Meet the WNBA stars who are powering the Trail Blazers’ rebuild
BEFORE Portland Trail Blazers first preseason game in Seattle in October. A Blazers head office employee approached general manager Joe Cronin and three of his employees on the court.
Anyone in the area could hear Cronin’s comment.
Hey Joe, you have the makings of a good starting five.
Next to Cronin were three former WNBA stars now on his Blazers team, which also includes current WNBA player, all tasked with turning Portland into a contender against All NBA guard Damian Lillard.
The Blazers front office includes:
Hall of Famer and former WNBA leading scorer Tina Thompson, a four-time champion with the Houston Comets, was hired as a scout by Portland last fall.
Two-time WNBA All-Star and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Asja Jones has served as director of basketball strategy for the Blazers since April 2021.
Sheri Sam, a 10-year WNBA veteran, was hired by Portland as their scouting manager in March 2022.
Washington Mystics defenseman Evina Westbrook has been an intern with the Blazers since October.
As NBA teams seek to diversify their leadership roles, more WNBA-affiliated players have joined the NBA front offices. But it seems that no team currently can match the Blazers’ staff for women’s basketball talent, an addition Cronin believes means a female NBA grandmaster is inevitable.
“The front office experience they’re getting right now is just a matter of time,” Cronin told Sportzshala. “There are other teams that are also doing this. These women are so capable and so talented that it has to happen.”
LEGENDARY ASSISTANT COACH Chris Daley, who worked with UConn Huskies coach Jeno Orimma throughout the program, has a well-deserved reputation for accidentally calling Jones.
So when Jones got the call from a college coach in late 2020 after her third season as a WNBA assistant coach, she didn’t expect it to change the course of her professional career.
“She calls me a lot because I’m the first on her phone,” Jones told Sportzshala. “I’m like, ‘Hi?’ and she’s like, “I wanted to call you.”
Jones was reluctant to become a coach after a 12-year playing career, but Mike Thiebaud, who coached Jones for nine seasons with the Connecticut Sun before moving to the Washington Mystics, convinced her to try it in 2018. Jones spent two seasons as a player development coach at the Mystics, including the team’s championship title in 2019, and was promoted to full assistant in 2020.
Back home in Miami the following offseason, Jones trailed after her eldest daughter bought a car when Daly contacted her. Daly spoke to Cronin, who was looking to hire the former WNBA player as director of basketball strategy.
For Cronin, reaching out to a pool of former WNBA players for hire made sense due to their varied playing experience both in the American Pro League and typically overseas during the WNBA off-season. (Jones spent over a decade playing overseas in Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Slovakia and Israel.)
“It was natural for us to look at these players who have a great basketball mind and this amount of work and work ethic and all the other traits that I talked about,” Cronin said. “It’s an interesting makeup for a basketball executive, and from what we’ve seen, it’s a successful makeup for a basketball executive.”
The Portland search began in earnest that spring, with Jones interviewing first Cronin and then Blazers general manager and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey.
The Trail Blazers offered her the position of director of basketball strategy just as Washington was about to start training camp in April 2021. Jones expected her to finish the season as an assistant coach with the Mystics before joining the Blazers, but Thibault insisted. instead, she begins training for Portland’s offseason.
“He said, ‘You should take advantage of this opportunity. You have to,” Jones said. “It made things easier. When I told him about it in detail, he said, “Get out,” essentially. “This is your last day.” He moved very fast.”
The Blazers envisioned Jones becoming “Little Joe” as she describes it, learning from the knowledge Cronin had accumulated over 15 years with the organization, starting as an intern and rising through the ranks to become a front office executive. Eventually, she would take over Cronin’s responsibility for managing the team’s pay cap.
That process accelerated when Cronin replaced Olshey as interim general manager in December 2021, just ahead of a busy February 2022 trade deadline that saw Portland complete three deals in a week, sending longtime defenseman CJ McCollum and arranging another a trade last summer for winger Jerami Grant. .
“There is no real class you can take. You must do this every day, you must be deeply involved. Most of the people I know come from W, they are in various positions. Nobody really does it.”
