They are opposite sides of the same sterling coin, two of the best female point guards ever to perform in the ACC.
North Carolina’s Ivory Latta was ACC women’s player of the year in 2006, ending a run of six straight Blue Devils winning the honor. Lindsey Harding got the award back for Duke in 2007.
Latta arrived in college a star and remained a star, helping UNC reach the past two Final Fours. Harding played a subordinate role behind the likes of Alana Beard and Monique Currie, survived a year’s suspension, and found stardom as a senior. Both were selected in the first round of April’s 2007 WNBA draft, held immediately following the conclusion of the women’s Final Four. (Wouldn’t men’s coaches love that arrangement!)
That’s when the rookies’ career paths diverged dramatically.
Latta was drafted a disappointing 11th, haunted perhaps by a knee injury suffered in the 2006 Final Four. She went to the Detroit Shock, the defending WNBA champions, and immediately took a seat on the bench.
Three of Latta’s teammates were starters in the July 15 All-Star game, including guard Deanna Nolan, whom Latta says is “by far the fastest player in the league.” That’s no small praise coming from the fleet Latta. Nolan and playmaker Katie Smith are considered in some quarters the best backcourt in the WNBA. “They’re definitely smart and they still can play ball,” Latta says. “I’m just trying to learn.”
And while her older teammates teach by doing, helping the Shock build the best record in the WNBA, Latta watches. She averages under five minutes per outing, 10th on the squad. If she has carved a niche, it’s by taking 30 of her first 42 shots from 3-point range.
Latta played a total of 39 minutes in Detroit’s first 15 contests. “I averaged that in college, per game,” she laments. (Not far off; she averaged 32.5.) Asked what she must do in order to get more playing time, Latta admits, “That’s a good question. That’s definitely a great question.”
Latta should not have to wonder for long. Three of the other four guards are in their 30s. “Where I got placed in the draft and going to this team, I kind of figured something like this was going to happen,” says the South Carolina native. “I’m just being patient.”
Harding, in contrast, got off to a roaring start as a pro. Selected first in the draft and quickly traded to lowly Minnesota, the WNBA’s youngest squad, she became an instant fixture in the Lynx lineup.
The 5-8 playmaker started each of the first 20 games, directing a squad that lost nine of its first 10 and is currently 7-20, worst in the league. “When you draft players at number one, you expect to throw them into the fire,” coach Don Zierden said.
As the All-Star break approached, Harding led WNBA rookies in scoring (11.7 points) and assists (4.9), was second in rebounding (4.4), and third in steals (1.0). Only Seimone Augustus, the 2006 rookie of the year and an All-Star this season, saw more playing time for Minnesota than did Harding. “It’s a challenge trying to rush experience,” Harding says. “I’m able to learn and play as well.”
One place Harding did not prosper was at the foul line; her free throw accuracy (.679) was down from her career conversion rate at Duke (.739). That led a questioner to wonder whether she was affected by, razzed for, or asked about the free throws she stunningly missed in an NCAA loss to Rutgers that ended her college career and top-ranked Duke’s season. “You are the first,” Harding said, a chill in her voice. “No one really has mentioned it at all.”
Harding enjoyed more pleasant mention as the leading candidate for rookie of the year. “OK,” she said, acting surprised to hear that was the case. “That’s pretty cool. But there’s a lot of playing time left. A lot.”
Harding’s season end on July 10 with a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in her left knee while playing against Beard’s Washington Mystics. Ten days later, the former Texas prep track star underwent successful surgery at Duke. She is expected to make a full recovery within nine months.
Selection as the recipient of the “Mary Garber Award” as the ACC’s 2007 female athlete of the year within days of the operation had to be bittersweet consolation.
Meanwhile Latta’s team, too, was hit with a major injury. Forward Cheryl Ford, the MVP of the All-Star game, was recently lost for the year due to a chronic knee problem. The Shock hasn’t broken stride, streaking toward the playoffs that begin in three weeks.
The injury to Ford has not affected Latta’s playing time, either. Detroit did get extra mileage out of the effervescent rookie by auctioning off a chance to play against her in a game of “HORSE”. Latta did not know what to expect, other than, “if you lose, you know you’re definitely going to hear about it.”
Aaron Dubester, 27, drove nearly nine hours to make good on his $450 on-line bid. Despite heckling from Detroit coach Bill Laimbeer and two assistants, and the fact he did not even play high school ball, Dubester won two out of three games against Latta.
“I was definitely looking forward to it,” Latta told Ryan Pretzer of detroitshock.com. “I’m just a little down right now.” The writer added that this was said “tongue in cheek.” He obviously does not know Latta, who burns not just to compete but to win.