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Built through faith and fervor, Northwestern phenom Veronica Burton is set to conquer the WNBA

Veronica Burton celebrates with her team after they upset No. 4 Michigan on the road in double overtime. Burton hit the go-ahead free throws in the 71-69 victory that she calls one of the best moments of her career.

For Veronica Burton, faith comes before anything. Every morning before she starts her day, she reads a devotion from scripture. Her favorite is Philippians 4:5-7.

“It talks about [how] in everything that I do, instead of worrying, pray to God,” said Burton, who just wrapped up a nationally-recognized season as Northwestern’s senior point guard. “Sometimes I get overwhelmed with all the things that I’m trying to do… It’s easy to get caught up in the accolades, the noise. But giving those things to God has been a major key for me.”

While the foundation of her faith was instilled by her family, Burton said it reached new levels during her freshman year when she realized that she was on her own. Ironically, as a third-generation Burton at Northwestern, her family name added some pressure as her grandfather, father and mother all had successful college athletic careers. On top of that, she was immediately given the keys to the Wildcats’ offense as the starting point guard.

But to propel her success, Burton coupled her faith with another priority taught by her parents: hard work. It’s well-known in Northwestern lore that as kids, Burton and her three siblings were woken up at 5 a.m. to work out before school. She brought that same drive and determination with her to college.

“Having coached a lot of talented players, I think [her work ethic] is the one thing that stands out to me,” said NU associate head coach Kate Popovec, who played with or coached Northwestern legends and WNBA draft picks Amy Jaeshcke, Nia Coffey and Lindsey Pulliam. “[Burton’s] never not been the hardest worker in the gym.”

According to Popovec, head coach Joe McKeown has consistently needed to talk to Burton about working too much. One time, he kicked her out of the gym at 5 a.m.

“If you ask my coaches, they would probably tell me to get off my feet,” Burton said. “Coach McKeown has been telling me that since freshman year.”

Veronica Burton does some form shooting in front of the basket before the Wildcats home game against Penn State on January 20. The clock in the background reads “90:00,” as Burton began her warm-up two hours before tip-off.

If you want an example of just how hard Burton works, look no further than her typical pregame warm-up. Her routine consists of form shooting, pull-up midrange jumpers, floaters and three-pointers from all angles, which would be a standard warm-up for most.

Except it’s not. While Burton gets ready, the game clock in the arena remains frozen at “90:00.” That’s because Burton starts her game preparation two hours before tip-off — usually as the lone player on the court with student manager Sean Cha rebounding — and the ninety-minute countdown clock to the game’s start yet to even begin ticking down. On top of her twenty to thirty-minute routine, Burton would come out again with the rest of the team during the usual shootaround a few minutes before the game. She did this extra work before every game even as she she sat second in the Big Ten in minutes per game at 36.5.

This fervor has fueled an illustrious career that includes a Big Ten championship, three consecutive Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards, back-to-back All Big-Ten First Team selections, finalist spots for the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year and a finalist Nancy Lieberman Point Guard of the Year awards, and, most recently, Third Team AP All-American honors.

Burton holds the Big Ten Conference trophy alongside her dad, Steve, and mom, Ginni.

But her accolades and distinctions have never shaken her natural modesty. She defers from being called the team’s star even though she’s led the team in scoring for the last two years — including by more than double the second-highest scorer’s total this season — and leads this year’s team in assists, steals and minutes per game.

Her teammates constantly rave about her humility. In the team’s senior send-off video for Burton, sophomore Jasmine McWilliams said, “You never really realize you’re with the Veronica Burton — she’s so humble. She acts just like anybody else.”

Paige Mott describes her as a “goofball” off the court; She posted her teammates best Griddy’s on her Instagram story and belted out TiK ToK by Ke$ha in a karaoke session with teammates Courtney Shaw and Lauryn Satterwhite as her background dancers. But whether messing around off the court or putting work on the court, Burton doesn’t exude superiority over her teammates.

“She never plays down to the level of what we’re doing,” Popovec said. “Say it’s a drill where there’s no defense. Veronica will consistently have the highest totals. She attacks every single thing like it is the championship moment of her career.”

With Burton’s Northwestern career likely over, the reality of life beyond Evanston has begun to enter her mind. Her primary goal after this NCAA season was to make the WNBA, a far cry from her initial expectations when she arrived at NU. when

“Before I got to college, I always struggled a little bit with confidence,” Burton said. Coming out of high school, Burton received offers from several high-level mid-majors, but struggled to garner much traction with Power Five schools. McKeown, Popovec and the Wildcats, however, saw something special in her.

“She was deceptively good and people didn’t pay attention to her,” Popovec said. “Her game wasn’t flashy… You really had to watch Veronica to understand how good she was.”

