by Mirin Fader / @mirinfader
It’s been six years since Ivory Latta felt this at ease on the court. She’s stealing the ball, racing down the floor to beat her defender rather than slowing up and planning her next move.
Now with the Washington Mystics this season, her fourth team in the league, Latta has more than a new jersey and address; she’s got a new outlook on how far she’s come and a smile bigger than Magic’s at the thought of finally being able to show how good she can be.
In her debut for Washington on the road against her former team, the Shock, the 5-6 point guard dropped 27 points with 4 threes to win 95-90 in overtime. Through the month of June she averaged 15.8 points and 4.1 assists per a game, in addition to a remarkable 48.8 percent from three and 97.1 percent from the charity stripe.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who remember the way opponents regretted leaving her even a sliver of air to breathe on the perimeter at North Carolina, where she led the Tar Heels to back-to-back Final Four appearances in 2006 and 2007 as ESPN.com’s Player of the Year, a Wade Trophy finalist and an AP All-American.
“For the first time in a while I feel comfortable out there,” Latta says. “I don’t feel any tightness, stress or anything. I can just be who I am and play.”
There’s time now to develop a shooting rhythm, unlike her rookie season with the 2007 Finals runner-up Detroit Shock, where she would sub in the game with the inevitable trip back to the bench quickly approaching, averaging 3 points in just 7.1 minutes a night.
At the end of the bench, Latta watched veteran teammates Katie Smith, Swin Cash and Deanna Nolan shine, as the trio won a WNBA championship together the season prior.
“Being a top player in college and coming to the WNBA and being the last player to get off the bench was really tough,” Latta says. “But it was the best learning experience in my whole career. I couldn’t be down about not playing—we were winning, and I was really happy about that.
“I knew it was a dream come true to make it to the league, but I didn’t want to settle for just being there. I knew I could be a starting PG on a team one day.”
Yet Latta was acquired by the Atlanta Dream in the expansion draft for the 2008 season. Despite averaging 11.4 points and 3.6 assists per game, she was released from the Dream at the start of the 2009 season. Though she was brought back later on in the season, her production decreased, and she faced the all too familiar routine of packing her bags again.
Her energetic and scrappy style of play that made her a fan favorite in college wasn’t translating in the WNBA, and coaches continued to question her size and ability as a “true point guard.”
Young enough for a career turnaround but old enough to be headed toward a journeywoman path, Latta needed a fresh start.
“People said things like I was a 2-guard in a point guard’s body. I’ve been criticized a lot because of my height, but it didn’t break me. It made me stronger,” she says.
“In those tough years, I had to learn patience, which is something I lacked. I sacrificed a lot. I didn’t see my family as much because I wanted to work on my game. I spent countless hours with my trainer and nutritionist. I had to get back to the killer instinct mentality I had at Carolina. It took me some years to get it back; my confidence was a little low. I was just waiting for the time where I would be able to say, Look at me now.”
Her game began to take off once she signed with Tulsa. From 2010-2012, with nearly double the minutes she saw in Atlanta, Latta averaged 12.9 points and 3.4 assists a night, most notably shooting 39 percent from three-point range in 2012, her best season of the three.
Yet Tulsa’s last place records in league standings overshadowed Latta’s career-highs. And when top college point guard Skylar Diggins headlined the 2013 Draft at No. 3 overall for Tulsa, Latta was on to the next one again.
Now having finally found a home in Washington, DC, Latta is the floor general for a Mystics team off to its best start in years, currently holding fourth in the Eastern Conference, hoping to make the playoffs after missing the postseason for the last two years. If she remains consistent, Latta has a high chance of making the 2013 All-Star team, a feat that didn’t seem possible a few years back.
“In my early years in the league I tried to go out there and prove and prove and prove,” Latta says. “But now I’m at a stage in my life where I don’t have to prove anything to anybody.
“I’m going to try to be a team leader and help get this team over the hump to playoffs. It’s just a blessing to be here, to finally be in the position where I can make a big difference to a team.”