The Minnesota Golden Gophers are one of five schools to have at least one player drafted by the WNBA in four of the last five years. The school might also be among the few that have had two players drafted by the same club and later traded to their hometown team.
Lindsay Whalen, a 2004 top pick by Connecticut, was traded to the Minnesota Lynx in 2010, where she finished her legendary career. The Sun in 2016 chose Rachel Banham as their top pick, and the Lynx in February acquired the former Gopher guard in a sign-and-trade, bringing the Lakeville native back home.
The 5’-9” guard told the MSR shortly after she learned of the deal, “I felt that at some point I would be back here, but I didn’t know when or how it was going to happen.”
Among other reasons, the new WNBA Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) that came into effect in mid-January helped fuel such deals as the Banham acquisition. She said she believes that teams having to pay their stars forces them to make financial decisions not to bring back others. The five-year veteran was a restricted free agent and had to either sign with her original team or be traded elsewhere.
“That affects Connecticut and other teams as well,” she said. “My agent called me and said Cheryl [Reeve, Minnesota GM/coach] will call you today. It went from there.”
Minnesota also acquired 5’-11” Shenise Johnson, a seven-year guard, earlier this month from Indiana, and a 2020 second-round pick for a swap of picks—a second-rounder this year and a third-rounder in 2021.
Johnson, a 2012 first-round pick of San Antonio (now Las Vegas), was the 2016 league free-throw percentage leader with Indiana, where she played for five seasons. She brings versatility to the Lynx, who are rebuilding their backcourt this season.
Banham said her role with her new club will be as a combo guard: “I can handle the ball. She [Reeve] knows I can handle the ball and I like to be a point guard at times, but mostly I am a shooter.”
She has deep range as a shooter but was part of a guard bottleneck in Connecticut. It’s also hoped that she can revert back to her college scoring prowess—she finished her Gopher career as the Big Ten all-time leading scorer and the school’s all-time record three-point scorer.
The opportunity for more playing time, especially with her hometown team, is something she is looking forward to, Banham admitted. “I am really excited to be back home.” On the coincidence that two former Gopher greats are finding themselves on seemingly parallel paths, Banham couldn’t help but smile. “Everywhere she [Whalen] goes, I seem to follow,” she joked.
WNBA stays on schedule—for now
In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, WNBA officials, along with many players still playing overseas, said last week that at present, the April 17 draft, start of training camps on April 26, and the start of the 2020 season on May 15, are still on schedule.
“The health and safety of players and employees—with our teams and at the league level—is of the utmost importance,” Commissioner Cathy Engelbert stressed. “We are in touch with the teams, consulting with infectious disease specialists, and monitoring guidance from the CDC and WHO. We continue to scenario-plan around our upcoming events.”
On Thursday it was announced that this year’s draft will be virtual with no players, fans or media present due to the pandemic. The logistics are reportedly still being worked out.