Greenberg: Angel Reese is ready for the spotlight, but ‘I’m not going to take this for granted’

Greenberg: Angel Reese is ready for the spotlight, but ‘I’m not going to take this for granted’

DEERFIELD, Ill. — A former college athlete who captured the imagination of fans and stirred up a little controversy just by showing some personality was introduced in the Chicago area this week.

A champion of the NIL age, where college athletes can now rightly make millions off their own name, image and likeness.

A charismatic young star-in-waiting from the D.C./Baltimore area drafted by a needy Chicago team, ready to bask in the spotlight of one of America’s great sporting cities.

That’s right, I’m talking about Angel Reese, the newest rookie for the Chicago Sky.

Who did you think I meant, that quarterback? C’mon. Reese won a national championship.

The former LSU star arrived in the suburbs of Chicago on Wednesday, a day before the Bears prepared to draft former USC quarterback Caleb Williams with the No. 1 pick, and nine days after she was picked No. 7 in the WNBA Draft.

While Williams, the former Heisman winner, will get introduced (presumably Friday) in a packed auditorium with a dozen cameras at Halas Hall in Lake Forest, Reese made a quieter entrance at the more humble Sachs Recreation Center, 10 miles south of where the Bears roam and about 30 miles north of Wintrust Arena, where the Sky play.

It wasn’t much of a scene, just a table and a backdrop in the middle of a basketball court at a suburban park district-owned rec center. At least the Sky have a recent championship banner to hang, unlike the “Hey, remember 1985” Bears.

Angel Reese met the media at the Chicago Sky’s practice facility Wednesday. (Jon Greenberg / The Athletic)

While the city’s sporting attention was downtown where the Bears and Mayor Brandon Johnson were giving a presentation about a potential new stadium on the museum campus, there were just 10 reporters in the audience along with four TV cameras.

No, Reese isn’t in Baton Rouge any longer. And the media attention from the record-setting NCAA Tournament is gone.

So in that way, it was an inauspicious introduction for a star of Reese’s magnitude. The former national champion and self-described “Bayou Barbie” is already one of the most famous players in the WNBA before even officially making the team, and in terms of name recognition, she’s the second-biggest star in a star-studded draft class. She will make serious bank from her endorsement deals and immediately joins Williams and the Blackhawks’ Connor Bedard as the young stars of a sports-mad city.

But first, she arrived in Deerfield.

While the Sky’s practice facility isn’t impressive (the full media day will be held downtown at Wintrust Arena), Reese won’t be the most famous person to practice on the court at the Sachs Center. After all, Candace Parker just played for the Sky for two seasons. And long before that, Michael Jordan and the Bulls practiced there when it was the private Multiplex club.

But the contrast between LSU’s basketball facility, which opened in 2010, and the Sachs Center has to be a “Welcome to the WNBA” eye-opener for Reese. She didn’t show it Wednesday. After wowing everyone with her style at the WNBA Draft, she showed up in sweatpants and a sweatshirt, with a smile on her face and plenty to say.

In 20 minutes of normally bland press conference time, I could see why brands and companies will line up to do business with her. She’s got a spark, but now she has to prove she’s worth the attention in the WNBA. While players like Reese and Clark are expected to bring in new fans to the league, these players are well-familiar with how difficult the actual work on the floor is, especially for rookies.

“I haven’t even made the team yet, obviously,” Reese said.

Wait, what? The franchise has cut first-round picks before, like every other WNBA franchise in a compact league, but really? Reese’s jersey quickly sold out and the Sky dropped new T-shirts with her face on them Wednesday.

“Oh, no, there’s always a concern,” she said. “Nobody’s guaranteed. I don’t want to go into the league thinking that I’m automatically on a team because I’m not. Anybody can get cut any given day. We have amazing vets on our team, and I know they’re going to push me every day to get me better every day. So there’s no given spot. And I don’t take this moment for granted. I need to go out there and earn my spot, and that’s just what I’m about.”

Needless to say, Williams isn’t worried about Tyson Bagent stealing his job with the Bears. But life is different in the WNBA.

Though Reese is a shoo-in for a roster spot, she will to have expand her game for the pros, just as Williams will learn how to play quarterback in the NFL. She starred in college with a low-post game that added up to averages of 18.6 points and 12.3 rebounds. In LSU’s Elite Eight loss to Iowa this year, she has 17 points and 20 boards, but she was hampered by an ankle injury and eventually fouled out. The year before, she put up 15 and 10 in the national championship win over Clark and the Hawkeyes. Of course, everyone remembers her talking-trash. It was quite a narrative.

With new coach Teresa Witherspoon, the Sky made a commitment to the interior by drafting Kamilla Cardoso at No. 3 and trading up before the draft to be in position to snag Reese.

Will Angel Reese’s game translate to the WNBA? (Gregory Fisher / USA Today)

Physically, Reese will be able to handle the league, but she’s going to need to expand her offensive repertoire. She took just 32 3-pointers in four years, making just five and she’s a career 70 percent free-throw shooter.

“Just being able to be the kind of player I was coming out of high school, I was more of a wing,” she said of her plans. “So being able to transfer back into that and honestly, I’m a great defender and defense leads to offense. I know if my offensive game isn’t going, I can get going on defense. So being able to rebound, being able to guard all five positions is something I really look forward to doing.”

But more than that, the Sky need her (and Cardoso) to give them a little star power. They had it recently with Parker, Courtney Vandersloot and the 2021 championship team, but the attention quickly went away. It’s tough for the Sky to carve out a space in Chicago in the summer. We have two baseball teams (even if one is historically awful) and the Bears season kicks off when training camp opens at the end of July. It’s been difficult for any sports team (outside of the main four leagues) to gain a foothold in this market. Sky players have to do their part too. I don’t think that’ll be a problem with Reese, who has struggled personally in the spotlight, but also shined.

As one moonlighting Bulls reporter pointed out to Reese on Wednesday, the NBA prospered in the 1980s because of the players sho transcended their teams. With players like her and Clark joining established stars in the WNBA, the time is now for it to make a leap into must-see TV. The draft broke ratings record, as did seemingly every big women’s game this season, especially the ones with Clark. (Her Indiana Fever shirsey is available at the Dick’s Sporting Goods near the Sachs Center as part of a national marketing deal.)

For the Sky, they need a young star like Reese who is going to stick around for a while to really market the franchise to casual fans, as well as keep the diehards.

“I think it was a really historic class and being able to change things going into the right direction is really important,” she said. “I think, our impact and the platform that we had, we’ve used at a great level and I think it’s really inspiring to so many people right now. So I think we’re at a great point. And I think us continuing to do what we do and perform not just off the court and be who we are off the court, but on the court as well, I think (the WNBA) is going to continue to grow.”

But before she can help change the WNBA and become a global basketball icon, Angel Reese has to officially make the Sky. Practices at the Sachs Center, far from the limelight, starts soon.

“Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity,” she said. “I’m not going to take this for granted.”

(Photo of Angel Reese: Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

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