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Former Duke star Rebecca Greenwell aims for 2020 WNBA debut

The 2018 WNBA Draft pick is rehabbing from her second knee surgery since her college career ended

Every spring, a select few women’s college basketball players are invited to the WNBA Draft to hear their names called in person. Others mark the start of their professional careers by hosting watch parties with family and friends. But Rebecca Greenwell, a shooting guard for Duke from 2013 to 2018, did neither of those things on the day she was drafted.

Instead, Greenwell watched the 2018 WNBA Draft from a hospital bed about four hours after undergoing the fifth knee surgery of her career. Once thought of as a possible first-round pick, she slipped to the third round, going 31st to the Washington Mystics. The setting “was not ideal,” Greenwell told High Post Hoops, “but I was still happy that Washington picked me up.”

Greenwell had been injured for most of her senior season at Duke but had elected to postpone surgery until after the season. The operation was to repair a chondral defect—essentially, a hole in the cartilage in her knee—by growing new cartilage. The estimated recovery time was 12 months, meaning that she would miss her entire rookie season in the WNBA that summer.

Greenwell battled through months of rehab, and by March 2019, she had progressed far enough that the Mystics flew her to Washington to work out with Elena Delle Donne and Natasha Cloud. “It was a dream come true,” Greenwell said, “but at the same time, during the workouts … I knew [my knee] wasn’t where it was supposed to be.” With training camp just two months away, Greenwell had to reassess whether her plan to return for the 2019 season was feasible.

A few months later, Greenwell’s doctors determined that the cartilage in her knee had not healed. She sought opinions from four doctors on what to do next, ultimately deciding to have a sixth knee surgery in September to create more space in the joint for the cartilage to heal.

Despite missing two full WNBA seasons, Greenwell is optimistic about 2020 and beyond. The projected recovery time is six months, which would be mid-March. As she neared the halfway point, Greenwell said, “I already feel way better than I did after 12 months last surgery. … Simple things that hurt last time around, I’m not having any problem with, so I definitely know this surgery worked.” She is currently doing strength training and expects to be cleared to start running in January or February. She added, “I’ve learned to not get my hopes up because of the experience last time. But so far, all the improvements I’m seeing, I’m definitely hopeful to get back out there at some point.”

DURHAM, NC – FEBRUARY 25: A fan showing Duke Blue Devils guard Rebecca Greenwell (23) some love during the 2nd half of the Women’s Duke Blue Devils game versus the Women’s North Carolina Tar Heels on February 25, 2018, at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC. (Photo by Jaylynn Nash/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Anyone who has been injured for a significant period of time knows that it can be difficult to stay motivated. Even though she couldn’t play in 2018, Greenwell said that being selected in the WNBA Draft gave her “something to strive for and something to look forward to.” Nineteen months later, she is motivated to return to basketball “to prove it to myself that I can do it.” She added, “I know I’m so close … so I would really regret it if I got this far and then just threw in the towel because it was a little inconvenient.”

“A little inconvenient” is an obvious understatement, but Greenwell’s choice of words reflects her positive mindset. She finds silver linings in the struggles she has faced, including the opportunity to explore basketball-adjacent career paths such as broadcasting, sports marketing, and skills training. “I definitely wish I could be two years into playing professionally,” Greenwell said, “but I’ve gained so much off the court … that I think it’ll definitely help me in the long run, just in life.” (For more on her off-the-court experiences, look out for another story on Greenwell later this week.)

Another source of motivation for Greenwell is her belief that, when healthy, she can be a difference-maker on a WNBA team—even the defending champion Mystics. “I know they didn’t really need much help this season,” she admitted. “It was fun to watch. But … I think any team needs a shooter. And I know I could spread the floor, and playing with a player like Delle Donne would just be the perfect situation for me. … I think I could be a big help for their team.”

That confidence was part of the reason that, after Greenwell decided to have her sixth knee surgery last fall, she declined an offer from Mystics head coach Mike Thibault to renounce her rights and allow her to sign with another team. “You’re the number one team I’d love to play for,” she told him. Greenwell acknowledged that she had mixed feelings watching the Mystics win the 2019 WNBA title, “not any jealous feelings” but “just the natural competitor in me. I definitely wish … I could have been a part of that journey.” With most of the Mystics’ roster slated to return, it will be an uphill climb for any newcomer to make the team in 2020, let alone one who hasn’t played competitively in nearly two years, but Greenwell is betting on herself and hopes to be part of a repeat.

If Greenwell’s bet pays off and she makes the team, her story will likely generate lots of headlines. If she makes the team and the Mystics repeat as champions, it will be worthy of a feature film. Greenwell acknowledged that her situation “has not been the ideal path that I expected for myself.” But, she added, “if I am able to get back out on the court, I think it’ll … be inspiring for others who haven’t had a straight path to immediately reach their goals and dreams.”

On the other hand, if Greenwell has another setback or doesn’t make a WNBA roster, her story will likely not reach nearly as many people. But it should. Whatever the outcome, the process has been a case study in perseverance, resilience, and commitment. Perhaps the most inspiring part is that, while doing all she can to return to the court, Greenwell has learned that life without basketball can be fulfilling, too. “I’ll be okay without basketball,” she said. “But [playing professionally] has always been my goal and my dream, so … I’m definitely still going to try.”

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