Kierstan Bell’s destiny seemingly has been the WNBA since high school.
The FGCU star will see that promise fulfilled in New York City Monday night as she is expected to be one of the first picks in the WNBA Draft (7 p.m., ESPN).
“I can’t believe it,” she said. “I always thought that I could do it. I had the support system and family and community behind me, and they all believed that I could have made it this far.
“It’s been a long, long road, but you’ve got to hang on and you’ve got to find the joy in it.”
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Bell was called “She-bron” during her high school career in Ohio, and LeBron James even watched her play. She went to Ohio State but transferred to FGCU after her uncle talked about the school while living in Southwest Florida.
Two years at FGCU resulted in multiple national college honors, including being named the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year and honorable mention All-American twice, and should lead to her first professional one as a first-round selection.
Five WNBA mock drafts have Bell going at No. 4 to the Indiana Fever and a sixth has her going ninth to the Los Angeles Sparks.
“When I got older, I realized that I was really good at basketball and everybody thought I was going to go far with it,” said Bell, who played football and softball and also ran track growing up. “I just took it more serious and it just led me all the way here.”
Next stop: New York
The “heres” have changed over the years, first moving from Alliance, Ohio, to Canton, and then from Ohio State to FGCU. But what’s been common is Bell’s talent, something FGCU coach Karl Smesko saw from the outset of her arrival in Fort Myers.
“She has some skills that are really, really hard to teach,” he said. “It’s one thing to teach somebody how to shoot, or how to set a good screen or something like that. To be able to see things as they develop, and react to it faster than anyone else. Those are things that you can improve with training, but she’s just in a whole different level than other players at that, even elite players who put up huge numbers.
“I think that’s what a lot of the WNBA scouts see in her.”
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The WNBA certainly thought enough of Bell to call her last Sunday and invite her as one of 12 players to attend the draft.
“At first I wasn’t going to answer because I was like ‘I don’t know this number,’ but I was like ‘Let me pick this up just to see who this is,'” she said. “When I answered, she was like ‘This is the WNBA commissioner’ and I just started jumping up and down and getting excited. It was just a great moment.”
Over the past week, Bell has been interviewed by some of the league’s 12 teams. She was scheduled to meet with her final team on Friday.
“It’s just multiple different interviews,” she said, referring to talking separately to personnel from each team. “It was exciting even though it’s been a process.”
Smesko goes back to Bell’s ability to process what’s happening so quickly. That is what he really believes sets her apart from many others.
“She just has a level of awareness and recognition and reacts to that recognition faster than anybody that we’ve ever had,” he said. “To combine with that, she’s 6-1 and super athletic and really skilled, and when you combine those things, now you’re talking about a first-round WNBA-type selection.”
Atlanta Dream general manager/executive vice president of basketball operations Dan Padover agrees. The Dream have the No. 3 pick after a trade with Washington earlier in the week.
“She has some offensive talent that is pro ready,” he said on a pre-draft conference call Thursday. “I think the questions about her is, can she play both ends of the floor and how long can she play both ends of the floor for.
“But offensively she can shoot from the outside, she can post up smaller players, she can get by players, she’s got quick feet and she has a natural basketball instinct from playing for a great program and also having a good IQ herself.”
Bell recognizes her defense will have to go to another level to be successful.
“Probably just locking down on defense,” she said. “It’s going to get real physical. There’s going to be (6-foot-7) girls in there. You’ve got to be just physical. I think if I go in there with the confidence and positivity that I have. I think I’ll be pretty good.”
Bell’s skills for a player her size are what excites WNBA people.
“I think all of us as coaches and general managers love versatile players,” Padover said. “It’s important when you can have someone that can slide over, whether they’re a 3 who can slide to the 2 and the 4, or a 4 that can slide to the 3 and the 5. It helps in matchups. It helps defensively .As you’re building your team, it just gives you a lot of flexibility.”
The odds of making a WNBA roster are slimmer than in other professional leagues. Teams only have 12 players, but due to the salary cap and other issues, for example, Washington Mystics general manager and head coach Mike Thibault said as many as nine of the league’s 12 teams will only carry 11 players.
“Even for high draft picks, you’ve got to make the roster, and then from making the roster, you’ve got to make the rotation, and it’s going to be a huge step, and it’ll be a huge step no matter what program you’re going from,” Smesko said.
Mid-Major with major talent
Despite being a mid-major, this isn’t the first time an Eagle has caught the WNBA’s eye. Whitney Knight, a star for FGCU in the 2010s who was a time-time ASUN Player of the Year, was picked 16th overall by the Los Angeles Sparks in 2016. Knight appeared in 10 games for the Sparks in 2016.
“We definitely were hopeful that Whitney would get drafted, and there was interest in her, but we weren’t sure exactly where she would slide in,” Smesko said. “We were really excited when she was the (16th) pick for the Sparks.
“I think Kierstan has aspirations that she’ll get picked in that first round. Now, anything can happen, but we’re excited to see what develops.”
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Bell credits her time at FGCU playing for Semsko for developing her game to a pro level.
“Coach Smesko really just set himself apart from other coaches,” Bell said. “He’s very intelligent. He knows the game really well. He understands it.
“Just putting me in positions to make me a better person and a better player, I think overall, it just helped me all around.”
“She’s definitely somebody that loves basketball and she loves learning about the game,” Smesko said. “Getting her to practice and being part of learning things and developing her game, that’s something that she really enjoys so I’m really looking forward to where she ends up in the WNBA and following her career.”
Bell will leave behind a memorable collegiate career with FGCU. The Eagles won 25 straight games after Bell became eligible last season before losing to Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. This season, the Eagles blew out LSU on the road and won in two overtimes against Michigan State during the season.
FGCU was in the national rankings and unbeaten in the ASUN before Bell was diagnosed with a partially torn meniscus. She underwent surgery on Jan. 26 and missed nine games. But she didn’t miss a beat after returning, doing so in a huge road victory at Liberty that gave the Eagles the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament.
Bell and FGCU went on to win and earn an automatic NCAA Tournament, but despite the Eagles’ ranking, were seeded 12th. FGCU picked up its third NCAA win, upsetting Virginia Tech before losing to Maryland in the second round. Bell had 18 of her 22 points in the second half in the victory against the Hokies.
“I’ve been here for two years and it’s been great memories and I’m going to take them with me for a long time,” Bell said.
Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at email@example.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/