Aliyah Boston's unanimous Rookie of the Year campaign the first step for Indiana Fever's rebuild

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: (NEW YORK DAILIES OUT)  Aliyah Boston #7 of the Indiana Fever in action against the New York Liberty at Barclays Center on May 21, 2023 in New York City. The Liberty defeated the Fever 90-73. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston has been named the WNBA 2023 Rookie of the Year. (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS — Aliyah Boston tapped the nearby phone face awake in concern. She had spent extra time taking shots and feeding teammates passes after an August practice until coaches outnumbered players in the Gainbridge Fieldhouse practice gym. But it’s not as late as she thought, which is good, because there’s a TikTok video waiting to be published.

Boston’s TikTok dancing became a significant aspect of her public persona while she was winning championships and reaching Final Fours at South Carolina. It hasn’t ceased, even if she groaned at the “hassle” of it all, as the 2023 WNBA Draft No. 1 pick lifted the Indiana Fever out of the standings basement.

Boston has spent much of the last four-plus years in the public spotlight, from the modern Gen Z world of a meager thousands on TikTok to the historical high of millions watching the 2023 Final Four. She came to South Carolina as the No. 3-ranked recruit with analysts already dubbing her a potential, if not likely, No. 1 overall pick. In her collegiate debut, the 6-foot-5 center posted a triple-double with a school record-tying 10 blocks. She ended her collegiate career as the most decorated player in program history.

The expectations for her at the pro level remain high as the face of a franchise seeking a long-awaited return to the postseason and another title. The Fever won the 2012 championship with Hall of Famer Tamika Catchings, but have struggled since while cycling through head coaches and waived first-round draft picks. Boston is the foundational piece around which to rebuild an entire franchise and the spotlight has only grown brighter. And harsher.

“The pressures personally come from me,” Boston told Yahoo Sports in August before the Fever were eliminated from postseason contention. “Like, yes, there are expectations. There are a lot of them from people on the outside, but I put a lot of pressure on myself just to be great.”

Boston has eclipsed some of those expectations already. She joined her idols Candace Parker and A’ja Wilson, as well as Catchings and Breanna Stewart, as the only players with 450 points, 250 rebounds and 70 assists in their rookie years. She earned an All-Star nod as the first rookie starter since 2014. Her 57.8 field-goal percentage led the entire league. And on Monday, she was named unanimous Rookie of the Year. It’s the first unanimous selection since Wilson in 2018 and the Fever's second Rookie of the Year honor.

“We knew Aliyah was going to be good, but I don’t think we knew how good,” Fever general manager Lin Dunn told Yahoo Sports.

Though the Fever missed the postseason for a seventh consecutive season, the future is bright for both the franchise and its young star. Her rookie year set a high standard that’s drawing more attention and spotlight than any she could have experienced on the small island she calls home.

The Bostons' leap of faith for Aliyah

Cleone and Algernon Boston took a leap of faith a decade ago when they left their two pre-teen daughters in Massachusetts with an aunt while the parents remained home in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Aliyah, then about 10 years old, and Alexis, 12, were interested in basketball and there were more possibilities for them in the Northeast than the limited camp and exposure options on the island.

Cleone knows it might seem funny, but all she and Al wanted was college scholarships for their girls. Now, in a private room in the back of The Palm Restaurant at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas in July, they celebrated Aliyah’s first All-Star appearance a quick three months into her professional career.

“I don’t know that we thought ourselves it was going to happen in her first year at all,” Cleone told Yahoo Sports of her daughter’s All-Star selection. “But she never stopped dreaming. And never stopped setting goals for herself.”

The Virgin Islands are about twice the size of Washington, D.C., and travel is more difficult than any comparable location in the contiguous United States. Budding basketball stars here have a larger choice of top-level programs within an hour or two drive, and AAU tournaments can be more easily accessed via long drives or flights on the weekends. That wasn’t an option for the Bostons in St. Thomas.

“Our [exposure] was mostly limited to summer because that’s when we were out of school, that’s when we were able to travel,” Aliyah said. “Seeing things like [AAU travel here] growing up, it’s like, wow, there is a major difference.”