McKeown knew that, and from the beginning, threw lofty goals at Burton, challenging her to become the best point guard in the conference. Burton didn’t fully absorb McKeown’s vision for her immediately, but in her rookie season, she couldn’t ignore her own results after leading the team in assists and the entire Big Ten in steals.

“I think I felt a sense of belonging once I got to college and I was like, ‘Okay, I can play in the Big Ten,’” Burton said. After her rookie season, she began to consider the WNBA as a realistic goal.

Now, with less than a month to draft day, Burton still refers to her WNBA dream as an “opportunity” that she hopes will be there. The truth is, it’s more of a certainty than Burton makes it out to be, at least according to Just Women’s Sports and Winsidr Women’s Basketball analyst Rachel Galligan.

“I think she’s got the potential to jump into the first round [of the WNBA Draft],” said Galligan, who has talked about Burton with several WNBA coaches and general managers. “I think she’s a shoo-in for the second round.”

Galligan said some GMs consider Burton the best point guard in a class filled with combo guards and wings. Evaluators are enamored by the steadiness on the offensive end, high basketball IQ and defensive ability of Burton, who leads the nation in total steals this season. But according to Galligan, what sets her apart in the eyes of some WNBA evaluators are her intangibles.

Veronica Burton raises her arms as she defends Penn State’s Makenna Marissa. Coach Popovec said that she would often joke with Burton that the reason for her defensive prowess is her massive hands.

“These women are fighting for their jobs night in and night out, so that tenacity, defensive toughness and grit on the defensive end of the floor that she brings is so unique and hard to find,” Galligan said.

While Galligan says it’s difficult for her to compare Burton to any point guard in the league, she believes the intangibles Burton’s known to possess have driven the success of some of the league’s best point guards, such as WNBA legend and newly hired Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon and Seattle Storm all-timer Sue Bird. Whether Burton is as skillful as those greats on the court will depend on how her game translates to the next level.

Galligan said one WNBA source mentioned that Burton will still need to continue working on her jump shot. Burton’s shot 33 percent from beyond the arc in her college career, which is a decent clip. But in the last three seasons, she’s sat below that overall mark. It’s easy to argue that Burton was a better shooter early on in her career because defenses paid more attention to her veteran teammates, which will likely be the case in the WNBA. But the bellwether for her ceiling may be dependent on just how much of an outside threat she can become.

Bleacher Report Women’s Basketball writer Jackie Powell has similar sentiments on Burton’s draft stock, as she had the Wildcats senior as the final pick of the first round to the Connecticut Sun in her WNBA Mock Draft back in December.

Powell said that, given that the Sun lost Briann January to free agency and that head coach Curt Miller’s wants to establish a defensive identity around the team’s star, Alyssa Thomas, she feels Burton could fit perfectly in Connecticut. She would likely back-up veteran Jasmine Thomas, who reminds Powell of Burton in that both are steady, defensive-minded point guards. Coincidentally, Jasmine Thomas was selected with the No. 12 pick in the 2011 draft, which is where Burton would go if the Sun select her this year.

Galligan also believes the Sun make sense for Burton, but she says perhaps the Los Angeles Sparks or Aces may take her with either the ninth or eleventh pick, respectively. The Sparks have a bunch of good point guards entering this season, but with Jordan Canada and Kristi Tolliver on one-year deals, Galligan says they could go with Burton as future insurance. Similarly, the Aces have elite ballhandlers in Chelsea Gray and Kelsey Plum, but Hammon’s entry could entice the team to go with Burton, especially given the player preference she expressed during her introductory press conference.

“I can tell you the type of player that I really want is a competitive one,” Hammon said. “I will take a little bit less talent. I would love to have talent and super competitive, but I want really competitive players that want to be there and want to work hard and buy in right from the very start.”

If Burton does fall out of the first round, Galligan says the struggling Atlanta Dream, who hold the second and third picks of the second round, could use any jolt of talent. On the other hand, Powell believes the Storm, who hold the fifth and sixth picks of the second round, could select Burton as insurance after Sue Bird’s swan song this year.

Assuming she does opt to enter the WNBA Draft, Burton’s career did not get the ending that many expected and most in Evanston thought it deserved: one last NCAA Tournament run. The Wildcats were not selected to the field of 68 and opted out of participating in the WNIT, ending Burton’s college years in the process.

But while her time in Evanston may have come to a close, she’ll keep the constants that got her to this point in place as she pushes onto the professional level. In particular, there are two things that Burton will continue to do no matter where she finds herself: work hard and anchor herself in her faith.

“In whatever I do, especially through basketball, I want to give it back to Him,” Burton said. “I’m not tired of putting in the work. I want to keep going with this and I want to go as far as I can with it.”

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