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Northwestern in the WNBA: Checking in on Veronica Burton and Nia Coffey

An update on two NU greats.

Dallas Wings v Phoenix Mercury Photo by Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Northwestern’s women’s basketball team is less than a tantalizing topic of discussion nowadays. After all, what is there to talk about? How NU had more than four times as many total wins as conference ones — nine to two? How the ‘Cats allowed more than 80 points in eight contests? How they averaged almost 18 turnovers a game?

In any case, the point of this article is not to nitpick a squad that’s painfully aware of its deficiencies; I, for one, am optimistic that things must improve for Northwestern next season. Rather, let’s celebrate the golden days of NU basketball: the pro games dominated by some program greats, namely now-WNBA players Veronica Burton and Nia Coffey.

Of the two NU stars, Burton graced the Welsh-Ryan hardwood more recently. The Massachusetts native averaged 17.8 points per game in her senior campaign and notched about 14 points per game during her tenure in purple and white.

But perhaps more impressive was Burton’s defensive prowess. She tallied over 420 defensive rebounds in four collegiate seasons, and fleeced close to 400 steals in that same span. Oh, and the 5-foot-9 guard flexed 68 blocks.

In her time at NU, the ‘Cats still only managed to make the NCAA Tournament once, losing in the Round of 32 in 2021 to Louisville. Granted, in her sophomore season, head coach Joe McKeown had his team revving, sitting at 26-4 before the NCAA shut down that year’s March Madness on account of COVID-19. Perhaps one of the biggest “what if’s” in the school’s athletic history…

Now in her second season with the Dallas Stars, Burton has struggled mightily at the next level. She had all the hype heading into the WNBA, as she was selected No. 7 overall and was touted as arguably the best defensive player in the draft. Still, it’s felt like Burton hasn’t been able to put the pieces together quite yet. It’s not for a lack of opportunity, though.

Burton averaged 15.2 minutes per game in her rookie year, but despite the decent playing time, she managed only average 2.6 points per contest. Through 15 games this season, she’s totaled 12 field goals made, playing 21.6 minutes per game. She’s also regressed in one of the most scrutinized stats in basketball: plus-minus (+/-). The figure denotes how many points she’s scored subtracted by the amount the player she’s guarding has tabbed. In 2022, her plus-minus across the whole season was 38 — not anything to boast, but at least a positive figure. This year, with more than half the year to go, she’s at -50.

Luckily, the Wings are still third in the WNBA standings. Burton’s future with the team remains unclear, but it’s known she has potential. She consistently starts for the team, indicating that the Wings’ coaching staff finds value in her on-court presence and defensive flashes.

As for Coffey, her statlines at NU were often even more eye-raising than Burton’s. In four years, from 2013-2017 (what could’ve been if Coffey was a year younger or Burton was a year older so the two could’ve played together…), Coffey scored 17.9 points per game. In her senior season, the 6-foot-1 forward amassed 8.1 boards per contest.

Coffey led the team to its first NCAA Tournament in the 21st century in 2015. The ‘Cats lost to Arkansas in the Round of 64, but the return to March Madness marked a new era for the previously floundering program.

The Minnesota native was taken No. 5 overall in the draft to the Atlanta Dream, making her the most touted prospect in Northwestern women’s basketball history.

Now six years into her career, Coffey has carved out an established role in the league. Still, she’s struggled more as of late, at least compared to her production a few seasons ago.

In 2021, she averaged 25.2 minutes per game. That figure now sits at 20.6. In 2021, she scored over eight points per game. That number has now dropped 37%, down to 5.2. Still, as she enters the next stage of her career, she’s seen her assists reach an all-time high (1.8/game) and continues to grab a near-career high in defensive rebounds (3.3/game).

Coffey has had double-digit scoring outings on four separate occasions this season and has kept turnovers to a minimum throughout her 2023 campaign.

Now at different points in their careers, NU’s two WNBA players are striving toward different objectives. Burton is looking to find a rhythm in the fast-paced league, while Coffey is on the search for trophies and accolades. But what the two players have in common is their undeniable Northwestern legacies.