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What Lynx rookie Temi Fagbenle lacks in experience, she makes up for with brains

The Lynx drafted Temi Fagbenle in 2016 but had to wait a year for her to join them while she finished her master's degree at USC. Jordan Johnson/NBA/Getty Images

NEW YORK -- Minnesota Lynx center Temi Fagbenle wasn't supposed to be in the WNBA.

Her plan was to be on the WTA Tour, challenging the likes of Venus and Serena Williams for Grand Slam titles. She had planned to go all the way to the top of the tennis world.

"I think I could have been world No. 1," Fagbenle said as she prepared to face the New York Liberty at Madison Square Garden last month. "My serve was killer; my forehand was killer. There was no way you could have stopped me. But it is what it is."

For Fagbenle, plans had to change when the financial cost of pursuing a tennis career became too much. So when she gave up trying to become the next Serena, tennis' loss was basketball's gain.

One of 12 children, Fagbenle, 24, was born to Nigerian parents in Baltimore and was raised in London, also spending some time at school in Nigeria. Not only was her path to professional basketball out of the ordinary, she didn't even like the sport the first time she played it.

Her first memories of hooping are at age 14, and as can be expected for anyone trying something new, there was some awkwardness involved.

"I just remember that I was like a baby deer on the court," she said about her first time playing basketball. "I was very skinny and could hardly keep myself up. The footwork was a bit challenging for me, but I picked it up really quickly. That was fun for me."

Fagbenle's willingness to learn held her in good stead as she progressed. She enrolled at Blair Academy in Blairstown, New Jersey, at age 15 after moving back to the U.S. from London. In addition to leading Blair to a state championship in basketball, she won state track and field titles in discus, shot put, javelin and high jump.

"I have a knack for picking things up quickly, no matter what it may be," she said. "I'm a quick learner."

"Basketball has a shelf life, and my education will last me my whole life."

Temi Fagbenle, on why she delayed the start of her pro career to finish her master's degree

By her senior year at Blair, Fagbenle was one of the nation's top recruits and a McDonald's All-American. Rather than play at one of the major programs that wanted her, Fagbenle, with academics in mind, opted for Harvard.

After sitting out her freshman year at the Ivy League school, Fagbenle represented Great Britain at the 2012 London Olympics as a 19-year-old. She then played three seasons for Harvard and earned a degree in anthropology, before transferring to USC in 2015 to use her final year of basketball eligibility and pursue a master's degree in strategic public relations.

Despite being one school year short of her master's, Fagbenle entered the 2016 WNBA draft and was selected in the third round, 35th overall, by the Lynx. She was at a crossroads. Should she leave school and enter the professional ranks or sit out a season while completing her degree?

In the end, the decision was simple.

"Definitely tough [not playing], but in terms of making the decision, it wasn't tough," she said. "I wanted to finish up my education. Basketball has a shelf life, and my education will last me my whole life."

After completing her degree, Fagbenle joined the Lynx for training camp this year, knowing her place on the team wasn't guaranteed. Again, her willingness to learn paid dividends. On the last day of camp, Fagbenle got word that she'd survived the final cuts and made the roster.

"Anything we teach her, she absorbs quickly and applies," Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve said. "It's been a really good relationship, where she's hungry and we're anxious to put the time in to see her grow."

Having started the game later than many of her contemporaries, Fagbenle landed in a good spot with the Lynx, a successful, veteran squad that won't require her to log heavy minutes right away.

And Reeve is more than happy to let Fagbenle develop at her own pace.

"As a player who made the team as a 10th or 11th man, so to speak, I want to see her grow, I want to see her improve, I want her to understand our game -- the pick-and-roll, the defense, our offensive schemes. ... She can help us," Reeve said.

Minnesota won WNBA championships 2011, 2013 and 2015, and its current roster features savvy veterans such as Maya Moore, Sylvia Fowles, Seimone Augustus and Lindsay Whalen.

"It's fantastic playing at this level, definitely different from anything that I've experienced in the past," Fagbenle said. "Sylvia kind of came, her being the selfless person that she is, came to me and offered advice. I absolutely appreciated that. She's definitely been a source of guidance for me."

Speak to any member of the Lynx coaching staff, and one of the first things they'll tell you about Fagbenle is how mature she is. Despite being one of two rookies on the roster, Fagbenle has been able to blend with her older teammates seamlessly. Reeve attributes that to her diverse upbringing.

"I think there's no question it has helped her adjust to life in general," Reeve said. "Then, as a professional athlete, going into a new environment, being able to adjust so quickly, she has a maturity about her that our veteran group really enjoys, because there tends to be, at times, a pretty big age gap."

As for Fagbenle, her journey to the Lynx has been a unique one, but that has never affected her approach.

"I'm just going to do me, which is what I've always done throughout my entire career," she said. "Just play my best, still get better, develop my skills and just reach for the stars."