August 23, 2023
Rae Burrell is making the most of her opportunities this season
After a rookie year cut short, the Sparks second-year wing is experiencing life in the WNBA for the first time
Rae Burrell‘s rookie season in the WNBA didn’t quite go as expected.
After the Los Angeles Sparks selected Burrell with the No. 9 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft, she only managed to see action in three games before being sidelined with a knee injury. The injury cut her rookie year short as it kept her out for the rest of the season.
Although she didn’t get to play as much as she would have liked, it was still a good learning experience for her. While the Sparks sputtered to a 13-23 record and missed the playoffs for the second consecutive year, Burrell was still able to learn about being a pro and what she needed to take away going into her second season.
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“I was just basically learning more of the style of being in the WNBA and what you have to do to prepare your body. . .in college, I feel like they’re kind of on you about doing certain stuff like getting recovery, but in the pros, it’s kind of on you,” Burrell told The Next. “In the three games that I did play, just the speed of the game, the speed is faster, it’s way more physical. We got moms out there pushing you around. So just adjusting to that, just the accountability and just the facets and the physicality of the game.”
With her newfound knowledge of the WNBA and fully recovered from the knee injury, Burrell was ready to go for the 2023 season. But coming to training camp with a non-guaranteed contract and a glut of guards and wings on the team, making the Sparks final roster was going to be an uphill battle.
Sure enough, Burrell was one of the Sparks’ final roster cuts before the start of the season. But with the Sparks being one of the teams hit hardest by injury this season, Burrell was almost immediately back on a hardship contract. She was cut again after a couple of days but re-signed to another hardship contract on June 17 and she’s been with the team ever since.
Burrell’s rookie season in the WNBA was all about learning how to be a pro on and off the court, and this season has been about learning how to stay ready despite an uncertain future.
“When I first got cut, I knew to stay ready because even the Sparks told me to stay ready. Just that alone made me want to just keep going because you never know what the opportunity will be next, whether it was with the Sparks or whether it was with another team. Just make sure you stay focused mentally and physically,” Burrell said. “It can be discouraging getting cut, obviously, that’s not something you want to happen. But just knowing that everything happens for a reason and being patient, I’ll just keep working hard and I feel like my time will come.”
Burrell’s minutes have fluctuated this season. While the Sparks have been in need of available bodies, she hasn’t always been a fixture in the rotation. There have been some nights when she ended up playing quite a bit, such as the 21 minutes she played against the Phoenix Mercury. And then there have been games like last week against the Indiana Fever when she logged a little less than a minute and a half.
When she has seen the court, she’s shown flashes of what the former Sparks brass envisioned when they drafted her. She’s a wing with good size and has the ability to do a couple of different things on the offensive end. She’s shown she can handle the ball a bit and spot up and shoot the three.
She’s been able to create contact and get to the free-throw line. In the win against the Washington Mystics on Aug. 6, Burrell got to the line six times and knocked down five of them. Back on July 2 against the Atlanta Dream, she shot 4-5 from the stripe. She’s also got the tools to be a solid defender on the perimeter, both on and off ball.
It’s not just on the court, though, where Burrell has made herself valuable to the Sparks. She may only be in her second season in the league, but she’s already become someone who can bring the team together off the court.
“I’m just a very high energy person on and off the court. I like to bring energy into the locker room and make everybody laugh. I’m the DJ before the game, I’m getting everyone hyped, I’m dancing and stuff,” Burrell said. “So just bringing that energy that I have off the court onto the court. Coming in and playing hard defense, running the floor, trying to get rebounds and box out. When my teammates give me opportunities to have spot up threes or a jumper or anything, I can take advantage of it. It’s just coming in and working hard and just bringing that energy off the bench.”
With less than a month left in the regular season, the Sparks find themselves in the midst of a tightening race for the playoffs. The Sparks just had their longest winning streak of the season, which culminated in a road win against the Las Vegas Aces. They’re now a full game ahead of the Chicago Sky for eighth place and only one game back of the Mystics for seventh.
For Burrell, who was with this team earlier in the season when things weren’t going so well, to the improved play that’s led to this streak, these games are just a culmination of that camaraderie that’s been building all season long. Even when things looked bleak, this group never wavered in their belief in one another.
“We’re obviously heading in the right direction. I feel like everybody’s been really together. I think even when we were losing, we just made sure to stay together and stay the course. I think that really helped us to the success that we’re having now and to the success that we’re gonna keep having moving forward,” Burrell said. “That’s a confidence booster for us. We’re just all supportive of each other. We just know we can keep getting better. We see what we did the last game and the game before to see what we can work on for the next game and just continue to be ourselves.”
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Burrell has definitely immersed herself with the team and has made herself an integral part of the roster despite not having anything guaranteed. Even now, she’s in a bit of a precarious situation. Burrell and Evina Westbrook are the only two players on hardship contracts that are immediately terminated once enough players return to the active roster.
Since she missed most of last season, this is almost like a rookie year for Burrell. With 21 games under her belt this year, this has been the season for her to get acclimated with the nuances of the game on the court. It’s helped her get a feel for other teams and different schemes and while she’s focused on the now with the Sparks, she’s also got one eye on the future.
“I’m really just trying to feel out the game and feel how it is playing in the WNBA against these teams; for the most part, every year you’re kind of playing against the same people, the same system. I’m just happy to be able to play against them and get a feel for it,” Burrell said. “Next year, I can be more comfortable in it and know what my strengths are and what I can bring and just work on going overseas knowing what I can work on from this past year for next year.”
Written by David Yapkowitz
David has been with The Next team since the High Post Hoops days when he joined the staff in 2018. He is based in Los Angeles and covers the LA Sparks, Pac-12 Conference, Big West Conference and some high school as well.