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Sports

UNC's Watts, Wake Forest's Raca Picked By LA Sparks In WNBA Draft

UNC's Stephanie Watts scored 29 points in the Tar Heels NCAA tournament loss to Alabama on March 22.
Dana Gentry
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UNC ATHLETIC COMMUNICATIONS
UNC's Stephanie Watts scored 29 points in the Tar Heels NCAA tournament loss to Alabama on March 22.

Like the Notorious B.I.G., Stephanie Watts is going back to Cali.

Before returning to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill last fall, Watts had a short stint playing basketball in southern California at USC. This past season ― starring for Courtney Banghart’s Tar Heels after transferring back ― she averaged 12.1 points per-game and helped lead UNC back to the NCAA tournament.

And now Watts is headed back to the west coast. Thursday night, the Los Angeles Sparks made the 24-year-old guard the 10th overall pick in the WNBA Draft.

Watts is the 21st ever Tar Heel to be drafted into the WNBA and the third player coached by Banghart to hear her name called on draft night.

On Thursday, she was the first player from the ACC to be drafted, ahead of Louisville’s Dana Evans, who was the conference’s Player of the Year. A versatile 5-foot-11 talent, Watts should give the Sparks a boost on both ends of the floor.

When asked what qualities of Watts impressed him, Sparks head coach and general manager Derek Fisher cited “her skillset, her length, her activity, her personality and her mindset.”

“I think my dream was to go back to LA. I had talked to Coach Fisher a lot and we had really good conversations. I’m just overwhelmed and so excited,” Watts said. “It means more than I can explain… A lot of people counted me out… I like when people sleep on me because I know me and I know what I can do.”

A native of Wesley Chapel, N.C., Watts spent four seasons playing with the Tar Heels, stretched out over six seasons. She was the ACC Freshman of the Year in 2016 and an All-ACC Second Team selection. As a sophomore, she set an ACC single-game record with 10 made three-pointers. After sitting out the 2017-18 season with an injury, she returned as a redshirt junior to average 15.2 points per-game.

And then, around the time longtime head coach Sylvia Hatchell resigned, Watts left the program and transferred to USC. Her time with the Trojans was short-lived though, as her season was ended by an injury just four games into the 2019-20 season.

Watts was granted an extra year of eligibility and returned to UNC this past season. Her 40 steals were third-best in the ACC and she also averaged 5.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per-game. She leaves UNC having connected on 275 three-pointers, which is eighth-best all-time in the ACC.

In Watts’ final game as a Tar Heel, she had 29 points, three rebounds and three assists in an NCAA tournament loss to Alabama.

“Most players on the women’s side have been through injuries at the collegiate level or in high school, and they have to learn how to bounce back from really difficult things at early ages. And Stephanie is one of those people,” Fisher added. “We feel like, even though she’s a first-year player, she’s a grown woman. She can come in and handle the responsibilities that come with being a pro.”

Joining Watts with the Sparks will be a familiar face in Wake Forest forward Ivana Raca, who was selected in the third round with the 28th overall pick. Rather than ACC rivals, the two will now be teammates.

Wake Forest forward Ivana Raca prepares to play against UNC
Mitchell Northam
Wake Forest forward Ivana Raca prepares to play against UNC in the 2020 ACC tournament in Greensboro. Raca was selected 28th overall by the LA Sparks in the 2021 WNBA Draft.

A 6-foot-2 forward from Serbia, Raca helped the Demon Deacons make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1988 this past season, averaging 16.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 1.7 assists per-game along the way. Raca is a two-time All-ACC selection and has featured for her country’s national team.

She leaves Wake Forest ranking ninth all-time in program history in scoring and 10th all-time in rebounding.

Raca tweeted Thursday, "Wow. Dreams do come true," after being drafted.

"Ivana has put in an immense amount of work to get to this point in her career," Wake Forest head coach Jen Hoover said. "I have no doubt she will be successful at the next level."

The Sparks also selected Alabama’s Jasmine Walker, Arella Guirantes of Rutgers, and Aina Ayuso from Spain. UNC’s Janelle Bailey and Petra Holešínká were not selected.

Training camps for the WNBA open on April 25 and the season begins with a 32-game schedule on May 14. The Sparks finished 15-7 last season.

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