Megan Gustafson has a second chance to fulfill her dream of playing in the WNBA
Often, coaches will talk about “winners.” The idea of wanting winners, or using the word to describe a player, it is a commonly used word in team sports, but what are the characteristics they are actually looking for or describing? According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the definition of a winner is “one that is successful especially through praiseworthy ability or hard work.” Other characteristics of successful people — or winners — that come to mind are persistence, positivity, and strength. There are many ways to win, and a noticeable part of that definition is that it gives no reference to a score or a number. Instead, it focuses on qualities and characteristics.
While Megan Gustafson has helped lead her teams to plenty of wins on the scoreboard, her most recent test would offer up one of her biggest challenges. On April 10, 2019, one of her dreams came true as she was drafted into the WNBA. The Dallas Wings selected her with the seventeenth overall pick, and the fifth pick in the second round. Following an extremely successful career at the University of Iowa, Gustafson was set to embark on her journey as a professional basketball player.
On May 22, those plans took a hit, as Gustafson was released by the Wings. This was a noteworthy roster move, as she was fresh off of a terrific career at Iowa, and a year in which she won the Naismith Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, and Lisa Leslie Award for the nation’s best center.
For some, this would’ve spelled the end, but for Gustafson, it was just the beginning. As Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “A stumbling block to the pessimist, is a stepping-stone to the optimist.” Just a few days after her release, Gustafson agreed to play for Iowa United in The Basketball Tournament (TBT), which is a 64-team tournament, in which the winning team takes home two million dollars.
“A day after I got cut (from Dallas), the Iowa United general manager (Matthew Crawford) called me. I was so excited just to have a chance to play,” she told High Post Hoops by phone on Monday.
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Practices with Iowa United weren’t set to begin until mid-July, so Gustafson had been working out and working on her game following the release. Just a few weeks after agreeing to participate in TBT, the Wings came calling, and signed her. The call certainly came as a welcome surprise.
“I had no clue. I was talking with my agent and a few days before I was signed, she looked into Dallas’ situation, and then the call came.” (It’s worth noting that her agent is WNBA Hall of Famer, Ticha Penicheiro.)
Following an 0-5 start, the Wings found themselves in a precarious position with their roster. With Taylor Hill’s knee injury, and Glory Johnson leaving to participate in EuroBasket, the opportunity arose for her to head back to Dallas.
For Gustafson, the call to come back was one that’d she’d been waiting for, and the fact that it was the Wings — the same team that drafted her — was meaningful. “It means they saw something in me and that they’re confident I can contribute to the team.” The transition has been a much smoother one as she is already familiar with the expectations of Wings head coach Brian Agler, his system of play, as well as her teammates.
While her release came as a surprise to many, the fact is that with just twelve teams, and such talented players in the WNBA, roster spots are hard to come by. The transition from college to the WNBA is also a quick one, especially if you’re on a team that made a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Gustafson’s Hawkeyes did just that, as they made it to the Elite Eight, before ultimately falling to the eventual national champion, Baylor Bears. Following an Elite Eight defeat, she attended the Final Four, numerous awards ceremonies, and the draft, while heading out to training camp and preseason just shortly after being drafted. All of this while still finishing school.
“I took my finals two weeks early,” Gustafson said. “It was tough and a tight squeeze to fit everything in before heading to camp.” While many professional sports leagues have significant time between their draft and the beginning of training camp, the WNBA has a quick turnaround.
When Gustafson got to camp, she felt ready. While there were growing pains and learning experiences throughout training camp and preseason action, one thing never wavered and that was her persistence.
She also was able to see first-hand, something that she already knew: the WNBA is really good.
“People that don’t watch, don’t understand how good we are,” Gustafson said. “Just watching, and being there in person; there’s nothing like it.”
Gustafson was able to take her experiences, along with the messages she received from the Wings’ coaching staff upon her release, and work hard to put herself in position to be ready when that phone call came.
Gustafson, who led the country in scoring in both her junior and senior seasons, was no stranger to putting up big numbers. She averaged 27.9 points per game as a senior, and finished her four-year career averaging a double-double, at 20.8 ppg and 10.8 rebounds per game. Gustafson, who is known for her dominant post play, realized that she needed to diversify her game in various ways.
“I worked a lot on my perimeter game and the three-point shot,” she said. “I feel really comfortable with that right now. I also worked on my mobility and was in the weight room a lot. I wanted to be ready when I got the call.”
While she may be adding new aspects to her game, especially if she is able to be a consistent threat from the perimeter, she isn’t going to completely reinvent her game — the work on her post moves continued.
As we saw throughout her college career, her ability to dominate in the post was clear from day one. It was also clear to Mercer assistant coach Kaitlyn Cresencia. Mercer took Iowa to the wire in the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament, as the Bears held a one-point lead entering the fourth quarter. Iowa eventually prevailed 66-61, but Cresencia, seeing Gustafson live for the first time, was beyond impressed.
“She’s a supper efficient, skilled post player,” Cresencia told High Post Hoops. “She has a handful of quick moves and knows exactly when to use them. Megan plays with a level of confidence that shows she’s put in the reps.”
In the past month, Gustafson has shown her confidence, and perhaps more than anything, it has been that confidence in herself that’s carried her through a tumultuous few weeks. That, along with what she identifies as the support of her family, has helped get her to where she is today. Growing up in a basketball family, as both her mom and dad were college basketball players, and her sister as well. So Gustafson has always been around the game. It’s a part of who she is.
“My family means everything to me and they’ve supported me since day one,” she said. “They were the first ones I called after I was cut. One of the hardest things I’ve ever had to go through was losing basketball.”
The opportunity to return to Dallas is, thankfully, one that she didn’t need to wait that long for, and Gustafson couldn’t be happier to be back.
“I’m so happy to be back,” she said. “I feel like I was meant to be here, and that I’ve been given a second chance for a reason.”
With the support of her family, and her dedication to the game she loves, she is back in the WNBA, and is poised to make the most of her opportunity. “I didn’t realize how much I loved basketball until I lost it.” When asked about what she hopes to accomplish moving forward, she responded as any winner would: “I just want to play with all my heart and give it everything I have.”
While what lies ahead for her may be unknown, one thing is for certain: Dallas and the WNBA have a winner in Megan Gustafson.
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