NY Liberty drafts Cubaj in second round

Cubaj blocks a shot against UConn in Tech’s upset win. Blocks were one of the four statistical categories she led the Jackets in. // Photo by Caitlin Aycock Student Publications

After holding the title of ACC Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight year and making All-ACC First Team, senior Lorela Cubaj was drafted 18th overall in the WNBA Draft on Monday, April 11. She originally was selected by the Seattle Storm, but her trade rights were sent to the New York Liberty in exchange for a future second round pick. She joins 2020’s No. 1 overall pick from Oregon, Sabrina Ionescu, at the Barclays Center where the Liberty play home games.

The Liberty finished third in the Eastern Conference during the 2021 season, going 12–20 in a conference that the Connecticut Sun ran away with. New York lost to the Phoenix Mercury in the first round of the WNBA Playoffs. She adds size to New York’s forward position as one of two big forwards drafted by the Liberty, who also selected Nyara Sabally from Oregon.

Cubaj is the ninth Jacket drafted in the WNBA, and the first since Tyaunna Marshall in 2014, according to the GTAA press release. She comes off a year where she started in every game along with junior center Nerea Hermosa, who together formed a powerful high-low game offensively. Sophomore guard Eylia Love also appeared in all 32 games.

Lorela was considered draft worthy in 2021 before she decided to use her extra year of NCAA eligibility to stay at Tech for a fifth season. The WNBA Draft though only has 36 selections over three rounds, meaning a good fifth year as Cubaj would assuredly get her in a better spot to be selected.

She ended up being an even more crucial part of Tech’s roster than originally planned. Three games in, guard Loyal McQueen transferred to Alabama, and then fellow backcourt starter Kierra Fletcher had foot surgery that kept her out the entire year. This placed the point guard duties largely in senior Lotta-Maj Lahtinen’s hands as the main distributor. It further put Cubaj in a position to stretch her game beyond the paint with more of the offensive load naturally shifting to her.

Cubaj flourished in the adjusted role. Her assists went up from 74 in 2020-21 to the team leading 136 this season, as she averaged a double-double. She dropped from 12.5 to 10.0 points per game, but Tech’s offense spread throughout the team more evenly with four starters finishing with more than 10 points per game in what was largely a six man rotation.

All of those assists and the extra year were certainly helpful in her becoming Tech’s all-time leading rebound record with 395 rebounds, regular and postseason combined. She crossed the 1,000 career point threshold as well early in the season.

Defensively, she led the Jackets with 41 blocks and 44 steals this season, just one more steal than Lahtinen. Cubaj also finished with 11.1 rebounds per game, 5.5 rebounds clear of anyone else on Tech’s roster. 

Without her distribution and prowess on the glass, who knows what Tech would have figured out. Much of Tech’s interior defense came from her, and the offense was better when it effectively went through her to open up the perimeter shooting that seniors Sarah Bates, Digna Strautmane, and Lahtinen provided. Her leading the team in minutes at 1074:03 was a need far more than a luxury for Nell Fortner’s team.

Replacing her size and interior presence will not automatically happen. Tech’s four 2022 signing day recruits all are 5’9’’ to 5’11’’ guards, possibly allowing junior Aixa Wone Aranaz to step into Cubaj’s role in the starting five alongside returning starters Hermosa and Love.

On April 12, Tech announced that senior guard Bianca Jackson had committed to joining Fortner’s squad from Florida State. She played 26 games last year for the Seminoles, starting seven and recording 6.7 points per game on 30.9% shooting. She does boast an 80% free throw rate, which would have been the best rate for the Institute this past season.