In the span of five weeks, Kierstan Bell has gone from winning an NCAA Tournament game to being a first-round WNBA draft pick.
“It’s been crazy, honestly,” the former FGCU star said during Aces media availability Thursday. “It’s just a lot. I never had this much attention before.”
At the same time, she feels like she’s always been prepared for this.
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“I’ve been ready for this moment since I was a young little kid,” she said. “I’ve always dreamed of playing in the WNBA. … It’s just been a ride and I’ve been enjoying it, every single moment of it.”
There have been a lot of moments, more than on the basketball court as Bell continues in training camp with the Aces, who made her the 11th pick overall on April 11 and start their season on Saturday, May 6. The team plays a preseason game at Minnesota next Sunday.
The WNBA posted on social media after the draft a surprise congratulatory phone call from Bell’s mother, Amanda Hubbs, from draft night. Bell got emotional as her mom told her how proud she was of her.
“When I heard her voice, I started laughing because I didn’t expect it,” Bell said. “I literally had told them at the table (during the draft) that we’re not going to get emotional, we’re going to smile and celebrate.
“And so then when I got the call, it brought tears to my eyes. I worked hard for this moment. She knows I worked hard for this moment. She’s helped me get here. Without my mom I wouldn’t be in this position.”
Bell also received a call from her godmother, another important figure in her life.
Then two days after the draft, Bell, 22, tweeted that she had talked to her father, Perry, who has been in prison for over 20 years, and that he is expected to get released sometime next year. She has stayed in touch with him through visits virtually and otherwise.
“We still had a relationship, still talked,” she said. “It’s just going to be different now when he gets out in person and gets a little bit of freedom. It’s just going to be a great opportunity for me and my dad to reconnect and create a relationship.”
Bell plans on that relationship including her having a WNBA career.
While she’s a first-round draft pick, making a team is not a done deal in the league, partially due to its roster limit of 12, and some teams play with just 11.
Even though Las Vegas lost to Phoenix in five games in the WNBA semifinals last season, this is a new start for everyone.
Becky Hammon, a longtime assistant in the NBA with the San Antonio Spurs, is the new head coach. Former LSU coach Nikki Fargas has been the team president since last May, and former UCLA and WNBA star Natalie Williams was named the GM just prior to the draft.
Hammon and Bell already have an unofficial connection. Bell was named the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year the past two seasons.
“I haven’t really thought much about her winning an award, but I definitely have a soft spot for small school kids that don’t the exposure normally that a lot of the other kids do,” said Hammon, a three-time All-American at Colorado State who played in the WNBA for 16 seasons.
Even though it’s only been a few days of training camp, Hammon, who is replacing former NBA star and longtime WNBA coach Bill Laimbeer, likes what she’s seen from Bell.
“I love her energy,” Hammon said. “You can tell she’s a hooper. She’s hooped with a lot of guys. You can tell. She’s kind of got a little swagger to her game, definitely knows how to get up and down.”
Getting up and down the floor is something the 6-foot-1 Bell said has been one of the biggest transitions so far in training camp. That, and being more focused defensively.
“It’s definitely different, coming from FGCU where we didn’t run a lot,” Bell said. “That’s something that I had to get back going to, about running and getting into my cardio, so the first day of practice was a lot on me.
“I’m learning from a new coach, a new system, a lot of new plays. I’ve got to feed off the team.”
And while being hungry herself, Bell has to create some new relationships, especially with veterans.
Las Vegas returns second-team All-WNBA forward A’ja Wilson, a former South Carolina star who averaged 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds last season, and guard Kelsey Plum, who averaged 14.8 points. Jackie Young, Dearica Hamby, Chelsea Gray, and Riquna Williams, a former Miami star, also averaged in double figures.
“We’ve got veterans that play really well together, so coming in as a rookie you’ve got to try to gel with them and build relationships and create a vibe,” Bell said. “I think everybody’s connecting really well. We have great energy. We’re always competing. We have great veterans to learn and feed off of. We ask them questions and they help us the best they can.”
As of Friday, the Aces had waived three players in training camp, putting them down to 14. Bell is one of five rookies, including Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed, who was drafted three picks ahead of her. LSU’s Khayla Pointer and Virginia Tech’s Aisha Sheppard were second-round picks, and Washington’s Nancy Mulkey was signed as an undrafted free agent.
“We’re all kind of learning each other right now, even with my staff,” said Hammon, who has Tyler Marsh, son of former FGCU assistant Donnie Marsh, as one of her assistants. “We’re a new staff. There’s a lot of teaching to be done. There’s a lot of communication that needs to be done. It just seems like we never have enough time.”
Bell, Pointer and Sheppard already know one another on the court in a manner of speaking.
Bell and FGCU beat Pointer and LSU early in the season. Bell scored 32 points and Pointer had 23 in an 88-74 LSU loss at home on Nov. 14.
“We went against each other early in the year, it was a very, very good competitive game — didn’t like the outcome and wished we could’ve played them again,” Pointer said. “I’m very happy that I was drafted here and I’m happy that Bell is on my team. We’re having a lot of fun on the court and off the court, too.”
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Then in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, Bell had 18 of her 22 points in the second half in an 84-81 upset of Sheppard and the Hokies.
“We haven’t brought up that game and I sure hope that we don’t talk about that — ever,” Sheppard said with a smile.
Bell is trying not to get too far ahead of herself when it comes to her role or how much she’s going to play.
“Sometimes I think like, ‘Will I play or will I not?'” she said. “That’s something I haven’t really thought about now because I’m just trying to be myself and trying to learn different positions, not trying to be satisfied with playing just the 3 or just the 4.
“I’m trying to be around every position. I’ve been locked into practice trying to figure out what I can do better in this position or this situation, but really just coming in every day, learning from the best of the best veterans as players.”
Bell said she sees a lot of similarities between what Hammon is trying to implement, especially offensively, and her time at FGCU under coach Karl Smesko. She credits Smesko with getting her ready.
“Really just listening to my coach honestly,” she said of Smesko. “He’s a great coach. He knows what he’s talking about. He actually is like Becky Hammon, honestly. He runs the same type of offense, defensive terms, so really looking on what he says. He has a great relationship with WNBA coaches and players as well, so just listening to him and and building that relationship with him really helped me move to the next level.”
Bell said most of what Hammon is doing offensively involves reading the defense, something that was a staple of Smesko’s offense.
“I really don’t think there’s a lot of adjustments,” she said. “I think it’s just the new plays, the new sets. Everything that Becky has done so far is really based off reads, and at FGCU that’s what I was doing is based on reads, my picking, popping, depending on the defense, just reading the defense, and just knowing your teammates, and knowing who’s the better shooter.”
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at email@example.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/