like being the actor with the best lines or the band’s lead singer. Who doesn’t want to have a near-constant green light to score? Isn’t that the most fun?
“It’s not, really,” Delle Donne said. “Honestly, you’d rather be in an offense where everybody on court with you could score the ball well and could be the top scorer that night. Because then you all have each other to rely on.
“It can be tough when you know if you’re not averaging that 25 to 30 points, your team is not going to win. And not only that, you know the defense is completely geared to guarding you.”
Delle Donne, of course, was a UConn-caliber player who decided not to attend Connecticut and instead stayed home to play for the Blue Hens. She scored 3,039 points in her college career, averaging 26.7 per game. She was drafted second overall by the Sky in 2013 and was the WNBA’s rookie of the year. In her three WNBA seasons, she has averaged 20.2 points.
The 6-foot-5 Delle Donne has a guard’s mentality in a post player’s body. She acknowledges that she has always used her size and ability to exploit mismatches to her advantage whenever possible. Banham, by contrast, is a 5-9 guard who particularly loves the 3-point shot; she has 97 treys this year.
“I’ve relied on my height many times; when in doubt, I could often elevate and shoot over people,” Delle Donne said. “So Rachel has to have a different craftiness to her game to get through double- and triple-teams. That’s what’s really impressive about her.”
Delle Donne also understands the other kind of weight that can come with being a big scorer: needing to always credit your teammates and keep them involved. Delle Donne said her Delaware teammates were empathetic because they knew she wasn’t trying to bring attention to herself, but that it was the natural byproduct of her scoring prowess.
Banham has been getting the headlines, but she has a teammate in Carlie Wagner who is averaging an impressive 19.1 points per game herself.
“There’s no way I’d be able to do what I was doing in college or now without help from teammates,” Delle Donne said. “I’m sure Rachel feels that way too.
“It takes a certain mindset to come out and stay positive, especially if you miss a few of your first shots. You have to keep that mentality that the next one is going in. I’m sure she also has great teammates that uplift her too, because that’s what I had to keep me going.”
Another of the WNBA’s top scorers, Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry, is also at the USA Basketball training camp. She’s at 19.5 points per game in her seven WNBA seasons and has twice led the league in scoring average (2012, 2013). She had that role of go-to scorer in college at Louisville, as well.
“It’s funny that Elena says it’s difficult to score that much, considering she makes it look so easy,” McCoughtry said, smiling. “But I would say it is a lot of pressure. Especially when the game gets tight, and you’re thinking, ‘I have to score to help the team.’
“Not everybody can do that. But what’s that saying? To whom much is given, much is expected? That’s basically what it is. If you have that scoring ability, you have to do it. Maybe the biggest challenge is when you have to take the last shot. You miss, and you feel like you let everybody down. You want to make it so bad, but you’re not always going to be the hero.”
Delle Donne and McCoughtry both said there also has to be a level of trusting your teammates to also make big shots when they have the opportunity. It’s always a balancing act. But let’s face it, once you put up huge numbers and have the reputation as a scorer, that’s what people are going to expect to see. And it becomes what you expect of yourself.
No player in the USA Basketball camp knows Banham’s game better than her fellow Minnesota native Lindsay Whalen, who has won three titles with the Minnesota Lynx and helped lead the Gophers to the 2004 Women’s Final Four.
Whalen averaged a team-leading 20.5 points and 5.4 assists her senior season of 2003-04, with then-junior post player Janel McCarville averaging 16.1 points. Whalen, who is from Hutchinson, Minnesota, was already a Gophers legend before that Final Four run, but the first game of that 2004 tournament was particularly epic.
Whalen had missed seven games with a broken hand suffered in February, and her first game back was the NCAA tournament opener against UCLA. She scored 31. Then against top-seeded Duke in the Elite Eight, she scored 27.
Whalen has worked out with Banham and evaluated her game. She has high hopes for Banham, who has recovered from her own serious injury: a torn ACL in December 2014 that caused her to redshirt that season and return for this one.
“I was in practice with them a couple of times getting ready for this camp,” Whalen said of the Gophers. “She said it was right around the start of Big Ten season that she kind of turned the corner mentally, and body-wise too. She was stronger and was able to gain a lot of confidence.
“The most impressive to me was the game winner down one, when she faded left and made it to win. That’s big time.”
Whalen was referring to Banham’s 3-pointer that beat Iowa 78-76 on Feb. 15. The Gophers’ loss to Michigan State in Sunday’s 114-106 scorefest hurt, but Whalen has her fingers crossed that 18-9 Minnesota can still get into the NCAA tournament.
“I think mentally, Rachel is having fun,” Whalen said. “Hopefully, she’s not letting the scoring weight get to her. She seems to be enjoying it. But I know more than anything, she wants to get a few more wins to make the tournament.”
The WNBA draft is April 14 at Mohegan Sun Arena, home of the Connecticut Sun, and UConn’s Breanna Stewart is the sure No. 1 pick. But Banham has been upping her stock, and if you ask around at the training camp, people are looking forward to seeing her get a chance in the WNBA.
Delle Donne quickly became one of the WNBA’s most popular players in large part because of her scoring prowess; her career high is 45 points, set in June against Atlanta. She scored 40 in the Sky’s season-ending loss to Indiana in the playoffs last year. She is eager to see how Banham adjusts to the WNBA level.
“I think she’ll be very happy when she gets to the pros,” Delle Donne said. “She won’t have to carry as big a load as she has. But the great thing is, doing it gets you ready for the next level.”