Having Grown Into a Force for PU Women’s Hoops, Alarie Aiming to Make Impact for the WNBA’s Wings
WINGING IT: Bella Alarie depicted in the uniform of the Dallas Wings of the WNBA. After a superb senior season for the Princeton University women’s basketball team which saw Alarie help the Tigers go 26-1, she was chosen by the Wings as the fifth pick in the first round of the 2020 WNBA Draft in mid-April. (Photo by Jarrod Allison/Dallas Wings)
By Justin Feil
Bella Alarie woke up on April 17 and tried to go about her usual day with breakfast at her home in Bethesda, Md., time with her parents and two younger brothers, and some academic work.
Although her thesis was due in just one week, it wasn’t foremost on the mind of the Princeton University senior star forward who by that midday was feeling anxious about the upcoming WNBA draft.
“It was definitely not a productive thesis day,” said Alarie. “It was very hectic and there was a lot to get done. I had my family to help me out and get ready. I was so excited for 7 o’clock to come, I felt like it was taking so long and the day was going so slow. I was so excited when it got to 7 o’clock. It was a lot of mixed emotions honestly with excitement and nerves and all that. The whole day, it wasn’t exactly what I imagined my draft day would look like, but all the emotions I would have felt on a stage in New York, they were all the same.”
Alarie was thrilled to be chosen fifth overall by the Dallas Wings, matching the highest selection ever of an Ivy League player, equaling that of Harvard’s Allison Feaster, who was picked fifth by the Los Angeles Sparks 22 years earlier.
“I’m super proud of myself and happy; that’s a huge accomplishment,” said Alarie.
“I’m really grateful that I was selected that high and they believed in me. And to come out of the Ivy League, there haven’t been a lot, but I do have great players to look up to from Princeton like Leslie Robinson and Blake Dietrich who have had WNBA experience. It’s a huge honor. I definitely take it seriously because I do want to represent Princeton and the Ivy League as best I can and it’s been like 20 years since we’ve had a first-round pick out of our league. I have a lot of honor and pride and I want to make the most of it. It’s really special and it’s a testament to all the coaches and teammates and all the development and time they put into making me better. You can’t do it alone.”
Although Alarie developed into an historic pick while at Princeton, she did not have the WNBA in mind when she entered college as the 83rd-ranked high school senior out of National Cathedral School. She will graduate as the Princeton program’s all-time leading scorer, (1,703) its leader in blocked shots (249), and in double-doubles (40). She averaged 17.5 points and 8.6 rebounds per game this year.
“Coming out of high school, I was pretty under-recruited and underestimated as a player,” said Alarie.
“Obviously I had a lot of growth over the last four years and transformed myself as a player physically and added more skills. Being at Princeton, which is often underestimated nationally as a mid-major school, we have trouble moving up in the top 25 just because of the league we’re from, it’s really special that I was able to get picked so high in the WNBA draft. It shows there are great players in this league and there’s great competition.”
Over her college career, Alarie dominated the Ivies, leading the Tigers to three straight Ivy League championships. She burst onto the scene as the Ivy Rookie of the Year, then won three straight Ivy Player of the Year awards. She is the first Ivy player to be two-time All-America.
“I was really, really happy for Bella,” said Princeton head coach Carla Berube.
“I know she’s put in a lot of work on her game and to see it sort of play out the way it did was just awesome. She had an incredible four-year career at Princeton, in the Ivy League, and as a part of USA basketball. I’m really, really happy for her to have been a top-five draft pick in what came to be a really deep and strong draft class.”
To rise to that level, Alarie had to augment her game. A guard when she began high school, she grew nine inches before coming to Princeton. She retained guard skills, but then-Tigers head coach Courtney Banghart helped her build up her post game and focused on increasing Alarie’s strength — two developments that helped to push her to a new level.
“That chip on your shoulder makes you work harder,” said Alarie.
“If I had come out of high school with a higher ranking, who’s to say that would have made me less motivated, I think I would have still been motivated, but it does give you that little extra edge to work harder and prove those rankings wrong. At the end of the day, you can go to Princeton and also be a first-round draft pick. I think that’s really special.”
Making the U-19 USA women’s team following her first collegiate season gave Alarie a big boost of confidence. That selection helped to put pro basketball on her radar for the first time and had scouts looking at her.
“I remember having a conversation with Coach Banghart after my freshman year,” said Alarie.
“I had gotten to play on that U-19 USA team and had a lot of experience with a lot of the girls who were also picked in the draft this year, which is cool. She said, you’re actually generating a lot of interest from the WNBA, you have great skills, you have these things to work on but you’re a really interesting prospect. Hearing that made me believe it could be real. Obviously there was a lot of work to be done. That’s when it became a more realistic dream to me.”
By the time that Berube took over Princeton this year, Alarie was a seasoned, confident player and the new coach inherited a leader who wasn’t shying away from the loftiest of career goals.
“I had heard a lot about her and I knew her through USA Basketball,” said Berube, who saw Alarie up close for the first time when she played against Berube’s U-17 team two years ago.
“The greatest piece that I saw was just, one, her level of maturity and leadership and the work ethic she brought every day. She has a unique ability to inspire those around her to play at a really high level and also her teammates want to follow her, as a student and as an athlete and a leader in the community. There were days where she just dominated practice. It was fun just to watch what she was capable of doing and dominate in a lot of different ways – from the 3, from not being able to defend her inside, defensively she could change possessions and you could see it in games. It was fun to see that all play out this year.”
