Chelsea Dungee was flying on Thursday, the day of the W.N.B.A. draft. She wasn’t on the court, where the ambidextrous guard is used to getting airtime on both sides of the basket. She was getting on a plane, returning to Fayetteville, Ark. She was also euphoric.
“I don’t even know how to describe it,” Dungee said in a telephone interview during her layover in Atlanta. “I worked my entire life for today.”
The 23-year-old star Arkansas guard was returning from Florida, where she had posed for her first photo shoot as one of the female athletes endorsed by Nike’s Jordan Brand. The shoot required Dungee to sip champagne on a yacht with an assortment of her soon-to-be-peers, W.N.B.A. players like Kia Nurse and Crystal Dangerfield, who won the Rookie of the Year Award last season. The Instagram chronicles of the glamorous evening became Dungee’s de facto announcement of her first endorsement.
From there, she was heading to her own draft party to celebrate making it to the league — and being a first-round draft choice, if the mock draft consensus held up. It made sense that she was so excited that she’d forgotten to eat breakfast. What she didn’t realize, though, was just how much better her day was going to get.
Dungee was one of the players for whom the draft’s unpredictability meant good news, instead of a long, painful wait to hear her name called. She was the fifth overall pick, going higher than expected to the Dallas Wings — a squad full of compelling young stars that happens to be the closest W.N.B.A. team to both Dungee’s hometown Okmulgee, Okla., and her school, the University of Arkansas.
“My mom has never missed a home game,” Dungee told reporters after celebrating her pick. “I’m only about three-and-a-half hours from her and about five from Arkansas, so it couldn’t be a better situation.”
Her mother, Chi Dungee, a social worker, raised her alone in their tiny town of less than 12,000. Chi played basketball and softball in high school, and introduced Chelsea to sports.
“We lived in the country,” Chi said as she sat with her daughter in the Arkansas athletics conference room where they, the women’s basketball coaches, Chelsea’s teammates and a few fans would watch the draft. “We had the outdoor hoop that was just old school. It was a 10-foot pipe with a basket welded to it, and you played on dirt.”
The W.N.B.A., now heading into its 25th season, was new when Chelsea was learning the game, but she can’t recall a time when she didn’t want to make it to the league. Unlike so many of her predecessors, Dungee is younger than the league itself. It was nearby, too: The Detroit Shock became the Tulsa Shock when she was in middle school. Now, they’re the Dallas Wings.
Dungee’s ability was evident early. An Oklahoma journalist at her draft night news conference, for example, recalled covering her when she was just 14 years old. Though that meant Chi had to take her to more and more games and tournaments, the mother said she found comfort in the grind of parenting a high-level athlete. “From this month to this month, you’re going to see these people, your kids are going to compete,” Chi said. “There was a lot of support system in that.”
Dungee was the Southeastern Conference’s leading scorer last season, averaging more than 20 points per game.Credit…Dawson Powers/USA Today Sports, via Reuters
She beamed at her daughter as she spoke of all the work it took for both of them to get to this place, clad in television-ready outfits picked a few days before while waiting to hear life-changing, history-shaping news. “Whatever we decided to do, we did together — and we were all in, I mean 100 percent,” Chi said, her voice shaking slightly. “Here we are, again.”
Chelsea Dungee is now preparing to meet a whole new group of teammates, and spent much of her time on set with her Jordan Brand colleagues asking them about life in the league. “Like, what’s training camp look like? What’s housing look like? What’s traveling look like?” Dungee said of the questions she asked some of the W.N.B.A. veterans. “Just getting a lot of knowledge from them, and asking about what to expect.”
It was only right that she watched the draft at Arkansas, next to the gym where she spent so many hours trying to make sure that she would have her draft moment. Dungee’s mother and her Arkansas coach, Mike Neighbors, were by her side. Neighbors kept track of all 12 team hats the W.N.B.A. sent her, so that the right one would be handy for Dungee to put on as soon as she got picked. The three of them watched the broadcast quietly, until Dungee’s name was called. Neighbors handed her the Wings hat, Dungee hugged her mother, and then she did her national television interview.
“I was surprised,” she said afterward. “I don’t think anyone would have thought that, coming from a small town, I’d be the fifth pick.”
She went around the room, taking selfies with the teammates, coaches and fans. Arkansas, where she transferred after spending her freshman year at Oklahoma, was where she found her identity — a relentless shooter whose offensive creativity made her the leading scorer in the Southeastern Conference in the 2020-21 season, averaging 22.3 points per game. Then there’s her razor-sharp crossover, the move that she hopes will become her W.N.B.A. signature.
“I think this system has absolutely been great for me,” Dungee said of Neighbors’ program. “It’s fast paced, there’s a lot of pick-and-rolls, a lot of screening actions, and you see that a lot in the W.N.B.A.”
The draft night party served as a more fitting conclusion to her time with the Razorbacks than their last game, in which Arkansas became the seventh No. 4 seed ever to be upset by a No. 13 seed in the first round of the N.C.A.A. women’s tournament. “It was disappointing,” Dungee said. “I had to come to terms with that, let it go and move on.”
The coaching she received at Arkansas, and the community that was as willing to encourage her to shoot her shot as it was supportive of her on draft night, may have helped raise her draft stock. Before the draft, Chicago Sky Coach James Wade said that both she and her Arkansas teammate Destiny Slocum had “progressed a lot in their maturity and the way they approach the game, playing for a coach that gives them a lot of freedom and that plays a W.N.B.A. style.” Slocum was drafted in the second round by the Las Vegas Aces.
After seemingly endless rounds of interviews on Thursday, Dungee finally had time to digest her wild 24 hours. “My dream actually just came true,” Dungee said. “I’m still in shock.” She pledged that she would be back in the gym the next day, getting ready for training camp on April 25, and hopefully her first W.N.B.A. season on May 15.
“This is a celebration,” she added, not ruling out the possibility of having a little more champagne. “Afterwards, I’ll have my mind right and be ready to work.”