Arella Guirantes has seemed destined for the W.N.B.A. ever since she stood 4 feet 7 inches tall as a fifth-grader on the varsity team in summer league at Bellport High School on Long Island. Her basketball skills have always been steps ahead of her peers’, and her ambition to be the best against any level of competition has pushed her to the next level.
Guirantes, 23, remembers a game from her senior year at Bellport, not for scoring 58 points, but for what she didn’t do. She was alerted with around 2 minutes left that she had scored 50 points, but she wanted 60. She’d missed her team’s first blowout loss against that day’s opponent, Kings Park High School, for showing up 20 minutes late to school.
“I just like mentally took a note,” Guirantes said. “When I play them again, I’m going to kill them.”
Guirantes brought that competitive fire to Rutgers, where she led the Big Ten in scoring as a redshirt junior during the 2019-20 season with 20.6 points per game and topped that number in the 2020-21 season with 21.3 points per game. Now she appears on the brink of her W.N.B.A. destiny, with the draft on Thursday and Guirantes projected to be one of the top picks.
“I mean, every day in practice, she was always that one player that you knew that was just going to compete,” said Kelley Gibson, a former recruiter and assistant coach at Rutgers. “You know, players show up and just sometimes work hard in practice, but Arella competed.”
Guirantes is foremost a scorer, and an efficient one at that. In her redshirt senior season, she shot 41.6 percent from the field and 37.8 percent from 3-point range on 4.3 attempts per game. She also had per-game career highs in assists (5.2) and steals (2.2) steals. She was named first team All-Big Ten for the second consecutive year and awarded All-Big Ten Defensive Team honors.
One of Guirantes’s signature plays is the jaw-dropping sidestep she uses to create space away from her defender off the dribble. She absorbs contact with her strong frame to fade away and shoot off either foot, moving in either direction using constant changes in speed.
“You know what, now that you mention that, she did hit me with a couple of those,” said Dennis Smith Jr., a point guard with the N.B.A.’s Detroit Pistons, who has trained with Guirantes.
Guirantes’s individual moves are stellar, and her series of jabs, in-and-outs and spins led her to finish in the 86th percentile of all scorers in isolation situations, according to Synergy Sports. But W.N.B.A. front offices are just as excited by her success in pick-and-roll situations. She ranked in the 90th percentile of all players as the ballhandler during the 2020-21 season, according to Synergy Sports.
Scoring isn’t the only reason Guirantes’s name has shot up draft boards. Defensively, she’s a hawk, plucking passes and stripping ballhandlers. She’s also a bully down low, afraid of no one. “Oh, yeah, one thing I can tell you for sure,” Smith said. “She ain’t ducking no smoke. That’s a promise. She ain’t ducking no smoke.”
Despite standing six inches shorter than the 6-foot-5 Charli Collier of Texas, who some think could be drafted first over all, Guirantes recorded more blocks per game. She credits many of her defensive instincts to her time playing middle blocker in volleyball. “I think I have a good just I.Q. for the game to understand where people on offense are going, when they’re going to put the ball up,” she said. “I have good timing.”
The W.N.B.A.’s 2021 draft class isn’t heralded as a strong one, but an experienced scorer like the 5-foot-11 Guirantes could be an immediate-impact player for a contender. She’ll be up against the likes of Aari McDonald from Arizona, Dana Evans from Louisville and Rennia Davis from Tennessee to be the first guard taken off the board. Unlike those three, her team, a No. 6 seed in the N.C.A.A. tournament, was upset in the first round, by No. 11-seeded Brigham Young, 69-66. Fortunately for her, scouts have had five years to assess her talent.
“I don’t know if she’s separated herself,” said James Wade, head coach and general manager of the Chicago Sky. “I think when you talk about big guards, you can mention Davis in the same breath. I think it’s more of what you’re looking for and how they kind of fit into your team and the players that you have.”
He continued: “I do think that she is a high-quality guard because of all the things that she can do — her strength, the fact that she can create her own shot. I think she has certain qualities that separate her from the bunch, but at the same time it depends on what you’re looking for, versatility defensively or versatility offensively, which I think she has a lot of offensively.”
Wade said he believed Guirantes would be selected within the first six picks, three of which belong to the Dallas Wings. Mock drafts place Guirantes as high as No. 3 to the Atlanta Dream. Guirantes said she will be happy no matter where she lands, but the Long Island native is making it no secret that she’d love to play for the Liberty, who hold the No. 6 pick.
“That would be a dream come true,” said Guirantes, who grew up going to Liberty and Knicks games at Madison Square Garden with her family and friends from the Boys and Girls Club. The Liberty now play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“The Garden has a special feel, but the transition to the Barclays I can’t say is a bad transition,” Guirantes said. “I’d really love to play at the Barclays Center.”
The W.N.B.A. draft will be held virtually for a second straight year because of the coronavirus pandemic on Thursday, and Guirantes will be lying low until then, working on her game and training. She plans to watch the draft with her family and sweat out the moments until her name is called. In the meantime, she’ll try to avoid looking at mock drafts and people critiquing her game on social media. Maybe playing with Donkey Kong in the Super Smash Bros. Ultimate video game on her Nintendo Switch against Smith will pass the time.
Wherever Guirantes lands on Thursday night, she’s going to be ready.
“My short-term goal is to really come in and make a quick transition,” Guirantes said. “I know it’s a lot easier said than done. But I want to make a huge impact and be in the running for rookie of the year. I think if you’re not going for rookie of the year, then you’re not really trying to help your team as much as you think you are.”
She knows about starting strong: In only the second game of her college career, with Texas Tech before she transferred to Rutgers, she sank a buzzer-beating shot to force overtime against Texas A&M.
“I really want to make a strong first impression in the W.N.B.A. because the way you start your career is important,” Guirantes said, adding: “That translates to overseas, too. They’re watching. A strong first year in the W.N.B.A is important.”