Three weeks ago, Kiana Williams stood on top of the NCAA women’s basketball world having just completed a fairy tale ending to a brilliant college career.
In her final game, the four-year starting point guard at Stanford led the Cardinal to a dramatic 54-53 win over Pac-12 rival Arizona for the school’s third national championship — and the first since 1992 — in her hometown of San Antonio in front of family and friends.
“It meant everything,” said Williams, who credited coach Tara VanDerveer for guiding the Cardinal through challenges on and off the court. “It was the cherry on top. Not only to win it for her, but to win it in my hometown in my senior year. It was just a blessing.”
The lessons learned at Stanford will surely benefit Williams, who taken 18th overall in the second round of the WNBA draft, as she tries to carve out a spot on a veteran-laden Storm team.
Several mock drafts tabbed the 5-foot-8 point guard as a first-round pick headed to teams with an immediate need for a playmaker such as Chicago, Los Angeles or Minnesota.
However, Williams landed with perhaps the only team in the WNBA that’s loaded with floor generals, including Sue Bird, Jordin Canada and Epiphanny Prince.
“We tried to be very upfront with a lot of players, including Ki about the reality that they got to play themselves on the team,” coach Dan Hughes said. “There’s no automatic opportunity here.”
The odds are against Williams securing one of the Storm’s coveted 12 roster spots and yet she believes being selected by Seattle has been a “blessing.”
“I felt like I got drafted in the perfect situation for me,” Williams said Monday during a Zoom call. “I have the opportunity to learn from Sue Bird, one of the greatest point guards ever to play the game. And she’s been nothing but a leader and being vocal and helping me and Jordin as well. They were saying it’s a point guard’s draft and I felt like I won because I’m in the best situation.”
Williams also expressed admiration toward Bird last November during an interview with the Stanford Daily when asked if she models her game after anyone.
“My favorite point guards are Sue Bird and Chris Paul,” Williams said. “Sue Bird, not only for longevity but her ability to make clutch shots. She’s been elite for almost 20 years, which is crazy. She’s been doing all the right things off the court, taking care of her body, eating the right stuff.”
In many ways, the 22-year-old diminutive rookie draws favorable comparisons to the 40-year-old legend and the WNBA’s all-time assists leader.
Last season, Williams led Stanford in scoring (14.0 points per game), assists (3.1), minutes (32.3), three-pointers (82) and free-throw percentage (89.5%) while becoming the school’s all-time leader in three-pointers (311).
“She’s a shot maker and that is something that’s going to be a ticket for her,” Hughes said. “She’s not just a shot maker from the stand point of three, I think she has a high level of skill. She can play on the bounce as well. She’s not one dimensional.”
Williams has also made a positive early impression with Bird.
“She was eager to learn, but not like in an over-do-it kind of way,” Bird said Sunday after the first training camp practice. “Sometimes players can come into camp and try to show you every aspect of their game within the first five minutes. You could sense she has a very nice disposition about her where she lets things come to her, but was still wide-eyed and ready to learn and trying to figure things out.
“Obviously, I watched her at Stanford. Played against her last year when we did that USA tour. Her ability to create her shot off the dribble. Her ability to hit the three, those are things that I can imagine will translate to this level because that’s what you have to have as a part of your game as a guard, especially as a smaller point guard.”
Williams fondly remembers their first encounter two years ago when Bird and Team USA beat Stanford 95-80 during an exhibition at Maples Pavilion.
“I was a kid in the candy store,” Williams said. “You got Sue Bird, Diana Taurasi (and) A’ja Wilson was on that team. The WNBA superstars were at Stanford and we’re playing against them. It was a great opportunity. I had to pinch myself and realize we’re about to play a basketball game. It was a great experience.”
Williams likens the start of her professional career to her early days at San Antonio’s Karen Wagner High where she became a McDonald’s All-American, a five-star recruit and the eighth best prospect nationally in 2017.
“There’s a lot of new terminology and concepts being thrown at me, but I felt like I’ve done a good job these last two days of grasping it and catching on fast,” Williams said. “I felt like I am a freshman like I was in high school and like I was in college. You’re the new kid on the block and I have to find my way.”
Williams believes the pandemic-induced challenges Stanford faced last season have uniquely prepared her for the Storm’s two-week training camp.
The Cardinal played 16 of its first 17 games on the road because of COVID-19 restrictions in Santa Clara County. Stanford, which temporarily resided in Las Vegas and Los Angeles, played four ‘home’ games in Santa Cruz, Calif.
Stanford’s 90-day nomadic road trip through six states, living out of suitcases and hotel rooms, countless meals via room service or food delivery apps and limited in-person contact proved to be a precursor to Williams’ current situation.
“Tara would always tell us to be flexible with a capital F,” Williams said. “That was our middle name. Kiana “Flexible” Williams. Right now, I’m in a hotel going to practice and coming back. I’ve already experienced it 10 weeks from December to January. Now that I’m in one class a week, it’s that much easier.
“I have a little routine. I watch video. I’ve been watching some of the (WNBA) Finals games of the Storm and Aces from last year. I’ve been reading. I’m for sure used to it. Just looking back on that experience I’m thankful that I went through it because now that I’m in a similar situation living out of a hotel, it’s easier.”
Conceivably, Williams’ big test will be the Storm’s first exhibition game at Phoenix on May 8, assuming she’s still with the team. Seattle has 20 players on the training camp roster and WNBA teams must set the 12-player roster by May 13.
“I need to make sure I have the best day every day,” Williams said. “Not taking a day for granted. We have this motto at Stanford: ‘Win the drill. Win the day.’ That’s our same motto here in Seattle.
“You can’t take days for granted. I’m trying to put the best version of myself on display at all times.”