Georgia Tech star Lorela Cubaj processes growth, returns home as WNBA rookie

Twenty-two seconds remained on the clock in the New York Liberty’s double-digit win over the Dream. A familiar face, Lorela Cubaj, tapped the scorer’s table for a brief on-court appearance. A shrieking roar of local supporters decked out in homemade garb honoring one of their own could be heard across Gateway Center Arena.

The cheering section of Georgia Tech supporters, led by coach Nell Fortner and joined by fellow staffers, teammates and friends, awaited this moment. Those who mentored Cubaj, an Albanian who grew up in Italy and made Atlanta her second home, hadn’t seen the professional rookie for nearly three months after mentoring her for five years.

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Everything felt right again for the 48 hours (and 22 on-court seconds) that Cubaj returned to the place she came to know well.

“It was a proud moment for all of us,” Fortner told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Lo is living out the dream of playing professional basketball in the best league in the world.”

Before that game June 24, Cubaj returned to the Zelnak Center digs on Tech’s campus. She had the privilege of reuniting with those she knew best — player-development coach Shannon Jackson, director of basketball operations Ashlee Villarreal along with Fortner and her dog Simon.

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They got to celebrate Cubaj, the first Tech player to be drafted into the WNBA since Tyaunna Marshall in 2014, and reconvene on happenings surrounding Liberty and Yellow Jackets basketball.

“It felt really good because I lived here for five years,” Cubaj said Thursday before the Liberty’s game against the Dream in College Park (7 p.m., Bally Sports Southeast). “This became my second home. I got to see my people, and that was amazing.”

Cubaj has become the latest success story in Tech’s women’s basketball program under Fortner. The second-round selection (18th overall) has developed in New York’s system under the tutelage of veterans Stefanie Dolson, Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb and others to become a fringe rotational piece for the Liberty.

“Every day, things get more and more comfortable. It's a process, and I am trying to trust it and enjoy it."

- former Georgia Tech star Lorela Cubaj, who plays for the WNBA's Liberty

She has averaged eight minutes per game in 11 appearances, so the 22-second stint against the Dream hasn’t been the normal workload. The 6-foot-4 center shined a few days earlier against Connecticut with a career-high four points.

“You see that drive to work hard and get better,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello told the AJC. “She has been a joy to coach. She stays ready. It doesn’t matter about the minutes. She’s continuing to learn the system and controls the controllables.”

Cubaj long had aspirations of playing in the WNBA. She played seasons with the Italian national team against professional talent and knew what it took, but those goals came to fruition during her final seasons at Tech. Fortner began to see Cubaj cement herself as a WNBA prospect during the Jackets’ historic run to the Sweet 16 during the 2020-21 season. Cubaj, for the first time, found herself on mock draft boards, and many had her pegged as a late first-round selection.

After choosing to return to Tech for a fifth season despite a climbing draft stock, Cubaj proved herself as a force in the ACC. She found herself in discussions as one of the country’s best post players, led the nation in rebounds for a stretch of the campaign and continued to show her strength as a defensive stalwart.

“It’s her body, high motor and what she does as a high-IQ player,” Fortner said. “She had the ability to play in the league, and I’m very happy she has gotten that opportunity.”

On draft night, the Liberty considered taking Cubaj in the first round. She was one of the organization’s top options. New York, instead, went in the direction of Oregon’s Nyara Sabally, and Cubaj remained available — one slot behind fellow ACC competitor Elissa Cunane – for the Liberty to acquire her rights via trade.

Brondello saw qualities in Cubaj that made the Liberty comfortable in carrying the Tech product on the roster alongside bigs Dolson, Han Xu and others.

“We thought really highly of her,” Brondello said. “She affects the defensive side in ways that a lot of young players don’t.”

Cubaj possesses some strengths that translate to the WNBA level, but increased scoring may be needed for her to make an impact under the bright New York lights. That progression will come with experience and confidence, Brondello said, but the Liberty are quite fond of Cubaj’s capabilities as a screener, rebounder and defender.

Those three assets, after all, are what allowed Cubaj to emerge as one of the ACC’s premier players.

“It’s been different. I needed to adapt to a different role, which is fine,” Cubaj said. “It’s my job to adapt to who I am playing with and learn the most from the vets. I go out there and give it my all.

“Every day, things get more and more comfortable. It’s a process, and I am trying to trust it and enjoy it.”

Each time the Liberty take the floor, Fortner finds a way to watch the team on a screen. She watches in hopes of seeing No. 18 play and has enjoyed it in glimpses. She knows Cubaj will see more than 22 end-of-game seconds in the future, but the chance to see Cubaj on the hardwood in-person once again held a lot of weight.

In eight short weeks, Cubaj’s beloved Tech-based cheering squad will return to College Park for another homecoming Aug. 12. It’ll be yet another moment they won’t take for granted.

“I’m really thankful for everybody who is part of my journey,” Cubaj said.