ARLINGTON, Texas — Being the eighth pick in the WNBA draft is something accompanied by certain expectations, but Alissa Pili entered the professional ranks fully realizing that joining a mostly veteran team like the Minnesota Lynx, one led by a veteran head coach in Cheryl Reeve who has been calling the shots there since 2010, meant she was going to have to be one patient rookie.

“She (Utah coach Lynne Roberts) challenged me and pushed me to be the best I could be. I think that my breakout seasons, both of my seasons at Utah, helped me to be in a position to be seen for the draft and be on the WNBA radar,”

—  Former Utah star Alissa Pili

Thus far, Pili, 23, who starred for the Utes from 2022 through 2024, has appeared in 12 games for the Lynx and is averaging 2.3 points per game. “It (my transition to the W) has been pretty smooth, especially being drafted into such a great program all around,” she said after a recent road game in Dallas. “I have so many resources and the coaches and everything have been great to me.”

Utah fans remember her fondly for her two seasons in the Pac-12 — fondly for good reason. In 2022-23, she averaged 20.7 points, 5.6 rebounds and 2.3 assists, a strong showing that earned her conference player-of-the-year honors. She followed that by averaging 21.4 points, 6.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists as a senior, starting all 34 games for the Utes to finish her collegiate career on a positive note.

Pili credits Utah head coach Lynne Roberts for helping tap into her immense potential during her two seasons in Salt Lake City and for putting her in position to be drafted and to play in the W.

“She (Coach Roberts) challenged me and pushed me to be the best I could be. I think that my breakout seasons, both of my seasons at Utah, helped me to be in a position to be seen for the draft and be on the WNBA radar,” Pili said. “I got super close with everybody there (at Utah during my two years there). Those are relationships I will cherish for the rest of my life.”

In the Twin Cities, she’s playing under Reeve, who has not only won three WNBA titles to accompany her two crowns as a league assistant, and a four-time league coach of the year as a head coach, but someone who also has considerable experience on the international stage as an assistant coach with Team USA and more recently as the Stars and Stripes’ head coach, which puts her front and center at the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics later this summer.

What kind of learning curve awaits Alissa Pili in the WNBA?

Pili considers it an amazing opportunity to learn from someone like Reeve who has such an impressive basketball résumé and plenty of sage advice to impart to a rookie like herself. “Yeah, it’s been great. She’s an amazing person to learn from and just be coached by,” she said of Reeve. “I’m super grateful for that opportunity.”

Reeve has coached her share of rookies during her long, successful run in the W, but one thing about this ex-Ute has especially stood out to her over her first few months as a professional.

“She’s been great,” Reeve said. “She’s been a very mature player that recognizes to block out the external noise that’s piping (in saying) you should be playing, you should be playing, you should be playing.”

“She understands exactly what her team is. She understands everything is timing. She’s got a great college coach that’s been very helpful in imparting some of these messages,” she continued. “This is a process. This is the beginning of the process of a great professional career. She certainly wants more moments on the floor, but I’ve told her at best you’re No. 4 in the post play. That’s reality. You can accelerate growth and we’ve talked to her about ways to do that, but Pili has been extremely mature. I think she’s a very good basketball player that’s got a bright future ahead of her.”

Still, Pili is a rookie on a veteran-laden team and no matter the sport, being the most inexperienced player on a roster usually means one thing — paying their dues to the veterans in the form of enduring some rookie rites of passage. In some sports, that could mean getting meals for flights, snacks or coffee, and donuts for shootarounds or practices. This ex-Ute smiled broadly when asked about her rookie duties with the Lynx.

Utah Utes forward Alissa Pili high-fives fans before a game between the Utah and Oregon State at the Jon M. Huntsman Center in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 9, 2024. | Megan Nielsen, Deseret News
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“I have to pass out the scouts. Yeah, it’s not bad at all,” she said.

Pili made her WNBA debut on May 14 at Seattle and played 10 minutes in her first regular-season action as a professional. She doesn’t think her “Welcome to the W” moment has happened yet, but it’s safe to say this affable ex-Ute is doing her best impression of a sponge, another key trait for every successful rookie, absorbing every bit of knowledge she can from her veteran coaches and teammates so she can shorten that rookie learning curve a bit.

Still, she admits being paid for playing basketball isn’t a bad thing. “It’s really cool,” Pili said. “It’s a dream come true, and I can’t ask for anything more.”

Stephen Hunt is a freelance writer based in Frisco, Texas.

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