Rickea Jackson lands in Los Angeles

Maria M. Cornelius2MCsports

Rickea Jackson’s immense talent, competitive instincts and high basketball IQ convinced the Sparks to take the Lady Vol with the No. 4 pick in the WNBA draft. Jackson also has landed in the perfect city of Los Angeles.

Jackson played at Mississippi State – she had three different head coaches in three seasons – and finished her college career with two years at Tennessee under one head coach. The 6-2 forward from Detroit led the SEC in scoring in 2023-24 at 20.2 points per game and averaged 8.2 rebounds and 2.3 assists. It capped a college career of consistent production despite having four different head coaches.

The Los Angeles front office made several trips to Knoxville this season to evaluate Jackson in games and practice, and Raegan Pebley, the general manager for the Los Angeles Sparks, said scouts liked what they saw.

“And not just watching games but a part of our eye test is also to do our work on how they prepared for the games,” Pebley said, providing considerable insight into the process while talking to media Tuesday. “We watched them in practices. One of the things that we found interesting is her analytics continued to grow in a lot of ways even though the coaching changes she went through were frequent.

“Her commitment to skill development was significant. There can be great players that become really good within this construct of the system that they’re in. But I think a pro is a player that can adapt their game to the system that they’re put into. That’s part of the evidence also of how versatile that she is and the IQ that she has is that she’s been able to adapt while still producing under what’s being asked of her.”

Jackson became the fourth consecutive Tennessee player to be taken in the first round following Rennia Davis in 2021, Rae Burrell in 2022 and Jordan Horston in 2023, besting the previous Lady Vols record of players taken in the first round in three consecutive years with Tamika Catchings in 2001, Michelle Snow in 2002 and Kara Lawson and Gwen Jackson in 2003.

Rae Burrell (LA Sparks photo)

The college players don’t have much time between seasons. Training camp opens on April 28, preseason games start May 3, and the regular season begins May 14. Jackson will see a familiar face in Burrell, who had a stellar second half for the Sparks last summer and overseas in the winter months in Belgium, and the Sparks are comfortable with the quality of players that Tennessee produces.

“We have Rae Burrell already on our roster,” said Pebley, who noted that Tennessee “has a legacy in women’s basketball, and I think there’s something to be said for that.”

Jackson told media Monday night that she wasn’t sure beforehand how the draft process worked beyond showing up and getting selected.

“I didn’t know if they even speak to you prior to the draft, really crazy of me,” Jackson said. “When I was getting these calls, scheduling these meetings, I was like, ‘Whoa, they’re asking you questions, sometimes personal questions, and you’ve got to sit there and answer them. It’s a job interview. That in itself was pretty cool to experience.”

Sparks head coach Curt Miller said the process is not “all softballs and rainbows and butterfly questions.”

“It’s usually eye opening for any draftee, how much teams pour into the interviews and how important that is,” Miller said. “We put everybody through an interview process. I thought Rickea was very well organized for it.”

The general manager of the Sparks saw a player who was fully prepared for draft night, which had record viewership on ESPN with 2.45 million viewers and a peak of 3.09 million.

“You saw those two outfits,” Pebley said. “She was ready to go that night.”

The change in outfits from the red carpet to draft time drew considerable social media attention, as shown below with a post by the Sparks.

The WNBA took it a step further as shown below by comparing a photo of Jackson at the draft to a 1990s album cover. It has 300,000 views and counting, and the Sparks responded by asking: What’s the album name? and then getting answers like Lock & Kea, Rookie of the Year and The Detroit Diva.

How about one more? Jackson is repped by Roc Nation Sports, the sports division of Roc Nation, a management and entertainment company founded by Jay-Z, also known as Beyoncé’s husband (in addition to being one of the greatest rappers ever and immensely successful producer and entrepreneur).

Some draft predictions had Jackson going at No. 3 by Chicago, but the Sky took a 6-7 post in Kamilla Cardoso of national champion South Carolina. The Sparks quickly took Jackson off the draft board.

The upcoming 2024 WNBA season comes after the NCAA women’s basketball national title game averaged 18.9 million viewers, besting the men’s championship average of 14.82 million for the first time ever. The women’s matchup also was the most-watched basketball game – men’s, women’s, college and professional – since 2019 on any of ESPN’s platforms.

“Everybody is tuning in,” Jackson said. “We averaged better than the men this year. Not to say we’re in competition, but that says a lot. I’m grateful to be a part of this draft class. We’re trending in the right direction.”

As the sport surges in popularity, Jackson now heads to a city of stars.

Jewel Spear was all smiles before a game. (Tennessee Athletics)

JEWEL BACK: New Tennessee coach Kim Caldwell got her first in-house recruiting win when Jewel Spear posted Tuesday night on social media that she would return for a fifth season. Spear had done so on March 31 and then Kellie Harper was fired April 1, an indication of how much it took the Lady Vols players by surprise.

Two weeks later, Spear decided to stay at Tennessee for her final year of college basketball.

“Despite the coaching change, I am excited about the vision Coach Caldwell has communicated to me and the direction of the program,” Spear posted. “With that, I have decided to finish out my final year of eligibility on Rocky Top. Cue the music. #feardaspear”

Maria M. Cornelius, a writer/editor at MoxCar Marketing + Communications since 2013, started her journalism career at the Knoxville News Sentinel and began writing about the Lady Vols in 1998. In 2016, she published her first book, “The Final Season: The Perseverance of Pat Summitt,” through The University of Tennessee Press.





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