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Front Page - Friday, April 22, 2022

‘Probably one of the best days of my life’

Lady Vols’ Burrell thrilled with No.9 WNBA selection

Sparks coach Derek Fisher says Burrell is the player his organization wanted. “Specifically with Rae, it’s who we circled and watched all four years at Tennessee.” - Ian Cox | Tennessee Athletics/UTsports.com

The obvious storyline came into everyone’s mind as the pick approached: The Las Vegas native drafted by the hometown Las Vegas Aces to play in front of family and friends.

Instead, the Aces opted for another player at No. 8, but Rae Burrell, who calls Las Vegas home, didn’t have to wait much longer to hear her name called.

The Los Angeles Sparks drafted the University of Tennessee guard with the No. 9 pick in last week’s WNBA draft.

“It’s probably one of the best days of my life,” says Burrell, one of 12 players invited to New York to attend the draft in person. “My heart was beating almost out of my chest. I was trying to focus on my breathing because I didn’t want to freak out. I was just overwhelmed with joy and happiness that my name was called.

“I just feel so blessed to be in this position.”

Burrell is the 44th Lady Vols player to be drafted and the 19th first-round selection. She is the second consecutive No. 9 selection for UT head coach Kellie Harper after Rennia Davis was taken by the Minnesota Lynx at the same spot in 2021.

Burrell was the only UT player drafted this year, but Alexus Dye signed a training camp contract with the Connecticut Sun to compete for a roster spot in a league that only has 144 total players.

Last year, 16 of the 36 draft picks were waived before the season even started, and six more were waived or released shortly after the season started.

The 6-foot-1 Burrell entered the season as a high draft prospect, but suffered a knee injury in the opener that sidelined her for 12 games.

Burrell worked her way back and finished the season averaging 12.3 points and 3.9 rebounds. She played her best basketball down the stretch, averaging 16.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.2 assists over UT’s last five games.

Burrell spoke with Sparks head coach and GM Derek Fisher before the draft about her potential role with the team.

The Sparks were looking for a versatile rookie wing player to complement their returning players and recent offseason acquisitions.

“Specifically with Rae, it’s who we circled and watched all four years at Tennessee,” says Fisher, an 18-year NBA player and five-time champion with the Lakers. “You never know on draft night if the player you had circled the whole time, you’re going to have the opportunity to draft but we are excited that that’s how it worked out.”

Fisher adds the Sparks coaching staff has already spent hours strategizing how Burrell’s offensive skill set and length on defense can improve the team.

“We prioritize length and versatility and being able to impact the game, playing multiple positions on each side of the basketball this entire offseason. Rae is really, really a player that we think going forward can help us in that regard.”

“Her shooting, her size, and being able to also handle the basketball with that type of length is a positive thing and defensively as well, being able to guard multiple positions.”

The Sparks weren’t concerned about Burrell’s injury impacting her in the WNBA. Burrell won’t be asked to shoulder a heavy load in L.A. with teammates like Liz Cambage, Jordin Canada, Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike and Chennedy Carter.

“With the way our roster is constructed right now and what our plans are going forward, she doesn’t have to come in and (help) carry a program the way she had to this year, especially when one of her teammates went down with an injury and that increased Rae’s usage and workload,” Fisher says.

“So, we’re confident that she’s going to be able to get back to a great place in terms of health and be a contributor for us this year as well as for years to come.”

Burrell got a chance to meet her future teammate and Sparks captain Nneka Ogwumike in New York during a meet-and-greet for the rookies with the WNBA Players’ Association.

Burrell views her role as more than just producing numbers on a stat sheet.

“I envision myself on and off the court as an energy booster,” she points out. “I want to bring a lot of energy and youth to the team. There’s already a lot of good youth, but I want to add to that and bring some grit to the team, as well.”

Burrell is heading to the franchise that drafted Lady Vols legend Candace Parker No. 1 overall in 2008. Parker helped the Sparks capture the 2016 WNBA championship and led the Chicago Sky to their first WNBA title last season.

The Lady Vols legacy is one Burrell has always valued and hopes to prolong in the pros.

“Candace, she came in and had an immediate impact and changed the game for them,” Burrell says. “I hope to do the same thing, just come in and come with that same grit and grind that she did, and to be half the player that she is.”

Burrell, despite the connection to Las Vegas, says she’s happy to make L.A. her new home away from home, much like she did in Knoxville.