Why the Trail Blazers turned to WNBA stars to help build a contender

PRIOR TO THE Portland Trail Blazers’ first preseason game in Seattle in October, a member of the Blazers’ front office strolled up to general manager Joe Cronin and three of his staff members sitting courtside.

Anyone in the area could hear the comment to Cronin.

Hey Joe, you’ve got the makings of a pretty good starting five there.

Next to Cronin were three former WNBA stars now on his Blazers staff, which also includes a current WNBA player, all of whom are tasked with building Portland into a contender around All-NBA guard Damian Lillard.

The Blazers’ front office includes:

Hall of Famer and former WNBA all-time leading scorer Tina Thompson, a four-time champion with the Houston Comets, was hired by Portland as a scout last fall.

Two-time WNBA All-Star and 2012 Olympic gold medalist Asjha Jones has served as the Blazers’ director of basketball strategy since April 2021.

Sheri Sam, a 10-year WNBA veteran, was hired by Portland as a scouting manager in March 2022.

Washington Mystics guard Evina Westbrook has been working as an intern for the Blazers since October.

As teams across the NBA look to diversify their executive ranks, more players with WNBA ties have joined NBA front offices. But it seems no team can currently match the Blazers’ staff for women’s basketball talent, additions Cronin believes signifies that a woman GM in the NBA is an inevitability.

“The front-office experience they’re getting right now, it’s just a matter of time,” Cronin told ESPN. “There’s other teams doing it as well. These women are so capable and so talented that it’s going to happen.”

LEGENDARY ASSISTANT COACH Chris Dailey, who has worked with UConn Huskies coach Geno Auriemma throughout the program’s dynastic run, has a well-earned reputation for accidentally calling Jones.

So when Jones got a call from her college coach in late 2020 following up her third season as a WNBA assistant coach, she did not expect it to change the course of her professional career.

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“She butt dials me a lot because I’m first in her phone,” Jones told ESPN. “I’m like ‘Hello?’ and she’s like, ‘I meant to call you.'”

Jones hadn’t wanted to become a coach after a 12-year playing career, but Mike Thibault — who coached Jones for nine seasons with the Connecticut Sun before moving to the Washington Mystics — convinced her to give it a try in 2018. Jones spent two seasons as a player development coach for the Mystics, including the team’s 2019 title run, and was promoted to a full assistant for 2020.

Back home in Miami the following offseason, Jones was tagging along as her oldest daughter purchased a car when Dailey reached out. Dailey had talked with Cronin, who was looking to hire a former WNBA player for the director of basketball strategy position.

For Cronin, tapping into the pool of former WNBA players to hire made sense because of their diverse playing experiences both in an American professional league and, typically, overseas during the WNBA offseason. (Jones spent more than a decade playing abroad in Italy, Russia, Spain, Turkey, Slovakia and Israel.)

“To us, it was a natural thing to look to these players who have this beautiful basketball mind and then this body of work and work ethic and all these other traits that I’ve talked about,” Cronin said. “It’s an interesting makeup for a basketball executive, and it’s a successful makeup for a basketball executive from what we’ve seen.”

Portland’s search began in earnest that spring, and Jones found herself interviewing first with Cronin and then-Blazers GM and president of basketball operations Neil Olshey.

From left, director of basketball strategy Asjha Jones, scouting manager Sheri Sam and scout Tina Thompson watch alongside assistant GM Andrae Patterson during a Trail Blazers training camp practice. Courtesy Portland Trail Blazers

The Trail Blazers offered her the director of basketball strategy job just as Washington was about to start training camp in April 2021. Jones figured she’d finish out the season as an assistant coach with the Mystics before joining the Blazers, only for Thibault to insist she begin preparing for Portland’s offseason instead.

“He was like, ‘You have to take this opportunity. You have to,'” Jones said. “That made it easy. Once I told him about it in detail, he said, ‘Get out,’ basically. ‘This is your last day.’ It moved really quickly.”

