Kristy Wallace: From injury nightmare to WNBA Dream

Two years ago, Kristy Wallace was kind enough to give Pick and Roll her time and discussed, among other things, her desire to improve in all facets to become an elite all-round player that could reach the WNBA and the Olympics. Since that then the Baylor star has reached a third straight Elite Eight with the Lady Bears, won a World University Games gold medal, participated in an Opals camp, and was recently selected by the Atlanta Dream with the 16th overall pick of the WNBA Draft.

To outsiders, it may look as if Wallace had imposed plenty of pressure on herself to reach such lofty goals, but the Queenslander begs to differ.

“I wouldn’t say pressure, I just think that that’s a part of the game, and part of growing as a player. To be a professional basketball player you’ve got to have that drive and that will to work and to improve on your weaknesses,” Wallace explained. “I was just blessed enough to have people supporting me and helping me through such a long process.”

“The hard work does pay off; it’s pretty cool.”

‘It’s pretty cool.’ Isn’t that a bit of a low-key way of describing being drafted to the most elite women’s basketball competition on the planet? As it turns out, the WNBA Draft was the furthest thing from Wallace’s mind during the season. The Australian had shorter-term goals throughout the campaign; quite literally taking it one game at a time.

“I wasn’t too focused on [the draft], honestly. I know some girls kind of think about it in the back of their mind, but I wasn’t too worried about it,” Wallace revealed. “I wasn’t expecting to get drafted to be completely honest. That really just was such a special moment and I’m just so, so excited for the opportunity. I was just focused on winning the next game.”

Yet while Wallace wasn’t thinking about turning pro during the season, someone in the WNBA had noticed her. Someone with whom Wallace had a previous connection. The obvious line of thinking suggests that it would be Phoenix and Opals coach Sandy Brondello. But there was someone else from Wallace’s past who was also looking intently at her.

“The Atlanta coach did actually call me up and tell me that she was interested," explained Wallace. "Nicki Collen, she actually recruited me to Arkansas when I graduated high school. We kind of knew each other a little bit prior to this.

“I knew Phoenix were interested. I had correspondence with Sandy, but we hadn’t directly talked about the draft. We stay in contact about [national program] stuff.”

Draft day came, and although she didn’t really consider herself a chance to be drafted, Wallace flicked the TV to watch what she thought would be 36 other players--not herself--find professional homes.

“I was with one of my best mates at college, I was at her house," added Wallace. "Actually though, when they called my name I wasn’t inside, I wasn’t in the house. I was outside.

“But I saw it on my phone, and I couldn’t believe it. I went inside,” Wallace pauses. “Hopped inside! And rewound the TV, and couldn’t believe it!”

Wallace, of course, was hopping rather than walking or running courtesy of a season-ending ACL injury that occurred on the final day of the regular season against West Virginia. Chasing down a loose ball, Wallace’s knee buckled underneath her and the senior knew what she had done before she even hit the floor.

“Felt the pop, knew something wasn’t right, fell on the ground, couldn’t really straighten my knee very well and I couldn’t walk on it. So yeah, I knew something was up,” Wallace explains matter-of-factly.

“I had a partial tear in my medial tendon too, but that healed on its own. It wasn’t major,” she adds, nonchalantly.

That injury, coming on her own Senior Day, put Wallace out of the Big 12 Tournament and the NCAA Tournament. The Lady Bears managed to win the Big 12 Tournament but fell to recent nemesis Oregon State in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Tournament--the same side that had defeated them in 2017’s Elite Eight. Wallace refuses to accept that her injury doomed Baylor’s charge for a first national championship since 2012.

“I mean every season, that’s the goal, and every season I believe we can do it. I thought we could’ve gone there this season, but I’m not the reason we didn’t make it. Our girls, they didn’t need me out there, they could’ve done it themselves and...things happen the way they do.”

Don’t try to take that as disappointment in her teammates though. Wallace’s faith in her teammates, both this season and throughout her college career, is completely unshakeable.

“I’ve been there, to three Elite Eights, and things just didn’t work out this year and I couldn’t be there. But I’m just so proud of the girls and how they played, how they stuck together throughout this crazy season.”

Much of that faith stems from a culture that Wallace was immersed in during her time with the national program in the offseason, one that she wanted to see in the Baylor side that she co-captained in her senior season.

“I learnt so much from that [national team] group, just the leadership and the team chemistry. It was awesome, and I just really wanted that to transfer to this year’s [Baylor] team,” Wallace explained. “I think we just have great girls with great personalities and we just jelled, on and off the floor. That definitely helped with the success of the team this year, and we all got along. I had another great captain alongside me, Dekeiya Cohen, she was a great leader, and we had a great year. It was fun.”

As much fun as the season may have been for Wallace and Baylor, there is no doubt a feeling that things wrapped up unfairly early for the senior with the timing of the injury. However, that missed opportunity for one last shot at a national title is only spurring Wallace on to challenge for a WNBA title when she does finally get on court.

“I would love to win a championship of any sort, honestly, just in any league. I think that’s the big drive, is winning championships and it’s just the connections you make with the girls on your team and the coaches,” the always team-first Wallace explains.

“I think that’s the most important thing, and I’m so driven to get to this next stage and I can’t wait to get this knee better, so I can go out there and give everything I’ve got. It’s early in the process, but going on track. Walking around, doing lunges and squats and all that good stuff. I’m coming along but it’s definitely a long journey.

“I just want to do what I can to help the team. They have incredible players; Angel (McCoughtry) is a beast. If I had the opportunity to play with anyone…it would be an honour, it’s such an opportunity.”

That opportunity will take time to manifest though. For now, Wallace will concentrate on returning to full fitness in order to give herself the best chance possible of making the roster in 2018/19. WNBA rosters run just 12 deep, so there is no scope to carry an injured player for the entire season, particularly when, as in Wallace’s case, the Dream know they hold her rights going forward.

“I’m not going to sign the contract this year because that will take a spot on the roster and they want a healthy player on the roster,” Wallace explained. “So next year I’m going to sign the contract and go to a training camp. The focus is on getting my knee right.”

Clearly Wallace has the talent and the drive to secure a roster spot – no player gets drafted as high as 16th with an injury like the one she has sustained unless the team really sees something in them. It’s still obviously up in the air as to how successfully Wallace will return, but given what the Australian has shown in the last four seasons, surely you’d back her in?