One of B.C’s brightest basketball stars is paving the way for Canadians after making her WNBA debut early this season.
Nayo Raincock–Ekunwe’s dreams came true in April of this year when she signed a training contract with the New York Liberty. After making the team’s twelve-player roster for the 2017 WNBA season, she proudly sported the number four in the team’s last pre-season game against the Connecticut Sun.
“It’s pretty cut throat,” Raincock–Ekunwe said of the league, “on any given day, on any given week you could get cut and be replaced by countless number of women that are here.”
Despite being the only first-year player to make the Liberty roster, a team ranked 2nd in the Eastern Conference, the 26 year-old hasn’t slowed down. After seeing 25 minutes on the floor in her first game, and pulling down seven rebounds, she’s labeled herself as a contributing player from the beginning.
Flash forward to the end of June and the rookie is averaging 11 minutes per game in the regular season. “It’s about getting in the gym with coaches every other day,” she said, “working and performing in practice is where I can really show the coaches that I can play at this level.”
Many B.C basketball fans know Raincock–Ekunwe from her time at Simon Fraser University. In her senior year she was recognized as the Great Northwest Athletic Conference Player of the Year and NCAA All- American First Team. Her stand-out season featured an average of 16.8 points per game and 12.4 rebounds.
But even with her jersey, from the 2012-13 year, when she led SFU to the NCAA Division II Sweet 16, being hung in the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, it wasn’t enough to get her a professional contract in the WNBA when she left university.
“Going to school in Canada it’s really difficult to get into a WNBA training camp,” she said of her experience, “it’s unfortunate but true, so I put that aside and played in Europe.”
Since 2014, she has played professionally in Switzerland, Germany, France, and Australia. On an international level she has made a name for herself by helping Team Canada capture gold at both the 2015 FIBA Americas Championship and on home-soil at the 2015 Pan Am Games. She was also a member of Team Canada when they placed seventh at the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“I am really grateful that I could develop as a player in Europe before the WNBA,” she said, “in the States they’re playing a very high level of basketball 7 days a week, so for me it was very beneficial to play in Europe first.”
In Europe the leagues are very fast, “quick plays, and quick shots,” she said of her time overseas. The biggest difference she said coming back to North America was the physicality of the game, “it’s still a very fast game, but you’re getting banged around”.
Standing at 6’2, Nayo has always played the postpositions, “overseas I was playing as a four or five, in Australia every team has one very big post.” In the United States however, it’s a different story. “In the WNBA every team has three or four big, big women,” and for the New York Liberty, those women are Kiah Stokes, Kia Vaughn, and Amanda Zahui B, all of whom play center and stand at 6’3, 6’4, and 6’5, respectively.
The difference in player size at the WNBA level meant that Raincock–Ekunwe would have to give up her position as post. “It’s been an interesting transition”, she said of her shift to playing forward, “it’s taken a few years to get confident in my outside shot, but the biggest challenge has definitely been in gaining confidence in my ability to shoot a wide range shot, and ball handling.”
Part of her challenge in making the transition is due to her time playing in Canada, “if you’re a taller girl [in Canada], they’re going to put you in the post and have you work on your drop step,” she said, but in the States it’s a different story, “everyone can jump, everyone can run the floor, and everyone can play.”
Her advice to girls stems from her recent experience, “don’t limit yourself to one position because you never know what you’ll need in the future.” She’s talking to both guards and post players when she says that, “the game is changing and versatile players who can play two or three positions are really what coaches are looking for these days.”
What’s next for Raincock–Ekunwe? Well she’s got Tokyo 2020 as her goal.
June 4, 2017: The New York Liberty vs the Phoenix Mercury at Madison Square Garden in New York City. (MSG Photo Services)
Written by: Sarah Reid