REACHING NEW HEIGHTS: Bella Alarie goes up for a shot in action this past winter during her final campaign for the Princeton University women’s basketball team. Star forward Alarie averaged 17.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 2.4 blocks, and 2.3 assists in in 2019-20, earning her third Ivy League Player of the Year Award, and became the first Ivy player to be honored with two Associated Press All-American selections as the Tigers won the league title. In her career, Alarie, a 6’4 native of Bethesda, Md., ranks first in program history in points (1,703), blocks (249), and double-doubles (40). (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)
Turning Heads in Texas
The Wings were among the WNBA teams that came to see Alarie in action beginning in her junior year. They kept close tabs on her development over her final two years as they prepared for this year’s draft.
“We saw her plenty,” said Greg Bibb, the Wings CEO and president. “The unique thing about our league is you don’t have a lot of opportunity to talk to the player directly before the draft, but we had a couple really good conversations with her, had an opportunity to talk to her family. The dad (former NBA player and Duke standout Mark Alarie) obviously understands the business. He was a good resource for us. She’s a super intelligent individual, high basketball IQ, really values the game and looks at it as her life’s work. She prioritizes it. She’s going to be a really good addition for a lot of reasons on the court and off the court for us.”
Alarie was one of three first-round picks for Dallas as the Wings selected Oregon junior Satou Sabally second overall and Tyasha Harris of South Carolina seventh. They also took Luisa Geiselsoder of Germany with the No. 21 pick. The Wings will be very young, and they like Alarie’s maturity and ability to fit in.
“A lot of the kids in the draft class played with her in USA Basketball at one of the different age groups,” said Bibb.
“When we go through our pre-draft interviews, one of the lines of questioning we go down with anyone we know that played USA Basketball — obviously we ask about their experience — but we cross-check and ask them about their teammates on USA Basketball and see if we can find any helpful information about that experience relative to other players. Bella really showed well in terms of the comments and feedback we received from her former USA Basketball teammates.”
Prepping for the Pros
With Princeton ordering its students to leave campus in mid-March due to the COVID-19 outbreak, Alarie has been working out at her house to prepare for a jump to the WNBA. She shoots in her backyard and lifts weights in her basement, dealing with the new normal prompted by the coronavirus pandemic.
“For the past few weeks, it’s been a lot of Zoom meetings with a lot of coaches from different WNBA teams or phone calls or FaceTimes,” explained Alarie.
“They have watched me play basketball a lot, but they also don’t know me as a person as well. They can ask my coaches and people that know me. A big part was getting to know me as a person, and I ended up talking to them and getting to know their coaching styles and programs and how I would fit into whatever they were trying to do. It was busy talking to different coaches.”
On the court, the Wings were looking for versatile players and Sabally and Alarie both fit the bill as long athletic players who can shoot the ball well, along with being able to compete at the defensive end.
“There’s a few things we really like about Bella, and versatility is one of them,” said Bibb.
“Obviously she’s one of the few players whose program-listed height is shorter than her actual height. She’s 6’5” and listed at 6’4.” It’s usually the other way around. But she’s long too at 6’5.” She was one of the best defensive players in the country on one of the best defensive teams in the country. She has the ability to guard down in the low block. She’ll have to get a little stronger in that regard in our league. She also has the ability to get out and guard on the perimeter which is really important in pick-and-rolls in our league. She can shoot the ball with great range to the 3-point line, which for our league is important. She’s really good at the trailing 3. And because she’s sort of had a late growth spurt — she played a lot of guard in high school — so her ball skills for her size are really exceptional.”
Believing that Alarie possesses all the tools to be successful in the WNBA, Berube is looking forward to seeing how Alarie develops further and how she helps her next team.
“Versatility doesn’t just mean she can play inside and outside,” said Berube.
“There are things for the next level that she can transfer and it’ll translate well. I also think she’ll bring a great help with culture to a WNBA team. She’s extremely coachable. She has a great way about her. She might be having a bad day, but she’s going to come to work and you don’t know she’s having a bad day. She has a great outlook on life. She loves the game. She loves being the unselfish player. She loves helping her teammates. With the Wings and a lot of the WNBA teams, I think that was a big selling point that she’s a great person and someone you want in your locker room, you want in your foxhole.”
Playing internationally was important to Alarie’s growth as well as it gave her more experience than just playing for Princeton and introduced her to more challenges.
“While she hasn’t had as much of an opportunity to play the ‘highest’ level of competition, she’s had opportunity,” said Bibb.
“When she’s had that opportunity, she’s shown really well. We’re not really concerned about the step up for her vs. the step up for anyone else. Anyone coming from college to the WNBA, there’s a big adjustment. I don’t think the adjustment for her will be any bigger than for anyone else.”
Ready to Go
Alarie is looking forward to getting started. With her thesis completed, she can now shift her focus on her chosen profession as one of the few in the world with the opportunity to play in the WNBA.
“It is crazy,” said Alarie. “Just thinking about my teammates — Arike (Ogunbowale) who I watched hit two amazing buzzer-beaters for Notre Dame — there are some really talented players that I get to play alongside. Then there are these players that I’ve looked up to since I was little and I’m going to be on the court with them. I’m just excited. I know I’m going to feel the same way when I step on the court playing against them. It’s really surreal to realize that could be happening soon.”
The WNBA season has been postponed until at least June 1, and there are other unknowns for her. Alarie is gathering information on options to play overseas as well, a regular practice of WNBA players after their season concludes, and something she views as critical to continuing her development. She is looking forward to her first pro games with the Wings.
“I want to set goals for myself,” said Alarie. “Being a high pick for a team means they want me to impact them as soon as possible. It’ll take hard work. I do have things I want to work on in the meantime before I get to Dallas so I can be the best player possible. I do think I could make an impact.”