Bella Alarie benefiting from home-court advantage in WNBA preparation

Bella Alarie stares down the competition. Her 15-year-old brother, Xander, is a quick, still-growing 5-foot-11 defender on the perimeter. Her dad, former Duke and NBA forward Mark Alarie, is 56 and, at 6-8, jokes that he can guard Bella inside like “a less-skilled, less-athletic Liz Cambage.”

The basketball half court is tennis-court green, with a mounted stanchion, backboard and rim. Bordered by a fence and tall trees, the court is an inviting spot to shoot hoops.

Bella has made nets swish here since childhood, but it’s not where she expected to be in May and June after her senior season at Princeton. The No. 5 pick by the Dallas Wings in April’s WNBA draft, Alarie and the rest of the 2020 rookies should have made their professional debuts in mid-May. Instead, the league was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, and the WNBA is proposing a 22-game regular season, starting July 24, with the league playing at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Until the WNBA returns, Bella’s backyard court in Bethesda, Maryland, is a handy sanctuary. With most gyms and playgrounds shut down and people isolating, not every athlete has a place like this — Alarie also has a Dr. Dish shooting machine — nor such capable workout partners.

“During this quarantine, my dad’s here to help make sure I’m prepared for the next level,” said Bella, a 6-4 guard/forward. “And it’s been so good to have a place outside where I can get shots up and continue to work on my game.”

In normal times, Bella would have been through the spring whirlwind that WNBA rookies experience: the end of their college career, the draft, relocating, training camp and the launch of a pro career.

Instead, like everyone else, she’s facing uncertainty. But it helps to have a parent who has been in your shoes. After playing in the NCAA championship game as a senior at Duke, Mark was the No. 18 pick by the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the 1986 NBA draft.

“The best thing, which has been true my whole life, is him telling me stories of his experiences,” Bella said. “That’s a way I’ve learned a lot of lessons.”

Although they’re going pro 34 years apart, dad and daughter have plenty in common, including their draft nights, which ended up being more similar than expected. Mark and his then-roommate/teammate, current ESPN analyst Jay Bilas — who is Bella’s godfather — ordered pizza and invited friends over to their apartment in Durham, North Carolina. Mark was from Phoenix, so he shared the celebration with his family in Arizona via phone.

Fellow Duke senior Johnny Dawkins, who was selected 10th, had been invited to New York for that NBA draft. But looking back, Mark seems just as happy he was with all his friends watching “on a little TV in the living room.”

Bella, a three-time Ivy League Player of the Year, finished her Princeton career averaging 16.1 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.3 blocks. As a sure first-round pick, she would have been invited to New York for the WNBA draft. Instead, she was at home with her parents and brothers, including 18-year-old Christian. And her Princeton teammates celebrated together via Zoom.

Mark packed his car not long after the June ’86 draft and drove to Denver to get acclimated to his new Nuggets teammates with pickup games over the summer. Bella hasn’t gotten the chance to go to Dallas or meet her new coaches or teammates. She has talked to Wings coach Brian Agler, who recommended some video work: Watch Candace Parker.

Agler was the Los Angeles Sparks coach from 2015 to ’18; they won a WNBA title in 2016. Bella and Mark were both impressed by the suggestion; Parker is a future Hall of Famer with two NCAA titles at Tennessee and two Olympic gold medals. That Bella could aspire to pattern her game after Parker says a lot.

Bella was ranked 83rd in the ESPN HoopGurlz top 100 her senior year of 2016 and was recruited by a handful of Power 5 programs, but she opted for the Ivy League.

“She was a late bloomer, just like I was,” Mark said. “It was not so much that she was overlooked, but during the primary recruiting period — her freshman, sophomore years, especially — she didn’t stand out relative to the best players in the country. But she got a lot taller and a lot stronger, and there’s a resulting confidence that comes with that.”

Bella started high school around 5-8, and she began to sprout around her junior year. She went to Princeton closer to 6-4, and Mark remembers a call he got from then-Tigers coach Courtney Banghart early in Bella’s freshman year. The good news, he says he was told, was that Bella was the team’s best player. The bad news? She didn’t have post moves. She had mostly been a guard, but Bella also needed to become comfortable playing with her back to the basket.

