Kim Mulkey and the LSU Tigers have conducted a crash-course in how to effectively utilize NIL money. Instead of using the cash to boost players with potential, hoping they pan out, Mulkey and the Tigers have operated the last two offseasons like a professional front office. To build 2023’s National Championship team, they grabbed a proven star in Angel Reese from Maryland and surrounded her with experienced role players out of the portal, some of whom played for Mulkey’s Baylor teams or were recruited by her in high school.
Reese’s polarizing personality — at its brightest in the runaway National Championship win over Iowa and Caitlyn Clark — and capable skills on the court pushed her past the pack of college players who have been tagged with the “star” label into a lane of her own now. And while the majority of collegiate impact players are leagues behind their professional counterparts when it comes to notoriety, it can be argued that the “Bayou Barbie” is now the biggest name in all of women’s basketball. That’s real superstardom.
The story could end here (don’t worry, it doesn’t). With a true star like Reese returning and a bubbling second option in Flau’jae “Big 4” Johnson, Mulkey’s Tigers looked poised to once again compete with South Carolina, Iowa and the top of women’s basketball for another National Championship.
Yet, like any good professional general manager, Mulkey didn’t waste an opportunity to get better just because she had stable pieces.
Instead, Mulkey hitched up the F-150, backed her boat into the banks of the Transfer Portal and went fishing. Unlike last year, she wasn’t just looking for role pieces that complement her star forward. This time, she was looking to reel in the big catfish. The ones that break records, not just supply a fry. And, boy did her catch tip the scales this offseason.
LSU walked away from the portal with commitments from Louisville’s top guard Hailey Van Lith — who 247Sports’ expert contributor Brandon Clay had pegged as the No. 2 player in the women basketball transfer portal. The Tigers didn’t stop there. They also hauled in Clay’s No. 1 player in the portal, DePaul forward Aneesah Morrow.
This gives LSU a potential starting line up that contains Van Lith, Big 4, Morrow and the Bayou Barbie. For fans who don’t get how pivotal this is, it’s basically the equivalent of a Cash Money Hot Boys track. No matter where you turn, there’s either an experienced spitter waiting in the wings or a young, hungry rapper on the attack. The beat (or opposing defense in this case) has no chance to relax.
The Bayou’s budding superteam is great for college sports in general. Not only does it bring light to women’s sports, but each member of this quartet brings a unique approach to the game that any fan can get behind.
Van Lith is a Kobe disciple. She trained with the Mamba in high school and it shows with her explosive offensive game and aggressive scoring. She embraces all the things fans loved about Bean, but this also comes with an attitude that can rub some of the “basketball purists” the wrong way.
Now, if you’re into a do-it-all, “blue collar” star, then look no further than All-American Aneesah Morrow. The DePaul standout averaged 25.7 points and 12.2 rebounds per game last season with an outstanding usage rate. She’s able to initiate the offense while also doing the dirty work.
As for Big 4 (Flau’jae “Big 4” Johnson, if you forgot): her development and production will be a bit of a question mark given that she’ll have to defer the ball to more experienced players. But what isn’t unknown is her ability to find a spark. She’s shown countless times during LSU’s title run that she’s capable of getting hot in a hurry. This will put stress on opposing defenses as they try to limit Van Lith, Morrow and Reese just to get torched by Johnson. It will also continue to make her a fan-favorite as her dagger shots will likely come in high demand.
Angel Reese speaks for herself. Like Morrow, she’s willing to do whatever it takes to win but has the boisterous personality that will intrigue fans who are into the style points (I’m part of this demographic, myself). Similar to Van Lith, Reese doesn’t back down from a chance to challenge the moment, so it’s hard to say that her on-court personality isn’t warranted.
Outside of their on-court production, the fact that nothing seemed forced or constructed will make LSU’s pending superteam a crossover hit. They aren’t painting disses to their opponents on their fingernails or turning their name into condiments. They’re genuinely themselves at all times and refuse to step outside of their personalities. It just so happens that their natural personas seem to balance each other and that realness resonates with fans.
As tenacious as Van Lith comes off, it still doesn’t seem like a “tough guy (or girl)” act. As for Reese, she didn’t just put on this personality once she started winning at LSU. That’s just the first time you guys started paying attention to her. But if you cared to do research, you can find videos of her at Saint Frances Academy in Baltimore antagonizing and dominating her opponents the same way she did during the title game.
