One Kentucky player had her name called much earlier than predicted and her teammate had to wait longer than most expected, but both Evelyn Akhator and Makayla Epps were selected in the WNBA Draft on Thursday night.
Akhator became the highest draft pick in program history when the forward went third overall to the Dallas Wings.
On the flip side, with just three picks left in the third and final round of the draft, Epps was selected by the Chicago Sky.
Together, Akhator and Epps became the first UK players to be picked in the same WNBA Draft.
English isn’t her first language, so Nigerian-born Akhator was a little worried she had misunderstood what the Dallas Wings coach was saying the day before.
On Wednesday, the Kentucky forward thought she heard the Wings coach tell her that there were two picks before their pick when they planned to select her in the draft.
Turns out, her English is pretty good.
“It’s a dream come true,” a breathless Akhator told the Herald-Leader after the announcement. “My dream.”
Akhator said she hadn’t stopped shaking since her name flashed on the television.
“I can’t really describe it,” Akhator said. “I just can’t believe it.”
The 6-foot-3 forward was projected to go low in the first round or high in the second round. She is the third first-round pick for Kentucky Coach Matthew Mitchell, whom Akhator texted Thursday that she was so nervous.
“He told me to relax and enjoy the moment,” she said. “I’m trying to do that.”
It was difficult for Epps to enjoy her moment as she waited not-so-patiently for her name to be called.
“A bunch of my friends here and family were here, and they were sitting around getting anxious,” Epps said from her home. “We were all getting anxious. My God, everybody was getting anxious. And right after I saw my name pop up, I cried.”
ESPN’s commentators were shocked Kentucky’s star guard did not get taken sooner.
“I was really surprised that she fell this low,” analyst LaChina Robinson said on the broadcast. “She does have the ability to create her own shot. She’s very versatile, she’s strong, she’s tough, she’s got a pro body. And now she’s got something to prove.”
Fellow commentator Rebecca Lobo noted Epps has a physical presence and needs to improve her outside shooting, but she has so many intangibles.
“Her best trait is in the biggest moments, in the big games, that’s when she plays her best basketball,” Lobo said of Epps, who averaged 17.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists this season.
Robinson wasn’t wrong that Epps now feels like she has something to prove.
“I hugged my dad, and he just said, ‘Make them pay,’” she said of the exchange with her father, former UK standout Anthony Epps. “So that’s my mind-set. That’s my mentality going into this training camp.”
Epps is the only player in program history to rank top five in scoring and top eight in assists. The guard scored in double figures 30 times this season, with 14 games of 20 or more points.
Epps finished her career with 1,790 points (13.5 ppg) and 408 assists (3.06 apg).
Friend and teammate Akhator was just starting to blossom this season after spending her first two years at junior college. This season, the forward averaged 15.9 points and a team-best 10.8 rebounds. She was second on the team in steals with 45 and added 29 blocks.
“The upside is great for her,” Wings President and CEO Greg Bibb told the Herald-Leader. “Great kid, scholar-athlete. We think the sky’s the limit for her and we’re really excited to have her coming to Dallas.”
Bibb noted that many teams in the WNBA hadn’t noticed the former Junior College Player of the Year, but Dallas had been tracking her for a while.
“We were fortunate to have a little bit of a read on her early and were able to follow her and the more and more we watched her, the more and more we liked her,” Bibb said.
“When we were able to dig in a little bit more about her as a person and her character, that’s all A-plus stuff. We’re just excited to have her.”
Akhator managed 18 double-doubles this season, which rated in the top 20 nationally and second in the Southeastern Conference.
Although Akhator was only on campus for two years, she ended her career tied for third in school history in double-doubles, second in all-time rebounding averaging, eighth all-time in scoring average and fourth in field-goal percentage.
Mitchell also had first-round picks in Victoria Dunlap in 2011 when she was picked No. 11 overall by the Washington Mystics and then A’dia Mathies, who went with the 10th pick to the Los Angeles Sparks.
Former UK forward DeNesha Stallworth was picked 25th overall in the third round by the Connecticut Sun in 2014, the most recent Kentucky player selected before this year.
Shantia Owens was the first UK player selected in the draft (2000 by the Phoenix Mercury).
“I am very proud of Evelyn and Makayla,” Mitchell said in a release after the draft ended. “They have grown so much while they have been at Kentucky. Both of them have tremendous character that will help them be very successful.
“I am very happy for them on this exciting day. They have both worked extremely hard to get to this point. I know they will work even harder to realize their dream of playing in the WNBA. We are behind them all the way.”