October 28, 2020

Making Most of Second Chance with Atlanta Dream, PU Hoops Alumna Dietrick Produces Best WNBA Season

DREAM JOB: Blake Dietrick puts up a shot in a 2015 game during her senior season with the Princeton University women’s basketball team. Signing with the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA, point guard Dietrick emerged as a key reserve for the squad as it played in a pandemic-shortened 22-game season that was held in a bubble in Bradenton, Fla. She had career highs with 5.9 points per game and 3.4 assists per game. Showing her outside shooting prowess, Dietrick finished eighth in the league in three-point shooting at 44.8 percent from beyond the arc, setting a franchise record for three-point shooting percentage. (Photo by Frank Wojciechowski)

By Justin Feil

Blake Dietrick has few chances to attend the Princeton University women’s basketball games.

The former Tiger point guard made one last year, and it may have launched a breakout year in the WNBA.

Dietrick flew to Boston on her break from Lointek Gernika Bizkaia in Spain and went directly to see Princeton play at Harvard. She texted Nicki Collen, the head coach of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream, on the way to the game and when she arrived Collen was already there to scout Princeton senior Bella Alarie among others.

“It almost felt like a sign,” said Dietrick, a 2015 Princeton graduate who ended her Tiger career fourth in three-pointers made (210), fourth in three-point shooting percentage (.395), fourth in assists (346), and 12th in scoring (1,233 points).

“I sent that message and the next minute she’s there, and we’re talking and hanging out and catching up. She’s an incredible person as well. I wanted to hear about her family and her girls play lacrosse and about things that matter to me. It all really aligned perfectly.”

While Dietrick didn’t try to oversell herself, she did make it known that she wanted to return to Atlanta, where she played sparingly for Collen in 2018. When the WNBA had to adjust its plans for the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and Atlanta lost two of its guards Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, the Dream reached out to bring in Dietrick.

“Seattle did offer me a spot at training camp,” said Dietrick. “I turned it down because I didn’t think there was a place on their roster.”

Signing with Atlanta, the 5’10 Dietrick went on to enjoy her finest of four seasons in the WNBA. In their pandemic shortened 22-game season, she played more minutes than ever – triple her highest previous average, even started four games, and she finished eighth in the league in three-point shooting at 44.8 percent from beyond the arc, setting a franchise record for three-point shooting percentage. She had career highs with 5.9 points per game and 3.4 assists per game. Dietrick explained that the improvements came with the new chances.

“I think just always being ready for opportunity,” said Dietrick. “I always try to do that but sometimes you don’t get the opportunity that you feel prepared for. This year because Renee and Tiffany sat out, I was able by necessity to play a little bit more and in those minutes I did my best. I did what I always do but it was over a longer period of time. Every season I think I have more experience and confidence and this league is really about confidence and knowing you belong and trusting that you can compete with everyone else on the court.”

That preparation helped Dietrick excel in a season that was vastly different from any previous year. The WNBA players were isolated from the rest of the world in a bubble in Bradenton, Fla., for the two-month season.

“I think it was the hardest season, but incredible in so many ways,” said Dietrick.

“There was the really unique experience and opportunity of all 12 teams being in the same place. That was so exciting and with what we were working on in terms of social justice and things outside of basketball, it made all of that easier to coordinate and be on the same page and unite. And also the lack of travel was great for our bodies, but on the flip side we were playing every other day. It was the most exhausting, but rewarding season that I’ve had.”

While at Bradenton, Dietrick lived in an apartment during the WNBA season with two Dream teammates, Elizabeth Williams and Brittany Brewer. Players had the choices of living in a hotel setting or apartments.

“It kind of felt like college again,” said Dietrick. “We all had bikes and we biked around campus. We biked to practice and biked to meals. It was great. Once the games started, you didn’t really have a second to breathe. You were just going. It was practice, shoot-around, recover, sleep, eat, play again. It flew by. It was awesome to have that support system of not living by myself which is what really happens overseas, so you had that added camaraderie.”