Although Morrow’s hard work, no-nonsense approach to the game balances the scale that’s leaning Reese and Van Lith’s way, it isn’t fake humility. She built herself into one of the best players in the game at DePaul without the glitz and glamor of a major program. DePaul head coach Doug Bruno details how Morrow sets goals for herself before every game only to shatter them during the contest.
“Aneesah talks about goals,” Bruno said. “She’s got individual goals for every game and individual goals for the season. She’s got individual goals for when she graduates from DePaul. But to reach those goals, she has to keep getting better.”
It’s hard to hate on someone who leaves no stone unturned when perfecting their craft, even though they’re already near the top. This only further proves to spectators that she deserves the NIL boost and to finally take her spot on the big stage.
For Johnson, she’s not an athlete with an affinity for rapping who releases cringe-worthy freestyles just because they have access to a professional studio. No. She’s a real recording artist who has a distribution deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation record label. Johnson dedicates time to her craft in the booth and on the court with aspirations of starting her own record label in the future. As a result, it’s easy to accept her raps as part of her personality. Fans can get behind her “Big 4” persona because they know it’s naturally her and not something she’s doing as a gimmick.
This collective of real stars will do wonders for college sports, but it will definitely spell out trouble for the WNBA. Reese, the hottest name in the sport, has said on several occasions that she doesn’t even think about going pro. And why would she?
While the world has been belting out the opening line of NBA YoungBoy’s “Fresh Prince of Utah,” Reese really did bring a parade to the rapper’s hometown where she’s treated (and compensated) like a superstar, making over $1 million in NIL money. She’s going to grace Sports Illustrated’s “Swimsuit Edition”, flies in chartered jets to LSU away games with her teammates, frequently goes on elaborate shopping sprees that she documents on social media and just bought herself a new Mercedes. What more could a 21-year-old want?
In comparison, A’ja Wilson (two-time WNBA MVP, a WNBA Defensive Player of the Year and a WNBA champion) is set to make $202,115 in the 2023-24 season. Candace Parker, a sure-fire, first ballot Hall of Fame player, told the media that her decision to team up with Wilson on the Aces was partly fueled by the team’s new facilities. Parker explained that at no point in her illustrious career did she have a locker to call her own until Las Vegas built its new arena.
That puts Reese in the rare space where her personal brand would be taking a step back if she chooses to go pro. The same can be said for Van Lith, who is reportedly making over $500,000 in NIL and Johnson, who is set to pocket a little under $1 million herself this year. The WNBA will need to scramble to find ways to bridge the pay gap between its salaries and NIL if it wants to compete for these real college superstars and the future players who will undoubtedly follow their financial footprints.
Fortunately for the WNBA (and college sports fans), Reese and Van Lith don’t have to cross that bridge for at least another year. Because right now, Mulkey and Co. are solely focused on actualizing the potential of this superteam by bringing home another banner to the Bayou.
“Angel entered into a standard agreement with SI Swimsuit to appear in print and digital editorial media for the publication and to attend the launch event,” Sports Illustrated tells LSU Country.
The edition of the magazine will be released on May 12th with both Reese and Dunne being the first college athletes to ever be featured.
“We’ve done so much within a year,” Reese told SI. “We weren’t even supposed to be in the Final Four. We had nine new players, and it was coach [Kim Mulkey]’s second year in the SEC, so we didn’t know what to expect. We just went out there and had fun all the time and put in a lot of work all season.”
LSU has dominated the NIL space over the last year. From Reese to Dunne to other student athletes adding monstrous deals, it’s clear the university is ahead of the curve in this new era of college athletics.
After Reese made the move from Maryland to LSU, her status continued to skyrocket. With sheer dominance on the court, averaging a cool 23 points and 15 rebounds a game, her status off the floor became much more marketable.
The superstar forward led the Tigers to their first national title in program history, and after the championship game, it’s been nonstop for Reese. She’s been featured on Good Morning America, signed a deal with Mercedes Benz, Coach and much more as her NIL valuation reaches the $1.4 million mark via On3’s system.
Reese has the chance to keep the momentum rolling as she goes through the offseason before the 2023-24 season. Despite being eligible for the 2024 WNBA Draft, Reese has stated she’s “in no rush” to leave college. Time will tell, but for now, Reese is living in the moment as she transforms women’s basketball.