WNBA No. 1 draft picks Wilson, Stewart, more on rookie years

A'Ja Wilson, Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese and Breanna Stewart Illustration by ESPN

A'ja Wilson swept every national player of the year award as a senior in college. The South Carolina Gamecocks star won an NCAA championship as a junior.

But nothing quite prepared the No. 1 pick in the 2018 WNBA draft for playing against the Minnesota Lynx and two of the league's all-time top rebounders in her rookie season.

"I had watched this lineup win championships together ... and here I am, just little rookie A'ja thinking she could get a rebound over Rebekkah Brunson and Sylvia Fowles. I felt like they were playing on a pinball machine with me just in between them bouncing around," the Las Vegas Aces' Wilson said, laughing. "To say that I shared the court with those Hall of Famers was a 'welcome to the league' moment, in good ways and bad ways."

Much of the 2024 WNBA season has been focused on welcoming one of the most anticipated rookie classes in league history. Led by No. 1 pick Caitlin Clark of the Indiana Fever, this year's rookies came into their first season with unprecedented attention and enormous expectations. Clark and the Fever stumbled to a 1-8 record initially but are now 6-10, and she leads all rookies in points, assists and minutes played.

The Chicago Sky's Angel Reese also has received a lot of scrutiny. The No. 7 pick, in part because WNBA coaches and general managers weren't sure how her game would translate to the pro league, Reese so far has proved the Sky's faith in her and ranks first in rebounding and steals among all rookies.

Ahead of the Fever and Sky facing off Sunday (4 p.m. ET, ESPN) for the third time this season, we talked to some of the WNBA's top rookies over the years -- all No. 1 picks -- about the ups and downs of their first season, and when they knew for sure they were going to make it work.

Caitlin Clark gets leveled by a Breanna Stewart screen

An unsuspecting Caitlin Clark barrels into a hard Breanna Stewart screen, briefly sending Clark to the floor.

What was your hardest adjustment as a rookie?

The New York Liberty's Breanna Stewart won four consecutive NCAA titles at UConn, finishing with a 151-5 record in college. Her first WNBA season, 2016, the Seattle Storm went 16-18.

Stewart: "Losing so many games, especially when I didn't lose that much in college. And just the physicality. Understanding that everyone is bigger, faster, stronger and you're playing one of the best players in the world every single night."

Wilson -- a two-time MVP who has helped lead Las Vegas to back-to-back WNBA titles -- was the second No. 1 pick in a row for the Aces, who moved from San Antonio to Las Vegas before Wilson's first season. She came from South Carolina, her hometown school that she had led to its first NCAA title, to a franchise that hadn't made the playoffs the past three seasons and was trying to establish itself in a new city.

Wilson: "How quickly games go by. You don't have time to linger. We didn't have the best season my rookie year, but I didn't even have time to think about it because we were just on to the next game. Just the pace of scheduling was an eye-opener for me.

"And in games, you were going against grown women who had been training for months and months for this, and you're just getting out of college."

The Storm's Nneka Ogwumike played in the women's Final Four all four of her seasons at Stanford. Her pro career began about 360 miles south with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2012.

Ogwumike: "The speed, the strength. Playing every other day. The travel. Everything. There's very little that's the same from the level that you're coming from in college. Also, keeping responsible and disciplined as a player because no one's really telling you what to do. You're the pro, so you have to behave like one."

Jewell Loyd was eligible for the draft as a junior and opted to leave Notre Dame after her third season in 2015. She joined a Seattle franchise that had won titles in 2004 and 2010 but missed the playoffs the year before Loyd arrived.

Loyd: "When you're a high-level scorer in college, it's kind of easy. When you're here, you have people [whose] job is to make sure you don't score."

Jackie Young also was eligible for the draft as a junior and opted to leave Notre Dame after her third season. In 2019, she became the Aces' third No. 1 pick in a row, following Kelsey Plum and Wilson.

Young: "I was playing out of position -- point guard when I'm really not a point guard. So just coming into a new role and having to essentially run the team out of position. That was definitely hard for me."

"When you're a high-level scorer in college, it's kind of easy. When you're here, get to the league in general, you have people who their job is to make sure you don't score." Jewell Loyd

Sabrina Ionescu's first season in New York was very brief: It ended with an ankle injury in her third game in 2020. Even in that short time frame, and then in her first full season in 2021, she realized how different things were.

Ionescu: "Physicality and the IQ of the game was probably the biggest. Everyone's been playing for a really long time, the age gap is big. You're not really surprising anybody with what you're able to do. I was getting trapped and double-teamed and picked up full-court by the best defenders in the league, and it wasn't as easy as it was in college to be able to just deal with it and get by."

Aliyah Boston won a national championship and went to two other Final Fours at South Carolina. In 2023, she joined a Fever team that had not been to the playoffs since 2016.

Boston: "I would say patience, just giving myself grace. I feel like that was the hardest thing because you come in with expectations for yourself, for the team and when that doesn't happen exactly, you want to get it now. Things don't just happen for you perfectly in Game 1, and so just being able to understand that."

