Benefield: Morgan Bertsch eager for WNBA shot

Morgan Bertsch and a couple of her UC Davis basketball teammates were at the home of their coach, Jennifer Gross, on Wednesday night watching the television when she got a text.

“Congratulations,” it read. Nothing else. It was from her agent, Eric Wiesel.

“I was like, ‘What? There is nothing on the screen,’” said Bertsch, a 2014 graduate of Santa Rosa High and a UC Davis senior.

ESPN, televising the WNBA draft live, had gone to a commercial break and in the mere moments the broadcast was interrupted, Bertsch was chosen with the 29th pick, the first-ever Aggie to be drafted. She found out by the beep of her phone.

“Two seconds later, it popped up on the screen, ‘While we were away, we had three more draft picks …’ We all freaked out, naturally,” she said.

Screaming, tears, heart palpitations. Then a pause.

“Then we were like, ‘Wait, wait, wait. Where was it to?’” she said.

Dallas. Bertsch was drafted by the Dallas Wings in the third round.

Not bad for a kid who got exactly one Division I offer out of high school.

Bertsch’s story is near-legendary at this point. She played no club basketball. She only got the attention of the Aggies’ coaching staff when they caught a glimpse of her in the background of another player’s tape. Intrigued by a 6-foot-4 player who was such a good athlete she would eventually set the high jump record at UC Davis, they traveled to see her play for the Panthers. They were underwhelmed (she was sick that night), but tried again and invited her to a summer camp. It was there that Bertsch showed glimmers of what could be. They made her an offer.

“I think that says a lot about this one here - to go from having one Division I scholarship to be a WNBA draft pick,” Gross said at a press conference held Thursday.

When Gross talked about Bertsch’s intelligence, work ethic and her as-yet-undefined ceiling in this game, I couldn’t help but think about a conversation I had with Bertsch more than 18 months ago.

She was in the early stages of her junior season, leading the Aggies in scoring and having a phenomenal year. And yet a good chunk of our conversation that day was about her ongoing effort to quiet her negative self talk. She had, at times, worried that her game was getting stale, that opponents were finding ways to stop her offensively. She talked about wanting to evolve as a player and become a more multifaceted threat.

“If I could shoot the 3, that would make my life a lot easier,” she said that day. “I’ve never been a 3-point shooter. Maybe we’ll get there one day.”

Fast-forward to today. In her senior season, Bertsch shot 48 percent from behind the arc. For perspective, consider this: Stephen Curry’s career average is just shy of 44 percent.

It’s mind-boggling.

“That’s a testament to the work that she’s put in; the commitment that she has to be great,” Gross said.

“She still has an incredibly high ceiling,” she said.

The mark she has left on the UC Davis women’s basketball program is indelible. She’s the Aggies’ career scoring leader at 2,398 points and the school’s career rebounding leader. She averaged 23.6 points per game in her senior season - the fourth-highest average in the nation - en route to being named Big West player of the year. She led the Aggies to three straight Big West Conference titles and a win at the Big West Tournament her senior year. The Aggies’ trip to the NCAA Tournament this season was the first time the team had made it since 2011.

But none of that guaranteed her a place at the next level. In fact, no mock drafts that I saw in the days leading up to Wednesday’s draft had Bertsch being taken with any of the 36 picks.

But she signed with an agent, picked a combine she felt would give her the most exposure to the most teams - the Pro Hoops Combine in Tampa, Florida - and went after it Saturday.

There were about 70 players there, likely none of whom would be picked to go in the first round. So by my math, that’s 70 players scraping and clawing during a one-day workout in the hope that they will considered for 24 draft spots.

So, as one might expect, when the day went from drills to 5-on-5 games, it was every player for themselves. There was definitely an element of “shooting a lot of tough shots and getting theirs,” Bertsch said.

“It was tough, especially being a post player. It was pretty guard-oriented,” she said. “You are not always going to get the ball back.”

“I definitely have a scoring mentality. I’m used to having the ball in my hands a lot. It was tough,” she said.

So, like at every other point in her trajectory, she adjusted. She showed off the parts of her game that might not translate in a one-on-one free-for-all. When players got tired, she kept running the floor. She was a good teammate - to players she’d met just hours earlier. She played tough defense. She went to the floor for loose balls.

“I just went out there and played as hard as I can,” she said. “It’s a lot different than watching film and highlight reels. It’s a way to see the complete player. I got a lot of positive feedback.”

I assumed interviews were part of the process. I guessed that Bertsch, who is a biomedical engineering major slated to graduate in June, wowed them with her brain and her basketball IQ. I assumed that she charmed them with her self-effacing confidence.

Nope. There weren’t any formal interviews. She wowed them with her work on the court and clearly charmed the Wings’ brass with a daylong workout that showed yet another program a hint of what could be with Bertsch in their uniform.

Still, emerging from the workout, it was difficult for Bertsch to gauge how the day went. But after the combine, Wiesel started fielding questions. The good kind of questions.

“That made me feel a lot more confident,” she said.

When the folks from the Wings’ front office called Wednesday night, they welcomed her to the organization. What it all means going forward, Bertsch is still figuring out. What it means for her college graduation slated for June, she doesn’t know. What that means for where she fits into the Wings’ plans (they drafted Arike Ogunbowale from Notre Dame with the fifth pick, Megan Gustafson from Iowa with the 17th pick and UCLA’s Kennedy Burke with the 22nd selection) is also unclear. She wasn’t quite sure Thursday when she needed to report to camp.

But the outlook is bright. The Wings’ front office obviously thinks she can do big things - they gave her a bonus inch on their press release after the draft, listing her as a 6-foot-5 forward.

And Gross, for one, has complete confidence that - given a shot like this - Bertsch won’t waste it. Gross has seen this play out before.

“Morgan had an incredible opportunity here and she seized it,” she said of that one Division I offer five years ago. “She came in here and from day one started to put the work in … (and) never, for one second, didn’t appreciate the opportunity that she had.”

Bertsch is still in the gym, working with the Aggies’ staff to ready herself for what comes next, even though she still isn’t quite clear what that is. Whatever it is, it’s all good.

“It’s nothing I could have ever imagined,” she said of being a WNBA draft pick. “I’m just going to enjoy this.”

You can reach Staff Columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or and on Twitter ?@benefield.

Kerry Benefield

Columnist, The Press Democrat

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