Babcock McGraw: Draft-pick Coates still waiting in the wings

Talk about adding insult to injury.

My heart goes out to Alaina Coates, the Chicago Sky's top draft choice in April and the second overall pick of the 2017 WNBA draft.

She made her first trip to Chicago since the draft and was watching courtside Friday night at Allstate Arena during the Sky's home opener against the Atlanta Dream.

She was finally cleared to fly by her doctors.

"I'm just so glad I was able to come out to this game and actually meet my teammates," said Coates, who came in from her home in South Carolina.

It was the first chance Coates got to meet people in Chicago in person. She's been grounded, literally and figuratively, since early March when she suffered a severe sprain to her right ankle that required surgery and ended her senior season at South Carolina.

Due to health risks, doctors told Coates, a 6-foot-4 center, she could not fly, which meant that she was unable to follow her team throughout the NCAA tournament.

Of course, South Carolina wound up winning the NCAA national championship. So not only did Coates, who was averaging a double-double for the Gamecocks at the time of her injury, miss out on the final weeks of her senior season, she missed out on a national championship run. Because of the flying restrictions, she had to stay home in South Carolina and watch the Women's Final Four from Dallas on TV.

Insult to injury.

"It was really hard. Not playing was already difficult enough," Coates said of her final days at South Carolina. "But having to be there (at the Final Four) 'in spirit' instead of actually being there with my teammates made it even worse."

And now, poor Coates is still watching, uncertain as to when her WNBA career with the Sky will begin. Doctors have yet to give her a concrete timetable. She's in a boot for at least the next six weeks, continuing the recovery process of a strange and difficult injury. While trying to block a shot, Coates came down on someone's foot and abruptly rotated her ankle to the inside.

"It's just a very uncommon way to injure your ankle," Coates said. "Most people roll it to the outside, they don't turn it inward. On top of that, I tried playing on it while it was injured two different times and I reinjured it. That didn't help."

What has helped Coates is a positive outlook and a strong belief in herself. She is convinced that not only will she get well, she believes she will also be an impact player in the WNBA.

"I feel like the relentlessness that I bring, and the energy I bring is something you don't normally see in post players," Coates said. "My main thing is rebounding. I take a lot of pride in it. I know I will be a big contributor with that. I have a mentality that every rebound is mine and that no one is going to get it before me. I feel that's a good quality for a big to have."

Of course, that's not Coates' only quality as a basketball player. She's got a nose for the basket, hitting 67 percent of her shots this season in averaging 13 points per game. She also pulled down 11 rebounds per game for the Gamecocks.

"She's a fighter," said first-year Sky coach and general manager Amber Stocks, who used the first draft pick of her career on Coates. "And she's a unique talent who has a special skills set. She's known for being a great rebounder and defender and shot-blocker, but she's also a great finisher. She's got great athleticism and footwork that will make her a force in this game. She's going to be an impact pro."

Just getting the chance to be any kind of pro was all that Coates was hoping for.

"The last few years as the time for that got closer, I've been hoping more and more for the chance to play in the WNBA," Coates said. "It became the dream. It became a really big thing of mine, something I really want to do."

Like many others, I'm looking forward to seeing her do it. A healthy Coates could be one of the best bigs in the WNBA.

Follow Patricia on Twitter: @babcockmcgraw

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