WNBA players also united to promote social justice. Williams, her roommate, was also the Dream captain and a part of the executive committee with the WNBA Players Association and Dietrick could see firsthand the ongoing behind-the-scenes efforts. WNBA teams raised money and awareness for social justice throughout their season.

“The league is 80 percent women of color,” said Dietrick. “For me to be an ally and learn while I was there and do my best to be supportive and elevate the voices of Black women was absolutely incredible. We had calls with the mothers of women killed by police violence, so that was incredible. We met Breonna Taylor’s mother over Zoom and we were able to talk to her and ask her what she wanted from us and what we could do for her. The No. 1 thing she said was just keep saying my daughter’s name, don’t let her be forgotten. To have her name on the back of our jerseys was fulfilling the No. 1 thing that her mother valued. I couldn’t feel more confident that we did make a difference and we did affect change.”

On the court, Dietrick felt ready to play right from the outset. Some players weren’t quite in the same game condition at the get-go, and Dietrick’s preparation gave her a step up. She credits her improvements to working on her own and playing overseas, but her path to her best WNBA season wasn’t a layup. There were ups and down for her after winning the Ivy League Player of the Year. Dietrick played just three games in her rookie season with San Antonio and Seattle. She then endured a rough season in Australia.

“I didn’t play that next summer and had to reassess and look internally and see if basketball was what I really wanted to keep doing or if I was ready to step away,” said Dietrick.

“I couldn’t be happier that I decided to recommit and reinvest in myself and my game. I went to Greece and had a great season and I’ve been playing in the WNBA and overseas since then. I think I needed that summer off to look and see if this was the right choice for me.”

Greece got Dietrick going again, and she had her first stint with Atlanta in 2018, then a season with Seattle in 2019. She played the last two seasons overseas in Spain as well, and the seasons abroad have been important to her development.

“It’s great to be playing in both,” said Dietrick. “That gives me the ability to play against other WNBA players. If you can face off against them overseas it builds that confidence and overseas is where you can experiment and build your game and grow your game.”

Playing overseas was her ticket back to the WNBA. The downside to chasing her professional basketball dream was time spent away from family and friends, an oft-overlooked sacrifice.

“You miss a lot of stuff,” said Dietrick. “You miss birthdays, you miss weddings, you miss the birth of children. Your family knows you through Facetime. It can be extremely challenging and lonely. There are so many amazing, incredible blessings, and I’m fortunate to do what I do, so I don’t want you to think I don’t appreciate it. However, there is definitely a flipside to it and people don’t talk about it.”

The mother of one of Dietrick’s Spanish league teammates has acted like a mom to her overseas, and the town she played for is one of the most passionate in the league. The isolated feeling overseas in some ways helped her endure the effects of the pandemic. Dietrick is happy to be staying home in the United States where she will work for Converse this year.

“It’s a little bit of a break,” said Dietrick, who turned 27 in July. “I’m not old in any respect, but I felt like my body aged a little bit this season. Getting a little bit of rest and recovery and also being able to do skill work and things that you don’t get to do when you play a full season.”

Despite her success this season, Dietrick has no guarantees about next year in the WNBA. The season’s details have yet to be worked out with what is scheduled to be an Olympic year. She is prepared either way -— whether she continues to play pro ball or not.

“Princeton prepared me really well for that in that you’re always thinking about your next step and preparing for your future,” said Dietrick.

“So while I’ve been playing, I’ve always been doing other programs, and making sure I’m ready if basketball were to end. I did a program with Harvard Business School, I did classes online just so you’re ready for that. At the same time, you just have to be optimistic and put yourself out there and sometimes take a risk.”

In Dietrick’s view, her honest, forthright approach with Atlanta helped her earn another chance. The meeting with Collen was serendipitous, but it allowed her to show her desire to return to the WNBA. It’s all that Dietrick needed this summer, and all that she ever looks for as she looks forward to her next opportunity on the court.

“My hope is always just to get a chance at training camp,” said Dietrick.

“I never expect a guaranteed contract. I know if a coach will give me a chance and bring me into camp, then it’s on me and either I earn my spot or I don’t. Then it’s in my control.”