The girls attended two summers of basketball camps and for their third summer, Cleone said they found a local program in Massachusetts near where her sister, Jenaire Hodge, lived. It was smaller than they expected, but it “was the steppingstone” to get them on the path to scholarships as their dreams and love for the game grew.

Aliyah Boston hugs her mother, Cleone, after being drafted by the Indiana Fever during the 2023 WNBA Draft on April 10, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)
Aliyah Boston hugs her mother, Cleone, after being drafted by the Indiana Fever during the 2023 WNBA Draft on April 10, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Sarah Stier/Getty Images)

At the time, the Bostons didn’t realize how large of a steppingstone it was for them.

“They didn’t even come back home. They went that summer [and] never even came back,” Cleone said. “[Al] went up to make sure he was content with where they were. But it was hard. Because for a parent, your child is 12 years old, you anticipate them being with you all the time. But it was a decision that was made stepping out in faith [and] trusting that God will provide for us to make it happen if he opened the doors of opportunities for us to do it.”

Aliyah racked up accolades at Worcester Academy. They won two state championships and she earned three consecutive Massachusetts Player of the Year awards from Gatorade, one from USA Today and was named a consensus All-America selection in her senior year. She won four gold medals with USA Basketball and was named MVP of the 2017 FIBA U16 Americas Cup.

Cleone, who works as the executive assistant to the commissioner of the U.S. Virgin Islands Department of Tourism, described her and Al’s decision to be away from the girls as the cost in a return on investment that brought Aliyah her dream. When the All-Star starters were announced in late June, Cleone looked up at the wall in their home where a basketball perched. It was one Aliyah painted in a middle school art class in 2014, the same year the last rookie started a WNBA All-Star Game. Only eight rookies have played in the game.

“When you invest in your kids, not just financially but [with] the love and the support and the belief, there’s the seed that you plant for them to believe that anything is possible, and they buy into that,” Cleone said. “That seed that was planted [is] now grown to where it is and we know it’s just the beginning.”

The entire family flew to Vegas for All-Star weekend, which kicked off with an intimate brunch gathering to name the star the official tourism ambassador of the Virgin Islands. In the small room stood a mock-up of the new billboard with Boston that will be installed near the airport. It announces the island as “Home of WNBA All-Star Aliyah Boston,” and replaces one of her holding the NCAA national championship trophy from “Aliyah Boston Day” in June 2022.

“As governor, I try to make sure we’re producing Aliyah Bostons in every field,” said USVI Department of Tourism commissioner Joseph Boschulte, whose son, Jaden, grew up with Boston.

USVI Governor Albert Bryan Jr. and Commissioner of Sport & Recreation Calvert White were also in attendance. The islands are improving their sport opportunities and resurfaced most of the outdoor courts as part of a $100 million investment, White said. They’re also switching their youth basketball teams from T-shirts to more official jerseys, which came via a push from Boston.

“It’s really special because they’re investing in me, but also in the island, because it’s allowing the younger kids down there to see, OK, Aliyah was able to do this and she grew up right here on this island,” Boston said.

How Aliyah Boston is handling expectations

Aliyah Boston knows her admiration for Candace Parker is no secret. After all, she did take a microphone and profess her love for the two-time WNBA champion and two-time MVP on national TV after winning the 2022 national championship with South Carolina.

It’s now no secret, 18 months later, that Boston is in the early stages of entering the same air as her idol. Boston averaged 14.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game with the Fever this season. She ranks seventh among ROY winners in rebounds per game and tied for sixth in blocks per game. Her 57.8% shooting clip from the floor led the league, making her the first rookie to do so.

“AB is such a high-IQ player to be a rookie and I think her footwork is incredibly amazing,” veteran Fever guard Kelsey Mitchell said. “Her up-and-under, and her ability to kind of get people jumping up in the air goes to show who she really is as a player.”

And her 6.0 win shares ranks fourth behind Catchings (9.2), Parker (7.7) and Elena Delle Donne (6.5) in ROY winners, per Basketball Reference. It’s all the more impressive since all three were on teams that finished at least .500 in the regular season and were good enough to reach at least the semifinals. The Fever finished 13-27 and 21 games back of the league-leading Las Vegas Aces.

