Rising Star on the Sun

June 30, 2011


Rishon LeZion, Israel is a long way away from eastern Connecticut, but that’s just the long and winding journey that former Kansas women’s basketball standout Danielle McCray took to her WNBA debut earlier this month.

McCray who was drafted by the Connecticut franchise in the first round of the 2010 WNBA draft, played an entire season overseas in Israel to help her rebound from an ACL injury she suffered during her senior year at KU.

In a game that was nearly 365 days in the making, McCray took the court at Mohegan Sun Arena on June 4 with 3:16 left in the first quarter and her team leading by a slim three-point margin over the visiting Washington Mystics.

“I was pretty excited, but I had to keep that excitement down a bit because I had to go in and focus,” McCray remembered.

With her nerves in check, the Olathe, Kan., product would have the first points of her WNBA career only about a minute later as she sank a three to put her team up six. Fast forward to the end of the night and McCray had a total of 14 points, two assists and a steal in 14 minutes of play during her team’s 89-73 win.

“I was just ready to go after it and was not really surprised at all by my performance,” McCray said. “That is because I prepared myself well enough to go out there and get the job done. Right now it is all about producing when my name is called because my role is to go out there and make a difference on the court.”

One place McCray has already made a difference is on the historic hardwood of Allen Fieldhouse, where fans at the Phog saw her sink 1,934 career points, fourth most in program history.

McCray’s coach at KU, Bonnie Henrickson, knows what the 5-foot-11 guard is capable of and is trying to stress to her former players the importance of patience.

“There may be stretches for her where she is not on the floor as much,” Henrickson said of McCray’s professional career. “But she is a young lady who has so much pride in what she is doing, and takes a great amount of responsibility toward her game and her body. Ultimately, the maturity she has will help her tremendously.”

That maturity also translates to McCray’s life off of the court.

“We have games back-to-back sometimes, so you really have to learn how to keep your body right and eat smart because you are on your own,” she said. “You can go out and spend time with your friends, but when the bus leaves for shoot-around, you have to have your food ready to go.”

What will also help the WNBA rookie a great deal is what she learned while suited up in the Crimson and Blue during her four-year career at KU.

“I really learned a lot about preparing to play at the next level,” she said. “Being a go-to player at Kansas helped me become more versatile and do different things. Whatever teams throw at me in the WNBA, I feel I am ready because I have handled it before.”

“Danielle was one of the first players, that I had that always wanted the ball,” Henrickson remembered. “In crunch situations, she always wanted the opportunity because she was just very comfortable in that role, so I think that really helped her.”

Sometimes, it is even the challenges her own team throws at her that McCray has to tackle. Such as not starting and having to make up for lost time out on the court, something she was not used to while playing at Kansas.

“I talked to her the other day and she said, ‘Coach, I am getting ready to do my game card,'” Henrickson said. “That is the same thing we do here (at Kansas) if you do not play a certain amount of minutes.”

“She told me, ‘When you are younger it is hard to understand, but now that it is my job, I have to keep my body right and get in that extra cardio if I am not playing a certain amount of minutes,'” McCray’s former coach remembers from their conversation. “As you can see, there are a lot of things that we do (here at Kansas) that translate to the next level.”

When it came to McCray’s biggest challenge of all, the one-time All-America Honorable Mention honoree took playing overseas and not in the WNBA in stride, and she used it as an important learning experience.

“I really learned a lot about how the game is played at a different level,” she said. “I played against some WNBA girls while I was over there, so that definitely helped me.”

Still, the seventh overall pick of the 2010 WNBA Draft had to get adjusted to life not playing in the WNBA straight out of college.

“It was very frustrating because I missed out on a lot of opportunities, but I am very thankful for the position I am in right now,” she said. “It was a blessing to still get drafted while being hurt. I did take a longer route, but it has taught me to not take anything for granted.”

Now healthy and playing on a regular basis, the sky is the limit for one of the legendary players to come through the Jayhawk women’s basketball program.

Through her team’s first eight games, McCray has averaged 2.8 points to go along with her 1.90 rebounds and one assist per game in just under 10 minutes per contest. Her 14 points on opening night remains her season high.

As for how long McCray sees herself playing professionally, she cites getting back to the basics as an important factor.

“I could see myself playing for a total of 12-13 years, something in that range,” McCray said. “It really is all about your body and how you keep it healthy. You only have one, so whatever you put in it is going to help you keep it going.”

For Danielle McCray, the difference between a long and prosperous professional career and a short one may come down to in large part what she has learned on and off the court while playing at Kansas. Whether it is a double-team assignment from an opposing team, or simply what to put on her plate during the breakfast buffet, McCray will not get flustered because after all, she has seen and done most of it all before, during her four-year tenure in Lawrence as a Kansas Jayhawk.