Dozens of Ameshya Williams-Holliday’s closest friends, family, coaches and former teammates gathered in her hometown of Gulfport, Mississippi, on Monday night with hopes of watching her join the WNBA. Neither they nor the anxious 6-foot-4 Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Player of the Year from Jackson State University was disappointed.
The Indiana Fever selected Williams-Holliday with the 25th pick in the WNBA draft, making her the first draft selection from a historically Black college and university (HBCU) since 2002.
“It just felt amazing,” Williams-Holliday said after the draft. “I kept smiling. I just kept smiling [and] I just had a lot of tears of joy. It was crazy.”
Projected by scouts as a third-round pick, Williams-Holliday still doubted that she would actually hear named called on Monday night. After all, only five HBCU players had previously been drafted to the WNBA: Denique Graves (1997), Karen Wilkins (1998) and Andrea Gardner (2002) of Howard, Amba Kongolo of North Carolina Central (2002) and Jaclyn Winfield of Southern (2002).
“I was nervous the whole time,” said Williams-Holliday. “Well, I’ve been nervous since I woke up.”
Watching the draft unfold with her family and friends by her side, Williams-Holliday felt her anxiety grow as the first round came and went. Same with the second round. Moments before the start of the third and final round she felt like she had a knot in her stomach. Then, her agent called to inform her that the Dallas Wings, Phoenix Mercury and the Fever were all haggling for her services. When ESPN flashed the ticker at the bottom of the screen announcing the first pick of the third round, she fell silent.
“I got the phone call before I saw it on the screen. I just kept smiling and had a lot of tears of joy. I had a Zoom call with Dallas and I was supposed to have a follow-up call with Indiana. And then another team called my coach, but I kind of figured Indiana was going to pick me. But I still wasn’t sure. So, it still shocked me.”
Five years removed from nearly quitting basketball for good, the center accomplished something less than 1% of all NCAA women’s basketball players can boast about. Williams-Holliday’s draft selection not only made waves across women’s basketball circles, but it also caught the eye of other HBCU athletes, including Indianapolis Colts linebacker Darius Leonard, an HBCU alum from South Carolina State who also knows how difficult it is for most players to get drafted out of an HBCU.
Besides being the SWAC Player of the Year, Williams-Holliday is also the back-to-back SWAC Defensive Player of the Year, and averaged 19.2 points, 11.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks for Jackson State this season. She led the SWAC in four statistical categories: points, rebounds, blocks and field goal percentage (57.8), and recorded 22 double-doubles, tying for sixth nationally.
For Jackson State head coach Tomekia Reed, watching Williams-Holliday get drafted was a dream come true. Before the draft, Reed went viral in social media for a passionate speech she made after Jackson State’s loss to LSU in the first round of the NCAA tournament about breaking down doors for players at HBCUs.
“We’re truly going to run with this [draft selection] and run with this as far as we can. This gives us an opportunity to recruit those top players in the country. Back in the day, they said, ‘We don’t want to go to HBCUs because you guys can’t get players drafted.’ Well, now, what’s the excuse?” Reed said. “This affords us the chance to really go out and get great players to come into our program. This gives us leverage now.”
Ecstatic that Williams-Holliday was able to end the WNBA’s 20-year HBCU draft pick drought, both Reed and Williams-Holliday hope that it won’t be nearly as long before the next HBCU player is selected.
“It means a lot to me [to get drafted],” said Williams-Holliday. “I’m just glad I kept making history and the people that will come behind me [have the opportunity] to just keep that history going. Anything is possible. I think it [being drafted] opens up a lot of doors. I think no matter what school you go to, you still can do it. You just gotta keep working hard. Keep pushing. Never give up.”
Added Reed, “This is a door that’s been knocked down. She’s going to create opportunities for other players behind her, not just at Jackson State, but in our HBCU community.”
Williams-Holliday was the Fever’s sixth of the team’s seven draft picks on Monday and will battle for an official roster spot in training camp in May. Last season, the Fever finished with a league-worst 6-26 record. The team is looking to rebuild to make its first postseason appearance in five seasons and Reed believes the Fever are a great landing spot for her former center to make her presence known.
“She doesn’t have any pressure,” said Reed. “She is in a situation like when she came in here at Jackson State [in 2019] after just having a baby, to a program that was struggling and she completely took over. She completely helped this program become what it is today. She knows how to take over a program. There’s only one way to go and that’s up, and she can certainly help that program, make some great moves in terms of success.”