New York Liberty Bella Alarie
Ben McKeown/AP Photo

Denied a shot at NCAA Tournament exposure, Princeton sensation Bella Alarie is nonetheless set to turn heads at the 2020 WNBA Draft.

Magliocchetti with the Liberty

Bella Alarie has had to overcome a lot to rise up the big boards of the WNBA. The biggest obstacle? Bearing the burden of Bilas family ties.

The former Princeton Tiger is the goddaughter of ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, a fact gleefully revealed by Bilas’ colleague Holly Rowe in a Monday conference call hosted by the WNBA.

“One of her greatest talents is (that) she has been able to overcome that in her life,” Rowe said. “That’s said with a smile. That’s said with a laugh.”

Time will only tell if Alarie follows Bilas into TV stardom. In the closer future…Friday to be precise…it’s very possible she could duplicate another family accomplishment. Her father Mark was a first-round pick of the Denver Nuggets in the 1986 NBA Draft.

On a serious note, Rowe repeatedly referred to Alarie as the prospect with the best chance to be an opening-round steal in Friday’s WNBA Draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN). Traditional hoops powerhouses are well represented in the early stages. Relative newcomer Oregon could send three first-rounders alone. Early entry Megan Walker will represent the annual Connecticut output. Representing the small schools is Alarie.

“I love her mobility. I think the thing that stands out to me is her mobility and length. She’s got a huge upside to her game,” Rowe said.

In true Ivy League fashion, Rowe noted that Alarie is continuing to work on her senior thesis while waiting for WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert to call her name (remotely, of course). The ESPN basketball expert revealed that the topic is a 1920s Broadway show (said to be Shuffle Along in an interview with the Daily Princetonian) and its impact on society.

“Balancing her education and her basketball is a fascinating, unique thing that Bella brings,” Rowe noted.

All of Friday’s eyes will be on the New York Liberty. Not only will they choose first in the proceedings, but they will potentially pick four of the first fifteen rookies. That’s the result of Wednesday’s blockbuster trade that sent franchise scoring leader Tina Charles to the Washington Mystics.

The trade of Charles decimates the local representation on the Liberty roster just as the team is set to move into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center. Queens native Charles heads to the nation’s capital weeks after North Babylon’s own Bria Hartley went west to Phoenix.

Of course, having a local connection is anything but a requirement for success in the WNBA. But if the Liberty are looking for a name from the area to help usher in this new era of hoops, reinforcements can come from across the river.

Bella Alarie hails from Charles’ new domain in Maryland but she began to make her basketball name at Jadwin Gymnasium on the campus of Princeton University. Despite her relative small school status, Alarie is turning heads across the draft landscape. A brilliant senior campaign with the Tigers, summitting at a jaw-dropping 26-1 record, has only increased the viewer tally on her highlight reels.

“She has length and size and shooting ability that people crave in this league,” Rowe said. “I think she’s somebody that’s projected in some of the first-round mock drafts to go high. I think she’s somebody that people are going to get excited to know more about because we haven’t seen her so (often) on the national scene.”

To Rowe’s point, only six of Alarie’s games aired on a national network; Princeton’s December visit to Missouri appeared on SEC Network, albeit their digital platform. Those who ventured there saw Alarie fall just short of a double-double with 12 points and nine rebounds. She also had three blocks in a 68-33 win at a different kind of Columbia.

For good measure, Alarie would later put in 24 points in a 22-point win over the Ivy League’s own Columbia on Feb. 8 at the Jadwin Jungle. A year prior, a junior Alarie set the Princetonian record with the 158th block of her career in another tilt with the Lions.

Alarie topped the conference in scoring (17.5 PPG) and capped off her senior year with her fourth First Team All-Ivy League nomination. She’s one of just nine Ivy League players to pull off such a feat and the first from the land of the Holder Howl.

Danielle McCartan is perhaps one of the more well-versed observers of Alarie’s pedigree in the metropolitan area. The WFAN late-night host has also served as the Tigers’ sideline reporter during telecasts on ESPN+ and the Ivy League Network.

“Bella Alarie brings a contemporary skillset to the WNBA. She’s got a dynamic inside game, but also is unafraid to hit an outside shot,” McCartan told ESNY. “We’re seeing the emergence of that skillset throughout professional basketball, both men’s and women’s. Bella has already developed it in her time at Princeton University.”

March was prepared to set a national stage for Alarie and the Tigers. Princeton was no stranger to the NCAA Tournament (having made the prior two editions), but this year truly had a chance to be special. Charlie Creme’s final projected bracket on put the Tigers in a six-seed. A simulation from High Post Hoops had Princeton going to the Sweet 16.

Alas, COVID-19 had other plans, its outbreak prematurely canceling all March Madness events.

Rowe’s fellow ESPN analyst and expert Rebecca Lobo lamented the shutdown as it denied a chance for Alarie to raise her stock even further. The networks of ESPN were set to broadcast each game of the women’s tournament in its entirety for the first time, eschewing regionalization and whiparound coverage.

“She’s one of those who a lot of people are excited about her talent, but (they) would have loved to have seen her in the
tournament against a different level of competition than maybe she’s got every day in the Ivy League,” the former Liberty star Lobo said. There’s always a player who can make her mark in big moments, and we missed out on all of that.

“There are a few players, especially from mid-major schools, coaches or GMs who say, I wish I saw this player in the tournament or, in that moment, what kind of a winner are they. We missed out on that as fans of the game and, of course, the players missed out on that experience, which is a shame.”

Rowe took it a step further, remarking that the tournament’s departure denied Alarie a run similar to the one Elena Delle Donne took Delaware on during the 2009 campaign. The trek to the Sweet 16, the first in Fightin’ Blue Hens’ history, was enough for the Chicago Sky to take her second overall in the ensuing draft.

McCartan, however, saw it differently. Asked how Alarie was able to make a name for herself in the cutthroat world of college basketball, McCartan remarked that individual stardom was the last thing on Alarie’s mind.

“Making a name for herself…I really wouldn’t call it that,” McCartan said. “Bella is an extremely humble and hard-working young woman. She’ll do anything to help her team win a game, it is not so much about ‘her’.”

Time will only tell if Alarie’s basketball quest will continue to take a local trek. McCartan certainly hopes so, declaring she’d love to see Alarie keep black in her repertoire but swap orange for seafoam.

Wherever she ends up, the experts declare that those scared away by small-school fears would lose a player of immense potential both on and off the court.

Lobo seems to think that won’t be an issue, telling a reporter from Phoenix that Alarie won’t “necessarily be available” by the time the Mercury pick in the 10th slot.

Late in her remarks, Lobo provided an honest assessment of Alarie, remarking that while she needs to bulk up at the WNBA level, the sky is the limit for the Bethesda native.

“Her body might mature a little bit later,” Lobo noted. “(but) she is a player with a really high ceiling, good work ethic, smart player, really good physical tools.”

Leave it to a Jersey star to steal the spotlight on a New York night…

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags