December 5, 2021
Chronicles of the Women’s Drew League: Kelli Thompson
After returning home from playing at UNLV and overseas, Kelli Thompson is both coaching and getting buckets at the Women's Drew League
When Kelli Thompson was a senior at Long Beach Poly High School in 2009 and trying to decide which college to continue her basketball career in, she knew she wanted a challenge.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Thompson was a little bit averse to playing in the then-Pac-10. She had come up playing against a lot of the same girls who were committed to Pac-10 schools, and she just wanted something different, somewhere where she could start fresh.
She had initially chosen Louisville over UCLA and Washington State. But she had a change of heart after taking her official visit and realizing how far away from home it was. It was then that she ended up settling on UNLV.
Only a few hours drive from Los Angeles, UNLV and then-head coach Kathy Olivier presented the type of challenge that Thompson was looking for.
“My coach basically sold me on the fact that I could take what I did in high school and try and build on it there instead of going to another program that’s already built where I’ll just fit in and be another whoever,” Thompson told The Next. “Going to UNLV, it was like it’s all on me; we will only be as good as I lead us to be. That was the challenge I wanted. I wanted to see what I could do in a different type of conference playing against new people.”
And it ended up working for Thompson. She made an immediate impact as a freshman during the 2009-10 season as one of the Mountain West Conference’s top scorers. She continued that climb into her sophomore season, when she was named Mountain West Honorable Mention after averaging 14.1 points per game.
Her junior year was when she really took off, posting 14.3 points per game, fourth in the Mountain West, and being named to the all-conference second team as the Lady Rebels finished with a 22-10 record and made it to the WNIT. She finished her career at UNLV third in points and first in 3-pointers made.
She knew she could succeed in college. But she gives a lot of credit to her high school coach at Long Beach Poly, the legendary Carl Buggs.
“Coach Buggs prepared me like no other, from being on time, to how you carry yourself, to how you walk into a gym, how you present yourself. He was a drill sergeant that none of us wanted but were super grateful to have. When we got to college, the transition wasn’t as hard,” Thompson said. “A lot of the little things that my freshman teammates were struggling with, I had been so privy to already having played for someone like that. I had a good structure around me where I knew how to be a role player or how to take over a game. That was the blessing of growing up and playing for Buggs.”
After graduating from UNLV, Thompson ended up playing professional basketball overseas. She played for four years with stops in the Czech Republic, Iceland and Turkey. She had never liked to be too far away from home, which is why she de-committed from Louisville in high school, so traveling halfway across the world to a foreign country was a huge step for her.
She’s grateful for the experience, however, and she believes her time overseas helped shape her not only as a player but also as a person. She wasn’t a big talker in high school or college, but playing overseas in situations where she was often the only American, she learned to become more outspoken and vocal.
“It’s a different type of grind mentally and physically. You really have to be bought into achieving your goals. For me, it was more so keeping my mental in check. I knew if I put the work in, everything else would fall into place,” Thompson said. “You have to be more vocal; you have to get out of your shell. It’s the only way to get through the day, to get through the season, eight months of being away from your family. For me, it was about being outspoken and being a leader more than anything else.”
After Thompson wrapped up her overseas career and returned home, she got into the AAU coaching business. Many former players turn to coaching once their playing days are done. Some end up being very good at it, and some don’t.
One of the biggest challenges former players tend to find when making the transition to coaching is still having a player mentality. For Thompson, she’s found that she can reach her players by using herself as an example. Whether they see her physically playing on the court or see film of her, they’ve been responsive in knowing that their coach has been there before.
“I’ll show them a move and because I can do it, they’re a little bit more intrigued by actually seeing it done themselves. For me, coaching is all about practicing what you preach,” Thompson said. “When I tell my girls certain things, I try and be the example. I had a few kids go off to college and do really well and for me, that was my itch to be like, ‘Wow.’ As much as I’m good at helping these kids, I actually miss playing the game and miss achieving those things and putting in the grind to get there.”
Feeling that itch to get back on the court and play basketball again has brought Thompson to the Women’s Drew League back home in Los Angeles. Thompson plays with Lady Cheaters, and like most of the teams in the league, most of her teammates have college and even professional experience. Back in 2018, now-Las Vegas Aces point guard Chelsea Gray, who was with the LA Sparks at the time, suited up with Lady Cheaters.
By her own account, Thompson has been taking it easy each weekend. But there are times when she’ll show some flashes of the player who helped Long Beach Poly win a record four straight California state championships. And who was one of the most explosive scorers in the Mountain West.
The main thing for her, though, is to get to reconnect with many of the players she grew up with.
“I think this is the best place for women’s basketball right now. We don’t have many leagues outside of the WNBA, we don’t have a G League. Getting down here and actually being a part of this is amazing,” Thompson said. “It just feels good to come back and still see everyone’s still so competitive. It feels good to see all the other girls who put in that work and it’s even better to see people achieving their goals and then coming back here. I’m super proud of all these girls, whether I know them or not.”
To the outside eye, the Women’s Drew League might seem like an insignificant rec league in the middle of South Central, LA. But for some of the players, it could be a stepping stone to getting to where they ultimately want to be. A few of them have actually signed professional contracts overseas solely off of footage from the league.
Thompson hopes that the league will continue to get more exposure and that its growth will help players with whatever they want to do with basketball. She’s noticed the increase in media coverage and the increase in fan support each weekend. She believes that’s crucial to helping women’s basketball continue to grow.
One of the biggest draws for her is the opportunity to see WNBA and college talent all under the same roof for free.