The Blazers envisioned Jones becoming “Little Joe,” as she describes it, learning the knowledge Cronin had accumulated over 15 years in the organization, starting as an intern and rising through the ranks to become a front-office leader. Eventually, she’d take over Cronin’s responsibility of managing the team’s salary cap.

That process accelerated when Cronin replaced Olshey as interim GM in December 2021, just ahead of a busy February 2022 trade deadline in which Portland made three deals in a week, sending out longtime guard CJ McCollum and setting up another trade last summer for forward Jerami Grant.

“There’s no real class you can take. You have to do it every day, you have to be involved deep. Most people I know coming from the W, they’re in different positions. Nobody’s really doing this.”

Trail Blazers director of basketball strategy Asjha Jones

Cronin had Jones executing trade emails to the league office communicating the terms with the other teams involved, something that was previously his responsibility.

“He’s like, ‘Write the email,’ and I’ve only seen it once,” Jones said. “Now I’m trying to do it quickly and reference something else. It was intense, but that’s what trade deadlines are: They’re intense. That’s what this job is, too.”

As Cronin revamped and expanded the Blazers’ front office, he offered Jones the chance to change roles to develop her skills. She has added duties, but cap planning remains at the center of everything she does. It’s a job that appeals to her business major background at UConn.

“People don’t really get this,” Jones said. “There’s no real class you can take. You have to do it every day, you have to be involved deep. Most people I know coming from the W, they’re in different positions. Nobody’s really doing this.

“If I get that strong foundation, then I’ll be indispensable. I can move anywhere. I can do anything once I know this stuff because it’s not being taught anywhere. You can’t learn it. You have to be in the trenches to get this knowledge. I’m set on learning it.”

JONES’ RAPID 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] a trendsetter for us, since Tina and myself kind of followed,” Sam told ESPN. “I think if Asjha would have come in and maybe not been as great, that door might not have opened for me.”

After taking over as GM, Cronin circled back to Sam and Thompson, both of whom he’d met during the process of hiring Jones. Reaching out to Sam to join the front office was “one of the first calls I made,” Cronin said.

Like Jones, Sam had dabbled in coaching after her WNBA career ended in 2008. She spent four years as an assistant coach at Eastern Illinois, but the job wasn’t for her.

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“I realized that I wanted to be on the business side, I didn’t want to be on the sidelines,” Sam said. “It was so eerily close to playing. I don’t know if it’s because I missed playing so much, but there were aspects of it where for me it wasn’t passionate. It wasn’t like every day I was passionate to go and do certain parts of it.”

Sam stayed connected to sports, working as an athletic director at a pair of San Francisco high schools and most recently in golf with the Northern California PGA Foundation. Still, it wasn’t basketball.

“Basketball has been such a big part of my life,” Sam said. “It’s a passion. I didn’t know I missed it as much when I wasn’t in it until I got back in it. Because when I was out, I was like, ‘I do miss some parts’ but now in it, immersed in it, I really missed it.”

Cronin offered Sam her choice of roles. She could join the team as a scout who would be based in San Francisco, or come to Portland for the role of scouting manager and experience life inside the front office while also traveling to scout.

Accepting the scouting manager role allowed Sam, like Jones, to learn different roles in the front office and determine how she’d like to progress in her career.

“Joe’s given us an opportunity to see everything, which is really unique,” Sam said. “So I’m scouting, but I’m also seeing how strategy works and seeing how Andrae [Patterson, one of the team’s assistant GMs] handles the business side.”

Tina Thompson talks with Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, center, and Bucks forward Joe Ingles, right, before a February game in Portland. Thompson was hired as a scout by the Blazers last fall. Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

When Cronin reached out in 2021, Thompson wasn’t ready to move to the NBA. She was heading into her fourth year as the Virginia Cavaliers’ women’s basketball coach and was lining up a recruiting class and transfers for the upcoming season.

