How Natasha Mack, chicken cutter, found her WNBA dream again
Elite defender brings strength and grit to defense-challenged Sky
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“In front of all the other choices? She was better,” he said in a virtual post-draft press conference, without elaboration.
Wade's scouting report on Mack had a lot more information on what he saw in her. “Athletic, rangy. Fits the mold of the players that we have. Has a defensive mindset, runs really well and moves really well. So she's somebody that focuses on a need as far as defense and protecting the paint."
But it is Mack's personal journey that makes the sixteenth selection in the WNBA draft so fascinating. As a basketball star at Lufkin High School in Texas, Mack showed early promise. She lettered all four years, and distinguished herself by earning back-to-back district defensive player of the year titles as a freshman and sophomore. The next year, as a junior, she was district MVP.
As a ‘hot’ Division 1 prospect, expected to make an immediate impact, Mack had her choice of schools. Initially, the 6'3 Mack picked the University of Houston over prestigious contenders, including Texas, Texas A&M, Kansas, Louisville, Baylor, Texas Tech, TCU, LSU, Georgia, West Virginia, and Florida, among others.
Her path seemed laid out before her. A D-1 college spot, followed by her stated dream to play in the WNBA — maybe a mentor to other D-1 defensive hopefuls. Could she bring the women's version of 'Phi Slamma Jama,' to the University of Houston, as Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler had a generation earlier?
It was not meant to be.
“As a kid, you are like straight shot, straight basketball,” Mack explained to KTRE-TV “All that. Then as you get older and become an adult, life starts to hit you. It is like U-turn, detour left, right, bumps curves. High School could not prepare me for what college was like.”
Mack felt she didn't fit into the Cougars’ program. Worse, she’d fallen out of love with the game that brought her so many accolades so young.
At a crossroads in her life, she returned to her hometown. According to The Oklahoman, she went to the poultry plant, knowing it would be an easy job to get, and she started working there the next day. This began her brief career cutting chickens into wings. She will still demonstrate the motion if asked.
Fortunately, basketball wouldn't leave her alone. A year later, the coach of Angelina College, a junior college, offered her the chance to play.
“A couple days went by and I thought about it,” Mack told The Oklahoman. “I was like, 'I can’t be cutting chicken wings for the rest of my life.' The smell was awful. I can’t do this the rest of my life. It’s not something I want to do.”
So Mack called the coach and recommitted to the life of an elite athlete.
During her time away from the game, “I just learned to appreciate the game more. I took it for granted,” Mack said. “I admit that to take that time off and be away from it made me just realize that this is what I'm meant to do. It's what I love to do.”
With that realization, Mack re-committed herself to her basketball goals. At junior college, she earned All-American honors. Oklahoma State was next. Her fierce competitive drive and the passion for basketball returned to a big stage. And Mack thrived, excelling for the Big 12 Cowgirls for the next two years.
In her senior year, Mack blocked 112 shots and had 56 steals for Oklahoma State, averaging 19.8 points and 8.9 rebounds per game.
And the accolades came, fast and furious. She was selected to the Big-12 All-Defensive Team First-Team and was named Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and WEBCA Defensive Player of the Year
And now, Mack is the No. 16 pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.
How does Mack think she can contribute to the Sky? “Definitely my hustling and my rebounding. With everything else, I would just have to work on it for it to come naturally.”
Rebounding and elite defense is a role Mack can fill. It's been at a deficit since center Sylvia Fowles left a few seasons ago. As Swish Appeal pointed out at the end of last season, center Stefanie Dolson only managed a 10.1 percent total rebounding percentage, and the Sky allowed 108.5 points per 100 possessions during a 2-6 slide at the end of the season, followed by a quick postseason exit. The Sky ranked sixth in defense in the WNBA last season, and haven't been in the top four in nearly a decade. Mack could make a significant impact with one weapon that’s not so secret anymore:
“I learned to read offensive players. That's been my game. I read people very well. That's why my defense is great. I don't try to brag on it a lot. I just let my game speak for itself. I hope my game fits in well and I hope I make some type of positive impact on the team.”