Trail Blazers Director of Basketball Strategy Asya Jones
Cronin instructed Jones to send trade emails to the league office communicating the terms to the other participating teams, which had previously been part of his job.
“He’s like, ‘Write an email,’ and I’ve only seen him once,” Jones said. “Now I’m trying to make it quick and refer to something else. It was tight, but that’s what trading times are: they’re tight. That’s the same with this work.”
When Cronin revamped and expanded the Blazers’ front office, he suggested a role change for Jones to develop her skills. She has added responsibilities, but cap planning remains at the center of everything she does. This job is in line with her experience at UConn.
“People don’t really get it,” Jones said. “There is no real class you can take. You must do this every day, you must be deeply involved. Most of the people I know come from W, they are in different positions. Nobody really does this.
“If I get this solid foundation, then I will be indispensable. I can move anywhere. I can do anything when I know these things, because this is not taught anywhere. You cannot learn it. You have to be in the trenches to get this knowledge. I’m determined to study it.”
JONES FAST TRANSITION and business acumen from WNBA assistant coach to NBA front office role paved the way for her peers to join her in Portland.
“[Jones was] trendsetter for us as Tina and I kind of followed suit,” Sam told Sportzshala. “I think if Asja had come along and maybe wasn’t so great, that door might not have opened for me.”
After taking over as CEO, Cronin returned to Sam and Thompson, whom he had met during Jones’s hiring process. Asking Sam to join the front office was “one of the first calls I made,” Cronin said.
Like Jones, Sam dabbled in coaching after her WNBA career ended in 2008. She spent four years as an assistant coach in Eastern Illinois, but the job wasn’t for her.
“I realized that I wanted to be in business and not be left out,” Sam said. “It was so creepy close to the game. I don’t know, maybe it’s because I missed the game so much, but there were moments when it wasn’t passionate for me. and do certain parts.”
Sam has remained involved with the sport, serving as an athletic director for a couple of San Francisco high schools, and most recently he played golf with the Northern California PGA Foundation. And yet it was not basketball.
“Basketball has been such a big part of my life,” Sam said. “This is passion. I didn’t know I missed her so much when I wasn’t in her until I got back to her. Because when I was gone, I thought, “I really miss some parts,” but now, having immersed myself in it, I really missed it.”
Cronin offered Sam a choice of roles. She could join the team as a scout based in San Francisco, or come to Portland as a scouting manager and experience life in the front office while going to scouting.
Assuming the role of scouting manager allowed Sam, like Jones, to master the various roles in the front office and determine how she would like to develop in her career.
“Joe gave us the opportunity to see everything that is really unique,” said Sam. “So I do intelligence, but I also see how strategy works and I see how Andre [Patterson, one of the team’s assistant GMs] handles the commercial side.
When Cronin contacted him in 2021, Thompson was not ready to move to the NBA. She was approaching her fourth year as coach of the Virginia Cavaliers women’s basketball team and preparing for recruiting and transfers for the upcoming season.
They kept in touch, and when Thompson was fired after the 2021/22 season, Cronin asked her to join the Blazers. Thompson couldn’t move to Portland right away because her son Dillan wanted to play his final two years of high school and AAU basketball in his hometown of Houston.
“There were a few positions that were open,” Thompson told Sportzshala, “but due to my inability to move to Portland at the time I was exploring opportunities, I felt scouting was the best fit.”
Cronin explained to Thompson that the scout position would be a natural transition after school students were assessed as potential recruits during college practice. At the same time, it gives Thompson a chance to explore the male talent pool and get some idea of the leadership positions she’d be interested in once Dillan heads off to college.
In addition to spending 60% to 70% of her time scouting in the NBA and splitting the rest between college and the G-League, Thompson has typically traveled to Portland once a month since she began her job in September. to spend time with the front office team.
THE HISTORY OF WESTBROOCK different from his WNBA counterparts. While Jones, Sam and Thompson played year-round for most of their careers, Westbrook decided to forego playing overseas after her first season in the league.
“In my mind, I’m like, ‘I need to do something. Train, earn money…