Blake Dietrick's journey from lacrosse star to WNBA starter

Dietrick played both lacrosse and basketball at Princeton before turning pro after graduating in 2015

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Blake Dietrick #11 of the Atlanta Dream drives to the basket against the New York Liberty on July 31, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

Basketball isn’t Blake Dietrick’s best sport.

She’s been a full-time WNBA player since 2018 and a professional basketball player since graduating from Princeton in 2015. She was the captain of the Tigers when they went 30-0 in the 2014-15 regular season, were Ivy League champions and won the program’s first NCAA Tournament game. That season, she became the 22nd player in program history to score 1,000 or more career points.

And basketball isn’t her best sport.

“It’s really neat how much she loves basketball and competing, because it’s probably the thing that she was not best at,” Courtney Banghart, who coached Dietrick at Princeton, told The Next. “She was a better lacrosse player than a basketball player. She was a smarter student than she was the typical student-athlete for most of her college career, and she just keeps coming back to basketball.”

When Dietrick was in high school, she played basketball all four years, but her main focus was lacrosse. She committed to Princeton for lacrosse — a perennial top-10 program — and reached out to Banghart to see about playing basketball as well.

Banghart wasn’t sure what to make of Dietrick at first. Dietrick didn’t play AAU because of her lacrosse commitments, so her only real basketball experience was four years at Wellesley High School where she went 84-9 and scored 1,440 career points to set a program record.

Despite that success, Banghart wasn’t sure how good Dietrick would be at the collegiate level. She offered Dietrick a spot at Princeton’s camp to see how things went.

It didn’t take long for Dietrick to make a lasting impression.

“My lacrosse coach at Princeton was like, ‘Come on, don’t take her, she’s so good at lacrosse,’” Banghart said. “I was like, ‘I’m sure I won’t.’ I didn’t know anything about her. She was at camp for all of 10 hours and I called the lacrosse coach and I said, ‘Oh, I need her. Not only am I gonna take her, I need her.’

“… I loved her speed, her competitiveness, her shot making. She just was such an above-average competitor and those kids can win you a lot of games.”

After spending her freshman year truly learning the ropes of basketball and playing both basketball and lacrosse in her sophomore and junior seasons, by senior year, Dietrick knew she wanted to go pro after graduation. As the captain, she started every game and finished her career ranked eleventh in program history with 1,233 points. But if you ask her about any of her accomplishments, all she’ll tell you about is what the team did.

“She’s a worker and a winner and doesn’t care about the credit,” Banghart said. “She never has. Even when she was the captain of that 30-0 team, best team ever in Ivy history, all she cared about was winning. That’s it. Whether she scored 15 or 30 or 8, it didn’t matter. … As she would tell you, when she was the captain, they didn’t lose a game. That’s all she cares about.”

Dietrick went undrafted in 2015 and was signed to a training camp contract with the Washington Mystics after the draft. She ended up getting cut in camp and went overseas to start her professional career.

That’s when Banghart had to teach her that her individual statistics mattered. It wasn’t something Dietrick had ever focused on before, and it didn’t come easily.

“When she went overseas, I had to really help her understand that your numbers matter,” Banghart said. “She’s just not made like that. I tried and tried and tried. Like, they have to matter. Your points, your assists and your shooting percentage is how you will get into the league. She just can’t focus on that. It’s just not who she is.”

With Banghart in her ear, Dietrick began to focus more heavily on her own scoring stats. By 2018, she was leading her league in Greece in scoring and caught the attention of newly hired Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen.

“I think she was in contact with my agent and watching and looking at box scores,” Dietrick told The Next. “She called me, and we had a conversation about wanting to bring me to camp. I told her, ‘Look, I’ll do whatever I can to make the team and I’ll work my butt off for you.’ That was all I could give her at that point. Then I came into camp and I think surprised them a little bit. The rest is history.”

The 2018 season was Dietrick’s first full year in the WNBA. She didn’t play very much, only about seven minutes a game, but Collen was drawn to her relentless energy and competitiveness — the same as Banghart had been years earlier.

Dietrick returned to the Dream for training camp in 2019, but Atlanta had drafted another point guard, Maite Cazorla, and didn’t have room for both of them on the roster. Dietrick ended up spending most of the 2019 season with Seattle, but she knew it wasn’t the right fit.

As a free agent once again after the 2019 campaign, there was only one team Dietrick wanted to play for.

“I just feel like the coaching staff here really values me as a player and as a person,” Dietrick said. “I felt like Nicki understood what I brought to a team, whether I was on the court or not. I felt appreciated. I felt valued and that my hard work was paying off. Even if I wasn’t playing, that it was making a difference for our team, and just to feel that what you’re doing is helping the greater good. No matter where you are, you always want to feel that way, and I definitely felt that in Atlanta.”

Elizabeth Williams and Blake Dietrick answer media questions, July 11, 2020. (Screenshot via WNBA Content Network)

The 2020 WNBA season hasn’t been easy for anyone, and it certainly hasn’t been easy for Dietrick and the Dream. Playing a compressed schedule in a bubble environment is physically and mentally taxing, and Atlanta hasn’t had as much success as it would’ve liked.

For a player as competitive and dedicated to winning as Dietrick, the losses are even more challenging.

“I’m like, ‘Hey, you started [against Washington on Aug. 19], it’s so great,” Banghart said. “She was like, ‘We played terrible.’ It was the first thing she said. She doesn’t care about any of that. She just wants to win. … When they don’t win, it just bothers her.”

Dietrick’s role on the team this season has been different than she or Collen expected when she came back to Atlanta in the offseason. When Chennedy Carter went down with an ankle injury, Dietrick had to step up and be the starting point guard. The first game she started for Atlanta was just the second start of her career.

She played all 40 minutes, scored 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, made four 3-pointers, grabbed five rebounds and dished out four assists. But the Dream lost, 100-63, to Seattle, and that meant more to Dietrick than anything else.

Carter is expected to be back, potentially as soon as Atlanta’s game on Wednesday against the Mystics. Dietrick hasn’t started the last two games as Collen has used Courtney Williams at the point guard spot and gone back to bringing Dietrick off the bench to back her up.

But the point isn’t Williams’ natural position, and after a difficult outing on Friday, Collen went with Dietrick at point guard and Williams at shooting guard for long stretches of the game on Sunday.

It ended up being Atlanta’s first win in more than three weeks and snapped a 10-game losing streak — thanks in large part to Dietrick’s 13 points and five assists.

“She made shots,” Collen said after the game. “For the most part, she didn’t turn the basketball over. She got us into actions faster and she just doesn’t — Courtney’s always searching [for a] shot, which she should, because that’s what she’s best at. Sometimes Blake, her only trouble at the point is because people play her so soft at times, she doesn’t take shots that are there. But she did a good job tonight of just initiating offense and then spacing away and knocking open shots down.”

When Carter does return, no one will be more excited than Dietrick. After all, her focus in every game is that her team gets the win, and Carter is essential to Atlanta’s success. To Dietrick, the role doesn’t matter. She’ll come off the bench, she’ll start, she’ll play five minutes, she’ll play 40 minutes. If it gets a win, she’ll be happy.

“You just want hard work to pay off, and it doesn’t always, but with Blake it’s paying off,” Banghart said. “… She hasn’t been in the WNBA just because of her talent. She’s been in the WNBA because of her intangibles.”

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