Recent WNBA coaching hires set a standard for league’s future

Including the Dream’s hire of Tanisha Wright in October, eight of the WNBA’s 12 head-coaching positions are filled by women. Six are former players in the league.

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After the 2021 season, Breanna Stewart predicted the WNBA’s free-agency -period would be the most thrilling since the league and the players’ union agreed to a new collective-bargaining agreement in 2020.

Stewart didn’t factor in the bombshell coaching hires that would take place before a free agent agreed to a contract.

The offseason conversations shifted from free agency to coaching vacancies when the Liberty announced they were parting ways with Walt Hopkins on Dec. 6. Later that day, the Mercury announced they weren’t renewing Sandy Brondello’s contract.

Before the month was up, the Aces took center stage with the league-shifting hire of Spurs assistant and six-time WNBA All-Star Becky Hammon. Within a week, the Liberty announced Brondello as their new coach. Three weeks later, former Aces assistant Vanessa Nygaard was named the coach of the Mercury.

Including the Dream’s hire of Tanisha Wright in October, eight of the WNBA’s 12 head-coaching positions are filled by women. Six are former players in the league.

The significance is considerable, especially when comparing it to 2020, when there were only four women in head-coaching positions and zero Black women.

This week, the Sky added to the coaching hires made this offseason when they announced Ann Wauters would join Tonya Edwards and Emre Vatansever on coach James Wade’s bench.

‘‘The diversity is necessary,’’ Wauters said. ‘‘Not only in the sports world, but in the world entirely. The sports world can always be a bit of a role model.’’

Wauters ended her playing career after the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

After retiring, she thought she would take some time away from the game to focus on her family and her career as a keynote speaker. That was until an old friend called with an offer she said was too good to pass up.

Growing up in Belgium, Wauters watched Michael Jordan highlights and dreamed about playing like him. She remembers commercials for the WNBA being played in Belgium when the league first was established.

Seeing Lisa Leslie and Sheryl Swoopes on TV had a significant impact on her view of how a basketball career looked. In 2000, she was selected No. 1 in the WNBA Draft, becoming the youngest player in the league at the time.

‘‘My daughter doesn’t even question [whether it’s possible to play pro basketball],’’ Wauters said. ‘‘Those things have evolved, and it has a lot to do with the WNBA.’’

Wauters and Wade have known each other for roughly 20 years. They first met when Wauters played with Edwige Lawson-Wade, Wade’s wife, in France early in her career and again in the WNBA with the Stars in 2008. That was the same year she crossed paths with Candace Parker.

Parker helped lead the Sparks to the Western Conference finals in her rookie season before being sent home by Wauters, Lawson-Wade and the Stars. Wauters and Parker eventually became teammates in Russia, playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg, and teamed up again to win the WNBA title with the Sparks in 2016.

When Wade called Wauters in late December, she felt an immediate desire to pursue the opportunity with the Sky.

‘‘Knowing that Candace is going to be there and [Courtney] Vandersloot will probably be back, I’ve played with those players,’’ Wauters said. ‘‘I was telling my wife: ‘This situation is too perfect to be true. I have to grab that opportunity with two hands.’ ’’

The Sky currently have four players under contract: Parker, Azura Stevens, Dana Evans and Ruthy Hebard. Entering the 2022 season, Wauters said she’s looking forward to working with the Sky’s frontcourt players, specifically Parker and Stevens. After seeing Stevens play, Wauters said she thinks there is a lot of potential in her game.

Wauters already has begun meeting with Wade, Edwards and Vatansever to get to know one another and communicate about free agency. For the next three months, Wauters said she will be focused on learning.

Her approach toward everything — from the way she watches tape to scouting reports — has to change from the lens of a player to that of a coach.

‘‘Winning a WNBA championship means a lot,’’ Wauters said. ‘‘Now I can tell you [the Sky] are hungry for more. I know it. Once you taste it, you’d like to taste it again.’’

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