Maite Cazorla continues to be an Oregon women’s basketball trail blazer.
Before the Ducks started making noise in the NCAA Tournament with the arrival of the historic 2016 recruiting class, Cazorla guided a struggling program back on the winning path with a memorable WNIT run during her freshman season.
Last week Cazorla, a rookie on the Atlanta Dream, became the first Oregon player from the Kelly Graves era to make a WNBA regular-season roster.
Sabrina Ionescu, Ruthy Hebard, Satou Sabally and perhaps some other talented younger Ducks will have opportunities to follow in the Spanish point guard’s footsteps in the years to come.
“It means a lot. I’m grateful to be here,” Cazorla said after Atlanta’s practice on Wednesday as the team prepares for its home debut Friday against defending champion Seattle. “I couldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for my four years at Oregon and the things I learned from the coaches and the players.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity, and hopefully more players from Oregon will get the opportunity one day.”
After helping Oregon reach the Final Four for the first time, Cazorla returned to Eugene and watched the WNBA draft with teammates Hebard, Oti Gildon, Nyara Sabally and Morgan Yaeger.
Nicki Collen told Cazorla earlier in the day that she planned to select her if she was still available in the second round. True to her word, the Atlanta coach took the steady Oregon senior with the 23rd overall pick.
“As the draft goes along, I get a call from coach Nicki and she said, ‘Hey, I just want to let you know that we just drafted you. It’s a little slow, it will come up (on the broadcast) soon. Welcome to the team,’” Cazorla said. “So everyone started screaming in the apartment, and maybe like a minute or two later it showed on TV. It was awesome.”
The WNBA is a very exclusive club with only 12 franchises with 12 players on each roster.
Less than 1 percent of all draft-eligible players get to hear their name called on draft night, and only the best of the best make a team.
According to Her Hoop Stats, 66.4 percent of players on opening-day WNBA rosters were first-round picks, 21.1 percent were second-round picks and 12.5 percent were either third-round picks or undrafted.
Iowa star Megan Gustafson, the Associated Press’ national player of the year, was cut by the Dallas Wings after training camp.
Cazorla survived Collen’s final cut and is being groomed for the future behind veteran point guards Renee Montgomery and Alex Bentley.
“I almost cried when she called me and told me her coach had just called her,” Graves said “It’s like something great happening to a family member. I was just thrilled for her. …
“It takes some time to truly appreciate who she is. Sometimes when you only have a couple weeks to figure that out in a training camp, it can be hard, but they did the right thing.”
Collen said she believes Cazorla’s mastery of the pick-and-roll and stellar defensive play will translate well at the professional level.
During her senior season, Cazorla averaged 9.7 points and 4.3 assists playing Robin in the backcourt to Ionescu’s Batman.
“What’s great about her is not everyone is going to be a superstar at this level,” Collen said of Cazorla on draft night. “So understanding how to be a complementary player and knowing how to win are important.
“She has a maturity about her that I think is going to serve her well as far as fitting in. Players are going to like playing with her.”
Cazorla, who left Oregon with records for the most wins (113) and games played (146, all starts) in program history, showed up for her first professional training camp confident and ready to compete.
Two familiar Pac-12 faces, former UCLA forward Monique Billings and former Oregon State center Marie Gulich, are on the Dream.
“I was nervous going to a new team and into the WNBA, but I was confident,” Cazorla said. “They drafted me for a reason. So I just did what I do.”
Cazorla did not play in Atlanta’s victory at Dallas in the opener, but a video of her knocking down a half-court shot during the shoot-around went viral.
“I didn’t even know they were recording,” Cazorla said. “At shoot-around here, you only have one chance to do it. I made it.”
When Bentley takes a leave of absence from the Dream this summer to compete for Belarus at EuroBasket, Cazorla will be the primary backup to Montgomery.
Atlanta posted a franchise-best 23-11 record last season and was the No. 2 seed in the playoffs. The Dream lost in the semifinals to the Washington Mystics.
“I think we’re going to get better each day, learn, and hopefully go to the finals and win the whole thing,” Cazorla said.
Graves, who could be coaching a pair of 2020 WNBA lottery picks in Ionescu and Hebard, will be watching Cazorla’s pioneering season like a proud father.
“I kept telling (Collen), listen, you won’t regret this,” Graves said. “Maite is a heck of a player. And then we obviously know what a great person she is, a great teammate, the whole package.
“When something great happens to a person like that, you’re really excited.”