Breanna Stewart discusses her WNBA rookie experience with McAfee

Breanna Stewart explains to Pat McAfee the adjustment period for rookies from playing in college to the WNBA.

What was your 'welcome to the WNBA' moment?

Wilson wasn't the only player who listed facing players from the Lynx dynasty -- Minnesota had four titles and two other WNBA Final appearances from 2011 to 2017 -- as having a big impact on them their first season.

Loyd: "Having to guard Maya [Moore] and Seimone [Augustus]. That's when Minnesota was next-level. It was an experience, having to learn how to guard, also just how hard it is to score and also defend in this league. Any time you played Minnesota, it was rough."

Ogwumike recalled trying to stop another legend, one who scored 27 points for the Indiana Fever against the Sparks the first time their teams met in 2012.

Ogwumike: "Definitely guarding Tamika Catchings, for sure. Knowing that I was a rookie having to defend her and just stepping up to the plate."

The 6-foot Young remembered another type of "impact" -- the physical impact of running into a screen set by 6-9 Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner.

Young: "It's like, 'Watch out for those!' I can't remember if anybody called it ... you know as a rookie, you don't really hear as much. There's a lot going on and you're trying to do everything right."

When did it feel like things had clicked for you?

Young and Rhyne Howard, the top pick in 2022 by the Atlanta Dream, said they never really doubted that things would work out, despite any rookie difficulties.

Young: "I think I knew all along just because of my work ethic and having a willingness to learn and get better every year. When I came into the league, I shot the midrange really well, and then once I finally expanded to the 3 and was knocking that down consistently, that's when it really changed for me."

Howard: "I think after training camp, I was good. Maybe after the first game, just going against somebody that wasn't one of my teammates. But after that, I think the way that my coaches and my teammates held me to a standard from the beginning kind of set me up for success."

Ogwumike, Ionescu and Boston were more self-critical. Ogwumike was the MVP and a WNBA champion in 2016, and knows she is one of the greats -- but it took her awhile to get that belief. Ionescu's confidence grew last season with the Commissioner's Cup final win and reaching the WNBA Finals. Boston, in her second WNBA season, is still building her confidence.

Ogwumike: "I would say probably the duration of my rookie contract, about three-four years."

Ionescu: "It was tough because I was still battling injury [in 2021] and so there were so many hurdles that I was having to get over. I don't really know what was from due to injury and what ... would just be the level of attention that you get.

"Now, it's so much nicer to have gone through so much already because there's nothing really surprising. You know the level you have to try to maintain even through highs and lows to be able to grind it out."

Boston: "It's hard for me because I just want success and I want it really badly. I'm trying to understand that I need to give myself grace, but I don't really know if I really am. But that's what makes top elites so good, right? It's just that competitive nature in us."

"Everyone is bigger, faster, stronger, and you're playing one of the best players in the world every single night." Breanna Stewart on her adjustments to the WNBA as a rookie

Stewart went from winning an NCAA title at UConn to a cross-country move to Seattle to the Rio de Janeiro Olympics to the WNBA playoffs in a matter of a few months. In some ways, the fact she barely had time to think helped.

Stewart: "The more games I had under my belt -- I don't know if there's a certain number -- but between the games, the practices, [it being an] Olympic year, things were happening really, really fast, and [I was] just taking it in stride."

Wilson recalls it not as an "aha" moment, but more a growing realization that she was going to make it. It crystalized after her appearance in the 2018 All-Star Game as a rookie.

Wilson: "I did have some awe, playing against people that I had looked up to and had seen on TV, and now I'm on TV with them. But after All-Star, it kind of settled in for me. I said, 'This is my job, I've got to come into work just like they do and be me.' That's when I started to flourish."

Loyd gives credit to Storm veterans such as Sue Bird in helping her transition to the WNBA.

Loyd: "I had really good vets coming in, so I was pretty spoiled. I feel like the second half of my rookie season, I kind of figured out how I want to do things. I put the best team around me on and off the court to make sure I was in the best situation and didn't feel overwhelmed."

What advice would you give rookies?

Stewart has won two WNBA titles, two MVP awards and is headed to her third Olympics with Team USA.

Stewart: "Continue to learn from each and every moment. It might not always go the way that you want and some days are going to be better than others. But continue to make sure you follow that vet that you have and learn from each thing that's happening."

Aces guard Kelsey Plum, the No. 1 pick in 2017 when the franchise was still in San Antonio, struggled her first year on a team that appeared directionless. It was hard to not let it affect her view of herself as a young player. Now a two-time WNBA champion headed to her second Olympics, she wants rookies to know it gets better over time.

Plum: "It felt like quicksand, almost. Like, when is there going to be light at the end of the tunnel? I remember thinking, 'Maybe I'm not cut out for this.' I wish someone would have come and given me a big hug. That's just what I needed: empowerment, encouragement, love.

"Coming from college to the pros, and people don't know how good the WNBA is. Heck, I didn't know how good the WNBA is then. It felt like barely being able to catch your breath, and then before you even got a chance, you were going back under water. But I would not be the player I am now -- the way I play, how tenacious I am, my motor -- without that. It kind of made me who I am."

ESPN's Kevin Pelton and Alexa Philippou contributed to this report.