Merchant: Powers should live her dream in leap to WNBA
East Lansing — It was a Friday in early April, and Aerial Powers had asked to stop by Michigan State women’s basketball coach Suzy Merchant’s home.
Powers showed up, and Merchant’s boys were watching “How to Train Your Dragon 2,” so she and Merchant headed off to another room.
And they sat, for what seemed like forever, in silence.
“I was just staring at her and she was staring at me,” Powers said. “I just didn’t know how to start it.”
Powers likened the feeling to a breakup.
The Michigan State junior forward had decided to skip her senior season and declare for the WNBA draft.
Now she had to tell her coach, and wasn’t sure how Merchant would take it.
“What do you think I should do?” Powers asked, breaking the ice.
“I’m not gonna tell you; you can’t make a wrong decision,” Merchant said. “I sat at the table again so she made sure I wouldn’t get a kitchen knife and chase her around the house. ‘You’re never gonna leave. If I can’t have you, nobody will!’ It wasn’t quite like that.”
Truth is, Merchant had an idea this was coming.
And in tonight’s WNBA draft, Powers could be selected as high as No. 2, behind consensus No. 1 Breanna Stewart, who led Connecticut to four consecutive NCAA championships.
If Powers goes in the top five, she would be the highest pick ever in Michigan State history (Kristin Haynie went No. 9 in 2005).
“As a mom and a coach, all you ever want is for your kids to live their dreams,” Merchant said. “It was a positive thing. I was sad, of course. I love her. There’ll never be another kid like her.”
A record breaker
Merchant knew she was getting a good player in Powers, a recruit out of Detroit Country Day.
Powers wasn’t Miss Basketball or a McDonald’s All-American. She wasn’t even a top-50 recruit, according to most services. Merchant said ESPN ranked Powers 99th.
Then, Powers tore her Achilles her freshman year and missed the entire season.
“The only time I might’ve not felt that confident was when I tore my Achilles,” Powers said. “My whole thing was to get back to the player I was, times two.”
Goal set, goal achieved.
Powers began her Michigan State career the following year, averaged a team-best 13.4 points and was named first-team all-Big Ten.
As a redshirt sophomore, she had 24 double-doubles in 31 games, averaged 21.9 points and was first-team all-Big Ten, again.
And last season, while starting with a sore Achilles after a gold medal run at the World University Games, Powers averaged 21.9 points, setting the school career scoring mark with 1,817 points (Liz Shimek, 1,780).
She also has the most points in a season (697, 2015-16), career average (18.9) and career free throws made (438).
“She’s done so much here,” Merchant said. “She’s broken almost every record you could break. If her dream is to go, it’s to go. I’m so happy for her.”
While there’s not a ton of money in the WNBA — Powers could earn around $40,000 as a rookie — there are other opportunities to play overseas during the offseason, and those can be lucrative.
A boost from family
Powers, 22, didn’t get to this point by accident.
Merchant said when practice ended, Powers wouldn’t leave. She’d set the cones up and work on dribbling drills or shoot. There are gym rats, and then there is Powers.
Powers gets her work ethic from her father, Juan, a military man who as a long-time sergeant never was shy about voicing his opinions from the stands or after games. And when Powers had a bad game, he never hesitated to drive to campus and work her out. In fact, the whole family often would come — her younger brother would play defense and her mother would rebound.
“My dad’s a very hard worker; he’s always been that, he’s always pushed me,” Powers said. “It helped me be who I am.”
Some college coaches would balk at the family getting involved, especially during a season.
“It was a really fun dynamic to watch them, because that’s her guy,” Merchant said. “She lived off almost every word he said, good and bad.
“I think as a family, they told her the truth. As talented as she was, they wouldn’t let her get away with a whole lot.”
Powers, who graduates next month, said she first started dreaming about the WNBA once she got to high school.
Now she will become the first player from an Oakland County high school to be selected in the WNBA draft.
“To watch a kid be a very good player and turn into a great player by work ethic and mental and physical toughness is pretty fun to watch,” Merchant said. “I’m proud of any kid that has that opportunity, but I think as a coach, you really feel satisfied when you look at her because she’s a self-made player.
“And there’s very few of them.”
When: 7 tonight, Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Conn.
TV: ESPN2, ESPNU