For Isabelle Harrison, the last 400-plus days have been a long trek with this week in mind. Every repetition of painful rehabilitation, centered around the right knee that betrayed her, was accompanied by the image of the team that drafted her.
“I’m just ready for what we’re about to do this season because I’ve been thinking about it for a whole year,” Harrison said.
More than that, really. The former Tennessee star felt her college career end the moment her ACL, PCL and two menisci in her were torn asunder during a game on Feb. 15, 2015. It was a blow not only to then-No. 2 Tennessee, but also to the 6-3 center’s WNBA draft stock.
Before the injury, Harrison was considered a top-two pick, an All-Star-caliber talent who could score and rebound with equal ease. In her junior season, she amassed 18 double-doubles. Only current Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker (21 in 2006-07) logged more in a Lady Vols jersey.
Whichever WNBA team that drafted Harrison would now have to wait a full season before seeing her play for them. That was assuming, of course, that they were confident in her ability return to form after such a devastating injury.
The Mercury, fresh off their third WNBA championship and primed for a prolonged run of contention, didn’t think twice about adding another stellar talent to the pipeline. Phoenix drafted her 12th overall two months after the injury.
“They could have picked anybody to be on that team,” Harrison said. “Clearly, they had the pieces to win a championship, so it meant a lot that they wanted me on the team for this year. They knew I wasn’t going to be able to play last year and they took a risk on me. I’ve thought about all that type of stuff. That’s what kept me motivated.”
Motivation was necessary, especially with the rehab that needed to be done. By itself, recovery from an ACL tear can require a minimum eight to 12 months. With the additional torn ligaments in the same knee, that timeline was extended and the thoroughness of her rehab increased.
For Harrison, it was a gauntlet of constant strain and slow reward.
“Physically, you can get through it,” she explained. “People do it all the time, but I think it’s the mental part that really gets to people. It’s the same exercises. Me, personally, I’m one of those people that wants to get things done. I want to be able to do it as best as I can.”
Session after session, the 22-year-old imagined herself playing with the world-class athletes she admired, especially Diana Taurasi. The former league MVP is back in a Mercury uniform after taking a season off for rest.
“I’ve heard so many good things about Diana,” Harrison said, “especially about how competitive she is and how she makes the team so much better. I’m just so glad to be around that.”
That will happen as soon as Taurasi returns from EuroLeague play. Meanwhile, Harrison is already showing the skills for which Phoenix drafted her last year. She is moving well during scrimmages; during Monday’s practice, she caught a pass in traffic and, in on motion, pivoted toward the basket and scored deftly over two defenders.
Harrison’s promise in the paint is yet another reason for optimism heading into the 2016 campaign. Combined with the return of Taurasi, Penny Taylor, and the return of other mainstays, Phoenix is poised to make a resounding response after last season’s disappointing defeat in the Western Conference Finals. It’s a statement all of them have been waiting to make.
Like her new teammates, Harrison is done waiting.
“I really just want to do my part and show them that they made the right pick,” Harrison said.