A Star Princeton Player Has a Sense of Where She’ll Be: The W.N.B.A.
Bella Alarie has become a must-see player for the Princeton women’s basketball team. It’s something her coach, Courtney Banghart, has known for a while, but the rest of the world is just finding out.
Banghart began to sense that more people were becoming aware of her star player during a recent conversation with Chris Young, the former major league pitcher who played basketball and baseball at Princeton.
“He goes, ‘I’d pay to watch two players in college basketball: Zion Williamson and Bella Alarie,’” Banghart said.
Almost every basketball fan knows Williamson, Duke’s top player and probably the N.B.A.’s next top draft pick. But Alarie? She is a 6-foot-4 junior who has developed into a player capable of lifting the Tigers to national prominence. Observers believe she has a chance to do something no Ivy League player has done since Allison Feaster, who graduated from Harvard in 1998: represent the conference in an extended W.N.B.A. career.
This development was less a dedicated plan and more a series of serendipitous choices merged with hard work. Alarie, a multitalented two-way player of the kind sought at the professional level, did not tower over her peers when she was growing up. She remembers being only a bit taller than her peers, but says she cannot recall a time when she didn’t have a basketball in her hands.
Her father, Mark, a former Duke and N.B.A. player, set about making sure she could play at any position.
“I think a lot of it was really focusing on my guard skills,” Bella Alarie said. “I think my dad knew that from a young age, that developing skills early would really benefit me in the long run. We didn’t really know how tall I would be, so I’m really lucky that I kept growing.”
Her slight build meant that during her high school career at National Cathedral School in Washington, she drew interest from Ivy League teams, including Harvard and Penn, but did not get so much as a letter of interest from her father’s alma mater. Anything beyond playing in college was not on her radar when she arrived at Princeton.
“In high school, I never really thought of myself as someone who would achieve the things I have so far in college,” Alarie said. “And when I was getting recruited, I did really want to put an emphasis on getting a really well-rounded college experience. The Ivy League, I was really drawn to from the beginning. Princeton, Penn and Harvard, those were definitely the schools it came down to.”
Things began to change for Alarie after she won Ivy League freshman of the year honors, then was selected to play for U.S.A. Basketball in the under-19 FIBA World Cup.
“To make that team, that really proved to me that I could compete with some of the best in the country,” Alarie said. “And against the best in the world at my age. So I think that summer really boosted my confidence in myself as a player and also expanded my game, and I learned how to play in another system.”
Her coach took note of it, and has turned Alarie into a true hybrid. She has been used more in the post after adding 20 pounds to her frame without forsaking her guard skills. That makes her an intriguing pro prospect for a league dominated by players like Elena Delle Donne and Breanna Stewart, who have size and the ability to play any position.
Opposing coaches have noticed, too.
“I love her,” Tony Bozzella, the Seton Hall coach, said. Alarie had 22 points and 12 rebounds last year in a Princeton win at Seton Hall. “Reminds me of Delle Donne. Not as good yet, but similar games. Obviously a great scorer in many ways, awesome rebounder and passer, great vision, supersmart. A definite first-round pick.”
This season, after missing Princeton’s first nine games with a broken arm, Alarie is putting up numbers seldom seen at the school. She set the Ivy League’s single-game scoring mark last month with a 45-point outing against Columbia, and in the process became the only Princeton player other than Bill Bradley to score at least 45.
Entering this weekend’s Ivy League tournament at Yale, Alarie was averaging 23.0 points and 10.7 rebounds a game, and shooting 51 percent from the field, with range extending beyond the arc.
On the defensive end, according to Synergy Sports data, she was allowing opponents 0.564 points per possession, which ranked her 36th in the country among 2,231 Division I players with at least 100 defensive possessions.
Accordingly, Princeton was 2-7 without her. Entering the weekend, the Tigers were 20-2 with Alarie. Unfortunately for opponents, after she broke her right arm she spent her recovery time working aggressively on going to her left, making her even harder to stop.
While W.N.B.A. teams cannot comment on Alarie publicly, scouts and executives are tracking her. As one put it: “She’s on radars.” They have let her coach know it, too.
“I talk to W.N.B.A. coaches all the time about her,” Banghart said. “So certainly, she’s no secret to the W.N.B.A.”
Princeton’s program has generated other pro talent. Blake Dietrick, the Ivy League player of the year in 2014-15, went on to play for the Atlanta Dream last season. Leslie Robinson, whose father, Craig, was a two-time player of the year at Princeton in the early 1980s, was drafted by the Liberty in the third round of last season’s W.N.B.A. draft.
Dietrick credited the success of the program as a whole. “I would not have had nearly as much W.N.B.A. interest were it not for the success of my team and our 30-0 season,” she said, referring to Princeton’s regular-season record in 2014-15. But she also credited her coaches for working to improve the players within the team context and with an eye on long-term success.
To Banghart, it was no different from the way she would treat any other high-achieving Princeton student.
“If someone’s interested in finance, I connect them to the people they think they can learn from,” Banghart said. “With Bella, it’s the same thing. The more positionless she can be, the better she can be. There’s an eye on helping her at Princeton, and there’s an eye on being the best pro she can be at what she chooses. So I’m thinking big picture with her because she deserves it. She’s earned it.”
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