They stayed in touch, and when Thompson was fired after the 2021-22 season, Cronin offered her a chance to join the Blazers’ staff. Thompson wasn’t in a position to move to Portland right away because her son, Dyllan, 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 ESPN, “but because of my inability to move to Portland at the time, in working through the possibilities, what seemed to be the best fit was scouting.”

Cronin explained to Thompson that a scouting position would be a natural transition after evaluating high school players as possible recruits while coaching in college. At the same time, it gives Thompson the chance to learn the talent pool on the men’s side and get some exposure to executive roles she’d be interested in after Dyllan heads off to college.

In addition to spending about 60% to 70% of her time scouting the NBA, with the rest split between college and G League, Thompson typically travels to Portland once a month since starting her role in September to spend time with the team’s front office.

WESTBROOK’S STORY IS different from her WNBA colleagues. Whereas Jones, Sam and Thompson spent most of their careers playing year-round, Westbrook decided to forego playing abroad after her first season in the league.

“In my mind, I’m like, ‘I need to be doing something. Working out, making money, something,'” Westbrook told ESPN. “I got in touch with my coach back at UConn, Morgan Valley, and was like, ‘Hey, you know Asjha Jones, who works for the Blazers?'”

“I was probably the biggest hater of Nurk [center Jusuf Nurkic]. Now, we talk about it now, that’s my best friend. He got me shoes for Christmas.”

Mystics guard, and Trail Blazers intern, Evina Westbrook

Although Jones and Westbrook didn’t know each other personally, the UConn family connections — including Valley, who played with Jones before joining Auriemma’s staff as an assistant — helped the native of nearby Salem, Oregon, secure one of the team’s paid internships while spending her offseason near home.

“Since I’ve been in college, I’ve been away from home,” she said. “I’ve experienced that. This is my first time in six years just being able to be home and having the luxury of only being an hour away from my little brother and my family.”

Initially, Cronin and Blazers coach Chauncey Billups envisioned a hybrid opportunity in which Westbrook could work with both the coaching staff and the front office, getting an idea of what either path might look like as a post-playing career.

Over the course of the Blazers’ season, she has gravitated more toward on-the-court work, facilitating drills in practices and working with players 1-on-1 before and after them.

“I don’t know if it’s because I’m a player still,” Westbrook said. “I just feel most comfortable and most natural on the court. I don’t even know if coaching is something I want to do, but as of right now I love being out there, I love seeing them get better and then seeing how the game is from a different perspective.”

“I’m getting a different view. I’m getting to see Dame [Lillard] and his work ethic,” Westbrook said, adding that, when they first met, Lillard told her he’d seen her play as a fan of the WNBA.

“What he does day in and day out, just little things like that, I’m able to take and add to what I want to do.”

Current Mystics guard Evina Westbrook joined the Trail Blazers as an intern just before the beginning of the 2022-23 NBA season. Erica Denhoff/Icon Sportswire

Despite growing up not far south of Portland down I-5, Westbrook was never a Blazers fan. Her dad, who grew up in Inglewood, California, made sure the family cheered for the rival Los Angeles Lakers instead.

“I told all of them when I came in here, I told Dame, ‘I hated y’all. I hated the Blazers,'” she said.

“I was probably the biggest hater of Nurk [center Jusuf Nurkic]. Now, we talk about it now, that’s my best friend. He got me shoes for Christmas. That’s my guy. I would never let anyone talk bad about him. I’ll talk s— to his face like, ‘You’re soft,’ but I would never let anyone talk like that about you to me ever. Never. I’m shutting all that down.”

Westbrook bonded with Nurkic by saying hello to him in Croatian, which she’d picked up from UConn teammate Nika Muhl and figured would be close enough to Nurkic’s Bosnian language.

“From that point on, I think we just clicked,” Westbrook said.