When Dunn saw that Boston joined the rookie stat line held by only Parker, Wilson, Stewart and Catchings, she thought, “Whoa, yeah, that’s pretty powerful.” All four went on to win championships with the teams that drafted them and all four earned at least one MVP award.

“That’s the good news,” Dunn told Yahoo Sports. “Look at the group that she’s in right now, and what she’s accomplished, and what those went on to accomplish. I think it’s exciting for us and for her that she’s in that group.”

Boston developed her pro-ready game while playing for Dawn Staley at South Carolina, where the Gamecocks were 129-9 in her four years with three Final Four appearances. The 2020 tournament was canceled her freshman year when the team was ranked No. 1 in the AP poll. Her personal accolades are lengthy and include national Freshman of the Year, two-time Defensive Player of the Year and 2022 Naismith Trophy winner as the best player.

South Carolina's Aliyah Boston and teammates pose with the trophy after winning the 2022 NCAA women's basketball national championship. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)
South Carolina's Aliyah Boston and teammates pose with the trophy after winning the 2022 NCAA women's basketball national championship. (AP Photo/Eric Gay)

She had the option of staying in college one more season because of the COVID-19 waiver that extended eligibility a year. But she entered the WNBA Draft, where the Fever made her place as a No. 1 pick official and in doing so laid the dreams of a once-drowning franchise on her.

There’s an expectation that with Boston at the helm, the Fever will quickly become postseason competitors again. They’re taking small steps already, avoiding being the first eliminated from playoff contention and finishing 10th in the standings.

“All she wants to do is win, whatever that means,” first-year head coach Christie Sides said. “She’s gonna work as hard as she can to do what she can do, but she’s talking about the team. And today in this [world], you just don’t have tons of people who will say that, first, whatever the team needs me to do.”

Boston’s on-court play is the largest reason for an expectant turnaround, but those around her also praise how she creates team camaraderie. It’s an aspect eight-year veteran Amanda Zahui B., who was traded to the Fever ahead of the All-Star break for a veteran presence, said indicates a promising future for the franchise.

“She’s doing a great job with just building a healthy environment [and] surroundings for everyone around her,” Zahui B. said. “I’ve been around a lot of star players. A lot of times — not always — but a lot of times it’s like me, me, me. And Aliyah is very much like, we are one family, and that’s how it is.”

When Boston met with reporters after the All-Star announcement, she said when she thought of her rookie season ahead of tipoff, making an All-Star roster wasn’t on her mind. Her goal was to adapt to the league, and the biggest thing she said was on her list was making the playoffs “just because I knew a lot of people looked off Indiana coming in.”

Indiana looked promising early, staying in single-digit contests with the top of the table and snapping its record-tying 20-game losing streak. The Fever won four of six in a stretch in June. Then the typical losses piled up, an experience Boston wasn’t used to, and a new learning process began.

Las Vegas Aces forward A'ja Wilson drives to the basket while Indiana Fever center Aliyah Boston defends during a June game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (Trevor Ruszkowski/USA TODAY Sports)

“It was really hard at some points because you’re coming home on a bus and you didn’t win,” Boston said. “You’re on a plane trying to figure out what else I can do to help us continue to rise up together.

“It’s hard when you’re a rookie in a big dog’s league and you’re trying to figure out, OK, what else can I do?” Boston said. “When in reality, it’s just about the process and sticking to it.”

Earning an All-Star nod wasn’t on Boston’s list of goals when the season started. She wanted to be efficient from the floor, which she was in an increase on her collegiate average (54.6%). One of the biggest things she wanted to improve was her passing ability, and she has dished out more than any collegiate season. She wanted to adjust to the pro game, which she clearly achieved.

Overall, she wanted to be the best version of herself.

“The biggest thing for me is it’s more than just the basketball court,” Boston said. “[I] make sure that I’m doing stuff that I need to make sure that I’m recovering in the sense of not just physically, but also mentally.”

The size of the spotlight will ebb when she’s enjoying the beaches in St. Thomas, where the exposure is limited, but not nearly as much now that Boston has forged a path. And it will flow when she returns in April to Indianapolis, where fans are increasingly tuning in to watch their newest superstar lead them back to title contention. She’ll have a full offseason to work on her game and keep chasing greatness.