July 7, 2022
How Iliana Rupert went from a suburb of Paris to the Las Vegas Strip
'She's an atypical rookie for sure' -Sydney Colson
Pau, France, is a 12-square-mile city in the southwest part of France with a population of 75,000 people. That’s a lot different than the 141-square-mile desert oasis of Las Vegas. However, the city set along the Pyrenees Mountains is where Aces 20-year-old rookie Iliana Rupert got her start playing basketball at the age of just four.
Rupert grew up in a basketball household. Her father, Thierry Rupert, was a forward for the French national team and had an almost 20-year playing career for different club teams throughout France. Rupert started playing basketball just to be with her friends. However, as time passed, she developed a love and passion for the game, and growing quite rapidly helped as well. She knew she wanted to make basketball her life; her first basketball role models were her fellow countrymen.
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“At first, it was a lot of men’s [players]. I didn’t even know that women’s basketball existed. It was many players from the men’s national team like Tony Parker and all those amazing players that went to the NBA,” Rupert told The Next. “When I grew up and I discovered women’s basketball, I started to fall in love with Elena Delle Donne; Emma Meesseman, also as a European; [and] Sandrine Gruda, who was a French player who played in the WNBA for many years.”
As she grew and developed, she started to be recognized for her talents. She won the 2019-20 EuroLeague Women Young Player of the Year award while playing with Bourges Basket in France. She also helped the French national team advance to the finals of the 2019 EuroBasket tournament. That is why it was no surprise when she was taken with the 12th overall pick in the 2021 WNBA draft. For Rupert, this moment was special and something she had been dreaming about for a long time.
“I was really proud to finally be able to come to the WNBA. I knew that I always wanted to come and play here, but being drafted was like a little thing on top, especially as a European. I was really proud. I know that the Aces have high expectations and want to win a championship. So being part of this, it’s amazing,” Rupert said.
However, being drafted by the Aces didn’t lead to immediate time with the club. She stayed home in France, continuing to play with Bourges Basket. During this time, she only got better. She was named EuroCup Final Four MVP and French league MVP and helped lead the French national team to a bronze medal in the Olympics in the last year alone. Going into this season, she didn’t know whether she would get a chance with the Aces, but one day, the call came.
“I worked really hard since the beginning of the [European] season in September so that I could come here. I knew that the coach was changing, so I didn’t know if they would want me to come,” Rupert said. “In April, I got a call from [new head coach] Becky [Hammon] and the team called my agent to tell them that I will be able to come and I was really happy.”
Rupert was officially signed to the Aces’ roster on June 19. She played in her first WNBA game six days later against the Washington Mystics, scoring five points. She has found success pretty quickly, scoring at least five points in four of the six games she’s played. She had a career-high 13 points in a career-high 23 minutes against the New York Liberty on Wednesday night. Rupert’s teammates aren’t surprised that she has been able to adapt so quickly and fit right in on the Aces.
“I’ve gotten to play against her overseas, so I knew what we were getting. We were getting a stud. She’s a lot bigger than I think people thought, very skilled, can shoot the ball. But she’s an Olympian. She’s a pro, you know, so I knew that she’s gonna come in and she’s not gonna be a normal rookie,” Kelsey Plum told The Next.
“She can play a few positions. She can step out and shoot. She’s smart. She can pass it. Yeah, I think she’s different … I think she’s gonna be a really good player in this league for a long time,” Sydney Colson added.
Adding Rupert to this Aces roster has been a nice lift. Las Vegas has struggled to find consistent bench scoring, and Rupert has shown she can do that in her limited playing time so far. She has great touch around the basket, she can stretch the defense with her outside shooting and she has great length as well. Rupert says there has been an adjustment to the American game, but she hasn’t found it too difficult.
“We might be playing the same game but in really different way. Here, the one-on-one is a really big thing. I just had to learn a little bit how they are playing, but now it’s a lot better,” said Rupert.
Playing in the WNBA has always been a dream for Rupert, but these first few games have been extra special. With the Aces facing Seattle and New York within her first six games, Rupert has been able to play against two of her national team teammates in Gabby Williams and Marine Johannès. Johannès and Rupert have a deeper bond since they played on the same club team for the past few years. Rupert was so excited at the opportunity to play her fellow countrywoman on Wednesday night.
“I’ve known Marine for a long time. We play[ed] together for five years … on the team in Bourges. And then the national team,” Rupert said. “I’m really happy to play against French players. I played against Gabby a few weeks ago. Now Marine. I’m really happy to be able to see some French girls over here.”
The off-the-court transition to Las Vegas also seems to have been as seamless for Rupert as the on-the-court one. She feels that Las Vegas is like Paris: a big city with a lot to do, but there are some calm areas as well. She also has gotten a lot of support from her teammates. They have all offered to help her in whatever way she needs. Rupert feels so blessed to have a group of teammates who help her feel a part of something despite being in a new country with a foreign language and culture.
While Rupert is new to the Aces, she has fit like a glove on the team. For her, she is doing what she always dreamed of, playing basketball as a job and in the best league in the world, no less. That moment when she first stepped onto the floor against Washington is one she knows she will never forget.
“The first time that I stepped on the court, I think it was really, really an amazing moment. The crowd was super excited when I came in; they were like clapping a lot. I was really happy to see that I was welcomed like that in this city,” said Rupert.
Written by Matthew Walter
Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.