KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Any other year, any other time, and Ashley Joens’ Iowa State career would have been done. But these aren’t ordinary times. And she had a decision to make.
Joens was a senior last season, during which she became Iowa State’s all-time leading scorer and led them to a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16. From there, Joens should have gone on to the WNBA, a professional career overseas or into teaching, where she’s finishing up a degree in elementary education.
But, thanks to COVID-19 cancelling the 2020 NCAA postseason, every basketball player that was in school was awarded an extra season. The only catch? Someone like Joens had to choose to use it.
“It’s always a hard decision of whether to come back or continue and go play professionally,” Joens said at Big 12 Media Days last week.
Joens knew what these Cyclones had coming back, just as much as her coach, Bill Fennelly. That is, just about everything on a roster that was two wins away from the Final Four. The Cyclones didn’t add much, but they did procure a 6-foot-6 center, Stephanie Soares, a two-time NAIA Player of the Year, to help in the paint.
The depth of this team was a factor, she admitted. But it wasn’t the only one.
Fennelly wanted to arm his star with all the information she needed to make a decision, and this one was important. He said that part of his role as a coach is to make sure that Iowa State players leave “with something in the tank.” Joens would be playing a rare fifth year and doing so as a player that had led the Cyclones in scoring and rebounding each of the last two seasons.
Was staying a mistake for the Iowa City, Iowa, native? Fennelly wanted to find out.
“I really wanted to tell her like, ‘Is it a mistake to stay?” Fennelly said. “Because otherwise I’ll kick you out the door.”
Finding out what he needed to know wasn’t’ as easy as it is for, say, a player like Kansas guard Kevin McCullar, who opted to return to college after declaring for the NBA Draft last spring. When McCullar declared, the system was set up. He got scouting reports from the NBA. He went through combines. He talked to representatives with nearly 20 teams, he said.
For Fennelly, he picked up the phone and call a coach or a general manager for each of the WNBA’s 12 teams. Some he had long-standing relationships with. Former Cyclones like Bridget Carleton play in the league. Others were short conversations. But he said each of them gave him the same report on Joens.
Returning to Iowa State for a fifth season wouldn’t hurt her WNBA Draft chances, he said. It wouldn’t necessarily improve her chances, either.
There are just 12 WNBA teams, contrasted against 30 NBA teams.
“Those jobs are hard to get,” Fennelly said. “So it’s not just ‘Hey, you get drafted, you make a roster,’ like a first-round pick does in the NBA. I mean there were three first-round picks in the WNBA that didn’t make a roster last year.”
So, Joens returned for one final season. Fennelly said that Joens “loves college.” Instead of playing professionally, the two-time Cheryl Miller Award winner represented the US in 3×3 action, played with her Iowa State teammates Emily Ryan, Lexi Donarski, and Nyamer Diew in the Red Bull USA Basketball 3X Nationals and squeezed in some student teaching in the summer.
He also said Jones, like himself, knew what was coming back this season. She knows she can put distance between herself and any other future Cyclone that wants to chase her scoring record. She knew there was a chance to do something no Iowa State team has done before.
Most importantly, she just wants to win.
“This was an opportunity that I didn’t really want to miss out on,” Joens said. “Obviously we have a really great team coming back and we added to that, so we’re really excited for this year and we’re just ready to get started.”
You can find Matthew Postins on Twitter @PostinsPostcard