NEW YORK -- Alaina Coates and her family made a long drive to the Big Apple for the WNBA draft, leaving their home in South Carolina late Wednesday night and arriving Thursday morning. But once the draft got started, Coates had a very short wait for her name to be called.
She was the No. 2 pick by Chicago, somewhat of a surprise only because the Sky already have so much size, including their top selection last year, 6-foot-7 Imani Boyette, and 6-4 Stefanie Dolson, one of the players the Sky got in trading Elena Delle Donne.
But in a draft that the league's observers found extremely difficult to project, it seemed Chicago went with the best available player, regardless of position.
And after Washington guard Kelsey Plum went at No. 1 to San Antonio, there wasn't much debate about Coates being the other most compelling talent. In fact, no one would have been very surprised if she'd gone first.
Being drafted so high Thursday was especially gratifying for Coates, considering the last we saw of her on the basketball court was March 4, when she limped off after a brief appearance in the SEC tournament semifinals.
She missed the entire NCAA tournament that South Carolina won -- not even getting to travel with the team to any games, an absence that drew a lot of questions -- because she needed surgery on her ankle. It's uncertain when she'll be able to get back to playing, although she sounded like she expects it will be this season. But the 6-foot-4 center is a talent worth waiting for.
"I'm still coming off the national championship high," Coates said, "even though I didn't really get to do anything but cheer from [in front of] a TV screen. But I'm still part of the team, and their success was my success.
"And for me to go [at] No. 2, especially with my situation, I'm excited about that. At this point, I'm in a healing stage. I had surgery and am in a cast right now. I'll have to go through a couple more weeks of that, and then we'll go from there."
Coates was one of three Gamecocks taken in the first round Thursday, with two of them -- No. 4 pick Allisha Gray and No. 10 Kaela Davis -- headed to Dallas, the city where they won the national championship.
Coates said she was extremely happy for the Gamecocks when they topped Mississippi State for the NCAA title April 2, and she didn't dwell on being upset she couldn't play or even be there with her team.
"I was yelling," Coates said of watching the final. "I was with my godsister at the time, and she had to hold me down on the coach because I wanted to get up and jump around, which, of course, I couldn't. There was just so much happiness."
"She really hasn't scratched the surface yet of all she can do. ... She'll have a great career."Dawn Staley on Alaina Coates
Her father, Gary Coates, said he felt "sidelined" along with his daughter, and the two of them helped each other get over the disappointment at the end of her senior season by thinking about the big picture.
"I told her, 'Let's not do anything that will hinder your progress going forward,'" Gary Coates said. "When her opportunity came, she wanted to be ready. We really listen to each other."
Gary Coates has spent more than 30 years in the military, but plans to retire later this year. He and his wife, Pam, are eager to travel to watch their daughter in the next stage of her career. Coates, her parents, her brother Gary Jr. and his girlfriend all made the drive to New York for the draft; Coates is still not fully cleared to fly.
"In spite of everything she's been through," Gary Coates said, "to see a team valued her and rewarded her by picking her, this is a beautiful moment."
During her four seasons at South Carolina, Coates averaged 12.1 points, shooting 64.1 percent from the field, with 9.3 rebounds per game with 210 blocked shots. Coates' defense also steadily improved, as she showed she could handle the physicality of the paint but also defend away from the basket.
"She really hasn't scratched the surface yet of all she can do," South Carolina coach Dawn Staley said. "What she's done so far is still a lot of raw talent. When she starts understanding better how to play the game, and when she's playing with and against the best, you're going to see that come out of her. She'll have a great career."
Coates has been spending much of her time the last month and a half getting around on a scooter-like aid that keeps all weight off her wounded ankle. She had it Thursday at the draft, but at some point this summer, she'll be able to leave the scooter behind.
Coates, who just turned 22 on April 7, is from Irmo, South Carolina, just outside of Columbia. So she's basically spent her entire life in the same place. But while she acknowledged a little apprehension about "leaving the nest," as she put it, she's also ready to move on to Chicago and the WNBA.
"I feel like they see the potential in me, and that my résumé that I built throughout my career at South Carolina really spoke to them," Coates said. Regarding the physical challenge at the next level, she said, "I welcome it. It means something to me if you're banging in the post and you can get your shot up, or you prevent your person from scoring. I know I'm probably going to get beat up as a rookie, but I'm looking forward to it."