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7 Key Moments That Led Kamilla Cardoso to the WNBA

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The latest crop of NCAA standouts introduced a lot of folks to the excitement of women’s basketball, which made the start of the most recent WNBA season all the more intriguing. These last few weeks, a bunch of college stars have taken their first steps into the pro world. And we’re here to watch every minute of it.

One player we’ve got our eye on? Center Kamilla Cardoso, who joined the Chicago Sky from the University of South Carolina as the third overall pick in the first round. While she racked up a bunch of honors in the college world, her road to the pros wasn’t exactly a straight shot—and a pro debut pushed back due to a shoulder injury made it a little more circuitous, too. Read on for the pivotal moments that formed Cardoso’s path to the WNBA.

1. Kamilla Cardoso grew up as an active kid in Brazil.

Cardoso and her older sister Jessica were raised by their mom Janete Soares in Montes Claros, Brazil. She loved watching and playing sports, including swimming and diving, but she wasn’t particularly drawn to basketball. In fact, Cardoso didn’t get on the court until her sister’s coach saw her watching from the sidelines and urged her to try out for the team, as The Athletic reported.

Cardoso played on her middle school team until her skills drew the attention of a local private school, where she was offered an athletic scholarship. After one tournament, a sports agent approached Cardoso and suggested she look for basketball opportunities outside of Brazil.

2. She moved to the US as a teenager to further her game.

Keisha Hunt—the girl’s basketball coach at Hamilton Heights Christian Academy in Chattanooga, Tennessee, who was known for developing younger international players—recognized Cardoso’s potential in a tape of a game from when she was just 12 years old.

The school’s principal, who had to sign off on scholarships for international recruits, wasn’t sold, but Hunt saw something in Cardoso’s size and speed. In the clip, Cardoso missed several shots, but Hunt looked past that. As she told Syracuse.com, she remembered saying, “Do you not notice that’s a 6-foot-5, 12- or 13-year-old running up and down the floor as fast as the guards are?”

Hunt convinced the principal and arranged for Cardoso to move in with her and her family, and join the school’s team. Within a week of her 15th birthday and knowing just three English words—”hi,” “yes,” and “bye,” as she told The Athletic—Cardoso said goodbye to her mom and sister and flew solo to the US.

3. High school ball helped her hone her skills.

At first, Cardoso said she felt out of place and unqualified on her new team in Tennessee. In an interview with The Athletic, she said, “I was tall and I could make the layups. But besides that, I didn’t have any other skills. I was like, maybe I’m not meant to be playing here.”

But she had a highly supportive team and staff during her four years at Hamilton Heights. The team competed at an elite high school level, and Hunt, along with Cardoso’s talented teammates and competitors, helped shape her into a well-rounded player. Cardoso could already fly down the court, and she developed the coordination to catch the ball mid-sprint toward the basket. Competitors’ constant blocking forced her to become more aware of her teammates—and thus, an expert passer. To help with the language barrier, Cardoso's teammates also called plays in Portuguese.

Her language and on-the-court skills, especially her blocking and agility, sharpened under Hunt, and she thrived at Hamilton Heights, where she served as captain. Throughout her high school years, ESPN repeatedly pointed to Cardoso’s “off-the-charts potential.” As a senior, she averaged 24.1 points, 15.8 rebounds and 9.2 blocks, and was ranked the number 1 center and number 5 overall player in the class of 2020 by ESPN. She was also named McDonald’s All-American, WBCA All-American, won the Jordan Brand Classic award and was a finalist for the Naismith Award for girls' basketball in 2020.

4. On the college level, she first signed with Syracuse.

As a college recruit, Cardoso’s potential and speedy play caught the attention of several college coaches, including Syracuse’s DeLisha Milton-Jones and Quentin Hillsman. Hillsman described Cardoso to Syracuse.com as a “once-in-a-decade kid” they “couldn’t pass up.” She was also Syracuse’s highest-rated high school recruit ever for the program.

Cardoso accepted a scholarship to join the Orange in 2020 and started her collegiate career with a bang. In her best performance of the season, Cardoso sank 24 points and made seven rebounds against Boston College. By the end of the season, she led the team in blocks with an average of 2.7 per game, and averaged 13.6 points and eight rebounds.

Cardoso also became the first player in the team’s history to be awarded the ACC Freshman of the Year Award; she won Co-Defensive Player of the Year and All-ACC First Team honors as well.

5. Cardoso then transferred to the University of South Carolina.

The Orange lost to the University of Connecticut in the second round of the NCAA tournament in 2021. Soon after, Cardoso entered the transfer portal, confirming that she was looking for a new team and coach.

And she found it with the Gamecocks. On April 30, 2021, the University of South Carolina announced that Cardoso would join the team under coach Dawn Staley, who described her as “a perfect complement to our program,” pointing to the rarity of Cardoso’s “mobility, rebounding prowess, and scoring ability at her size.”

6. She was instrumental in the Gamecocks’s Championship wins.

In Cardoso’s junior year in 2022, the team broke the school record with 36 wins and won the NCAA national championship—the first for Cardoso. And she only built upon that momentum in her senior year. She finished her college career on a high note, earning the most points, rebounds and blocks on her team, and won the NCAA Most Outstanding Player award.

Then, of course, came March Madness 2024, a tournament that (finally) brought a whole lot of attention to women's college basketball and turned many of the stars into household names. This year’s NCAA Final Four match-up was the most-viewed Final Four in history, and the championship—in which Cardoso and the Gamecocks beat the Indiana Hawkeyes—was the first time that a women’s final drew more viewers than the men’s. About 24 million people watched Cardoso lead her team to complete a perfect season, becoming the first undefeated national champions since 2016.

Reflecting on her team’s NCAA performance, Cardoso told reporters in a press conference, “It was amazing…I just wanted to get out there in this tournament and just play really well for my teammates, for my coaches, and to win the championship. So I think that's what I did.”

7. She was drafted to the Chicago Sky.

Like all athletes who played during the pandemic-affected 2020 to 2021 season, Cardoso could have chosen to play for South Carolina for a fifth year. But for Cardoso, the decision was a matter of providing for her family in Brazil. Before the draft, she told The Athletic, “Hopefully I can make it to the WNBA. If not, [I’ll] just go play overseas and just keep taking care of my family.”

Cardoso ended up going in the first round, as the number three pick to the Chicago Sky under coach Teresa Weatherspoon. In a post-draft press conference, Camilla told reporters that she had “dreamt of” hearing her name called at the draft “all her life,” and that she’ll “remember that moment forever.”

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Originally Appeared on SELF