Adia Barnes Sets the Tone for Future NCAA Women’s Basketball Coaches

Former WNBA player Adia Barnes understands the game and players like no other. 

By Ashton Kowalski

The Arizona Wildcats women’s basketball team just finished their impressive season with a 54–53 loss to the Stanford Cardinal in the NCAA National Championship. Though it ended with a bit of disappointment, the program still deserves recognition for making it to their first NCAA National Championship in school history. Players such as Aari McDonald dominated throughout the tournament for the Wildcats under Adia Barnes’ committed coaching. Former WNBA player Barnes has manifested a new standard for coaching that makes you wonder why more retired WNBA talent hasn’t been put in NCAA head coach positions.

Arizona Wildcats celebrating after an exciting win over UConn Huskies at the end of the Final Four game (SOURCE: Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Barnes played for the Wildcats from 1994 to 1998 where she received the Pac-10 freshman of the year award, the first player in program history to receive the honor. In 1998 Barnes was drafted by the WNBA to begin play for the Sacramento Monarchs, and continued to play in the WNBA and overseas for 12 seasons. Barnes won a WNBA Championship with the Seattle Storm in 2004, then went on to play with a few other teams. She also started the Adia Barnes Foundation—a mentor program for underserved youth that also does community service projects. Barnes then worked in different sports broadcasting positions before becoming the assistant coach for the Washington Huskies in 2011 and eventual head coach of the Arizona Wildcats in 2016. 

Adia Barnes aggressively playing for the Seattle Storm as a former WNBA player (SOURCE: Jim Bates / The Seattle Times)

In typical Barnes fashion, she is continuing to break record after record—fastest coach in Arizona history to 75 wins, ESPN Coach of the Week in January of 2018, a finalist for WBCA and Naismith Coach of the Year Award, first coach to lead the Wildcats to the National Championship (and Final Four), one of two black, female, coaches to make it to the semifinals, and a personal favorite—the first head coach to pump breast milk during halftime of coaching a team in the national championship. 

Barnes’ influence as a coach goes well beyond setting records; she is shaping players and guiding them to awards of their own. Aari McDonald was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and was a finalist for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year, the Wade Trophy, and the Honda Award. She also led the Pac-12 in scoring and steals per game for two seasons straight, has multiple All-America Honors, and won the Ann Meyers Drysdale Award. Wildcat players Cat Reese, Sam Thomas, and Helena Pueyo have won records of their own under Barnes’ coaching as well.

Barnes coaching Aari McDonald during the Final Four tournament game (SOURCE: Kirby Lee, Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Here’s what makes Barnes an incredible coach—she can put herself in the players shoes, because she has literally been in their shoes. They may even be her shoes that they are borrowing. Barnes’ situation is unique because she played for the Arizona Wildcats before joining the WNBA, and can understand player’s such as Aari McDonald on a much deeper level. Barnes has first hand experience of going from NCAA basketball to the WNBA, then to overseas teams, a career in sports broadcasting, and finally, coaching. There are many challenges that Barnes had to face as a Black woman and a mother as she built this incredible career, and that personal experience allows her to mentor her players with their future in mind.  

There is significance in having former WNBA players in leadership roles. Ex-players understand the importance of empowerment and can encourage collegiate players in their individual performance while representing what the WNBA stands for before a player even begins her professional career. 

Out of the 36 WNBA draft picks in 2019, 31 slots went to NCAA players. Considering almost 90% of WNBA draft picks are NCAA players, having a former WNBA pro coach NCAA team allows the college players to be molded with a mindset that looks toward their future.  

The WNBA draft will be held on April 15, 2021 on ESPN at 8 P.M. EST. 

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