BRISTOL, Conn. -- "Potential" means you haven't done anything yet -- or so the saying goes.
Toni Young heard it a lot from coach Kurt Budke during her first two seasons at Oklahoma State. "Potential is just what you can be," Budke would say to Young. Sometimes he might change the phrasing, but the point was always the same: Young had a long way to go.
Every day, Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna tried to light a fire under the 6-foot-2 forward. They wanted Young to dedicate herself to improvement, instead of just skating by on raw talent, which she had in abundance. "They would tell me all of the time that I could be a great player and play in the WNBA if I just put my effort into it," Young said Monday night, after the New York Liberty selected her with the seventh pick of the first round in the WNBA draft. "When no one else believed in me, the two of them did."
Just a few minutes earlier, Young was standing in front of a podium, holding up a Liberty jersey with WNBA president Laurel Richie. Young was thinking about what things would be like if she had Budke and Serna by her side to celebrate, knowing that in a few weeks, she would be playing for the Big Apple's team. "If they were here, I would be thanking them for believing in me so long," Young said. "I was just a skinny little girl who nobody believed in. Seeing the belief that the two of them had in me, that kept me motivated."
And therein lies the sad irony, because part of the reason Young was standing in front of those TV cameras Monday night was that Budke and Serna aren't here anymore. They died in a plane crash in November 2011 during a recruiting trip -- and Young says the heartbreak that engulfed her afterward also crystallized the message the two coaches had been encouraging her to hear. She stopped being so hard-headed and decided to rededicate herself to the game, vowing to honor Budke and Serna by becoming the player they had always envisioned: a star.
Young quit her bad habits, such as walking off the court the second practice ended. She started staying late and adding skills to her already explosive athleticism. (She competed in the high jump at the 2012 U.S. Olympic track and field trials.) When she's alone in the gym, Budke and Serna are still in her ear. "They told me one day I could be a star in the WNBA, and now I have the opportunity to do that," Young said.
Sure, Young's game is still predicated on athleticism -- she can jump out of the gym -- but she has steadily added tools to that natural ability, catching the eye of WNBA coaches and scouts. Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer acknowledged that much of Young's game can't be taught. "But what set her apart in my mind was her shot, her turnaround shot," Laimbeer said, demonstrating the move. "Because of the size and the length of her arms, nobody can block her shot. Not even Brittney Griner. That's a trait that's phenomenal for a basketball player -- not having to worry about something like that. Plus, quietly, she's an outstanding defender."
Young is a self-described "Southern girl" from Oklahoma and has never visited the city she will soon call home. In fact, she said she would never have moved to a place such as New York of her own accord; she much prefers the open space that allows for dirt biking and horseback riding. "Big buildings," Young said when asked what she thought of when someone mentioned New York. "And traffic."
But, of course, the dream has taken her to the big city. And Young is no longer in the habit of deferring ... well, anything. "If living my dream means going far away from home, that's what I'm going to have to do," Young said. "I love my family, but maybe they can travel back and forth to come see me. I'm excited; I'm open to experiencing new things. And this is definitely a new experience."
On Monday night, Young pulled out her phone for the first time since being drafted. She had more than 40 messages and countless notifications. She scrolled through them and, seeing all of them, said, "This is really crazy." Standing a few feet from Young was former Texas A&M center Kelsey Bone, whom the Liberty had taken with the No. 5 pick of the draft. The two players, now teammates, said hello. And as they walked down the hallway, they joked that after their arrival, "New York is never going to be the same."
Who knows? After all, Young knows a thing or two about maximizing potential.