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At the NBA’s All-Star break last month, Westbrook wrapped up her internship and headed to Dallas to play in the second season of the Athletes Unlimited women’s basketball league, featuring several WNBA players who have opted against overseas competition. Afterward, she’ll be off to training camp with the Mystics, having recently re-signed with the last of three teams she played for as a rookie.

She’ll take with her the relationships built with players and the example of having seen her WNBA peers in leadership positions in the Portland front office.

“I really look up to them. For them to be especially Black women in this type of industry, it’s hard,” Westbrook said. “It’s not easy. I admire them and I really do look up to them — Tina, Sheri and Asjha, all three of them. Seeing what they’ve done on the court and how they’ve transitioned [to the NBA] and what they’re doing now, I think that’s amazing.

“If that’s something that I want to do, then I’m following in the right footsteps.”

MUCH ATTENTION HAS been focused on when an NBA team will hire the first woman as head coach, centering on the Blazers when they interviewed Becky Hammon for their open position in the summer of 2021 while Olshey was running the team.

Portland instead hired Billups, a longtime NBA star who had only one year in coaching as an assistant with the LA Clippers.

Hammon, who had spent seven seasons on the San Antonio Spurs’ coaching staff after wrapping up her 16-year WNBA career, subsequently left her role as assistant in January 2022 to coach the Las Vegas Aces to their first WNBA title last year.

Despite Hammon’s departure from the Spurs, there are six women currently working in the NBA as assistant coaches. There are more in front offices, including Jones’ UConn teammate Swin Cash as vice president of basketball operations and team development for the New Orleans Pelicans, Orlando Magic director of player development and quality control Becky Bonner and former Indiana Fever president and GM Kelly Krauskopf, now assistant GM for the Pacers, among others.

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In 2021, Kim Ng of the Florida Marlins became the first woman to serve as general manager in a big-four pro sports league. Cronin believes Jones, Sam and Thompson all have the potential to eventually hold his role.

“It’s going to happen pretty soon,” Cronin said. “We’re seeing more and more extremely capable women get these front-office jobs that are prepping them directly for that position.”

Just as Jones, Sam and Thompson took different routes to the Portland front office, they have unique approaches to plotting their future goals.

“I’m still in that stage of figuring it out,” Sam said. “I know I definitely want to be in the front office and I want to be in basketball, but I don’t have, ‘Oh, I want to be a GM.’ And here, just being so small, we’re hands-on. You have a title, but that title is not demonstrative of the work you’re going to do. I’m just going to enjoy it, keep learning and see what opportunities come.”

For Jones, it’s a matter of following the same steps she has seen Cronin take, preparing for each leap in responsibilities without a specific end target in mind.

“Other people might have big goals to aspire to and that’s them, but for me, I’ve gotten this far because I’ve focused on what I’m supposed to focus on.” Jones said. “I’m going to learn what I need to learn and make sure that when and if an opportunity comes available, I’m going to be prepared for it.”

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By contrast, Thompson is open about her desire to be a GM and thankful Cronin understands that ambition.

“It’s not normal to have a conversation with someone and indirectly say, ‘Yeah, I want your job someday,'” Thompson said. “But because he’s so open and because he’s so honest and he’s in the business of just growing people and allowing people to grow and expand and learn and better themselves and learn the business, it was very easy to be able to explain to him that yeah, ultimately that’s what I want to do.”

In response, Cronin told Thompson he’d do whatever it takes to help her achieve the goal of becoming a GM, leaving her amazed at his willingness to help the people who work with and under him develop in their careers.

As impressive as Jones, Sam and Thompson might have been as players, they no longer play, even in staff pickup games in Portland. Now, the team they are a part of is in the front office. And they’re glad to have Cronin running it.

“He’s like a little angel,” Sam said. “Seriously, what GM calls and says, ‘Hey, you choose what you want to do’? Even after my first year, we have our end-of-the-year meeting: ‘Is this the path you want to continue on?’ Helping us map out ‘What’s next for you? What’s your map? How can we get you there?'”

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