Not just because of her height, but also another natural gift.

“She has always been able to catch anything you throw at her,” Mark said. “When she was like 6 years old, she was doing every sport. In baseball, she played on a boys little league team, and you could not strike her out. She always put the bat on the ball. That hand-eye coordination is one of the things that made her a great shooter.”

Bella has long done a shooting drill that Mark did at Duke. He doesn’t recall it having a specific name then, but it’s now called BEEF, which stands for balance, elbow, eyes, follow-through.

Bella has to make a certain number of shots focusing on each aspect of shooting: being in balance, keeping her elbow in and having it above her eye as she finishes the shot, keeping her eyes on the target, and following through on the shot.

“So then when you’re in a game and you’re missing a shot, you can kind of diagnose where the correction needs to be,” Bella said of the benefit of isolating on the fundamentals. “I’ll figure out, ‘My eyes weren’t on the rim,’ or, ‘I was really off balance.’ It kind of lets you self-correct in the moment. I think I’ve been doing that drill since I was a second-grader.”

The idea that she could one day play in the WNBA came to her only gradually. She recalls warming up before a middle school game and hitting about 10 3-pointers in a row, then looking over to her dad, who tried to conceal a smile. She would go watch the nearby WNBA team, the Washington Mystics. But when she picked Princeton, it was primarily an academic choice.

“The last thing we were thinking was, ‘This is a step on her pathway to get to the WNBA,’ ” Mark said of he and wife Rene Augustine, an attorney who works in the U.S. Department of Justice. “It was just, ‘Get the best possible education that will lead to a good job.’ She completely changed that whole plan.

“Now, basketball is her profession. Not for her whole life, of course, but she’s leaving an imprint on the world as a basketball player. And I’m just so proud, because Bella did it her own way.”

“The transition from high school to college is nothing like from college to the professional level. In the NBA and the WNBA, you’re playing the best players in the world. The skill level and competitiveness is so great.” Mark Alarie

Banghart and her staff helped develop Bella as a post player, which continued her senior season under coach Carla Berube after Banghart left for North Carolina. Bella’s physical strength and multidimensional skills blossomed, and the Tigers went 88-31 overall, and 47-9 in the Ivy League, during her career, making two NCAA tournament appearances. The Tigers were on their way to a third this year after a 26-1, 14-0 season that was cut short by the pandemic before the Ivy League tournament.

Now, though, she knows things get even tougher.

Mark and Bella are just the third father-daughter combo to be first-round draft picks in the NBA and WNBA. She’s the third player, following Harvard’s Allison Feaster (No. 5 in 1998) and Princeton’s Leslie Robinson (No. 34 in 2018), drafted out of an Ivy League school. (Temi Fagbenle spent three years at Harvard, then finished at Southern Cal and was drafted No. 35 in 2016. Princeton’s Blake Dietrick was undrafted, but she has appeared in WNBA games in 2016, ’18 and ’19.)

Mark played five years in the NBA before knee issues brought an early end to his pro career. He knows what Bella will face once she gets a chance to play in the WNBA.

“What I’ve told her is the transition from high school to college is nothing like from college to the professional level,” Mark said. “In the NBA and the WNBA, you’re playing the best players in the world. The skill level and competitiveness is so great, and you have to prepare for that. But you also have to be kind to yourself, because it’s not going to be easy.”

Bella will join a very young Wings team; just two players on the roster have at least four years of experience in the WNBA. Besides Bella, there are two other 2020 first-round draft picks: Oregon forward Satou Sabally and South Carolina guard Tyasha Harris. The rookies will help build a new culture for the Wings, who went 10-24 last season.

A lot is ahead for Bella. With the nation in such an unfamiliar environment, the familiarity of her home hoop is getting her ready.

“Having my family and that space has been special,” she said. “I’m just really glad when I was 3 years old, my dad decided to put a court in the backyard.”