When Georgia Tech coach MaChelle Joseph first went to Mississippi to recruit Sasha Goodlett, she turned down a dirt road that she began to suspect was going nowhere.
"We were on it like 25 minutes before we got to her house," Joseph said. "Thankfully, we had a GPS. There were no street signs, nothing. To know she could leave that and come to a huge city like Atlanta and thrive, it's a great story."
Tiny Bolton, Miss., west of Jackson, is Goodlett's hometown. She went to high school in slightly bigger Clinton, which is closer to the state capital. At first, Goodlett couldn't imagine leaving Mississippi for college. But her mother saw Georgia Tech's possibilities and told her 6-foot-5 daughter: You need to go there.
"My mom wanted me to face challenges academically and physically, and that's what Georgia Tech did," Goodlett said.
It turned out to be right school for both reasons. Saturday, Goodlett was in Atlanta to graduate with her class, including four fellow seniors from the Yellow Jackets' team that made the NCAA Sweet 16 for the first time in the program's history this past season.
Then she raced to the airport to fly to San Antonio for the Indiana Fever's exhibition game there. Goodlett played 15 minutes, getting 6 points and 3 rebounds in a 69-67 victory.
"There are a lot of things about her I like," Indiana coach Lin Dunn said. "Her valuing her education, her knowing that to be a WNBA player she had to do certain things to get fit. When you look at having the 11th pick in the draft, I don't know how we could have done any better."
The Fever are hoping that Goodlett can be the low-block banger that the team needs. On draft day in April, that's exactly what Goodlett said she hoped to bring to Indiana.
"I'm a true, back-to-the-basket center," Goodlett said. "But I have jump-shot range; I can hit the 15-footer. I can put the ball on the floor. It's not just turn-and-shoot, but I am a low-block player who's comfortable there."
Goodlett always has been big and strong, but she also came to college out of shape and low on confidence. Her eating habits and food choices needed to improve.
"It was the typical Southern diet: Everything was fried, all the sauces were creamy," Georgia Tech director of player development Scott McDonald said. "It's really been a process to reteach her. She loves Alfredo sauce; we'd tell her to have marinara. It's not about dieting, per se, it's about eating good food cooked properly at the right times throughout the day."
McDonald and a nutritionist took Goodlett grocery shopping and shared recipes with her. She bought into the idea that vegetables really can be tasty without the batter and grease. Add in her willingness to work constantly outside of basketball on conditioning -- doing interval training with a treadmill, stationary bike, jump rope, medicine ball, etc. -- and by this spring, she was very much transformed from the teenager who went to Georgia Tech four years ago.
"The weight loss was one thing," Joseph said. "To lose close to 70 pounds in four years is amazing. But it's also the growth in her self-confidence and personally. She took on large challenges and not only survived it all, but thrived. It says a lot about her character, and I give her all the credit. A lot of the things that she did when nobody was watching made the difference, and put her in the position she's in."
Dunn, who was Joseph's college coach at Purdue in the late 1980s and early '90s, was watching Goodlett's progress all along. Sometimes she saw it up close when she visited Georgia Tech.
"The first time I met Coach Dunn was after a game my freshman year," Goodlett said. "She just walked up to me and said, 'You know, your coach doesn't give you the ball enough. I'm going to talk to her.'
"I was kind of scared, thinking, 'I don't know who this is, and I'm not sure that would be a good idea.' Then when I figured out, 'This is Coach Dunn!' I was honored that she would say something like that about me. Now, I'm really excited to play for her."
Goodlett has a very polite, well-spoken manner and no accent. You'd never know she was a Southerner, actually, just to hear her talk. Which is not the case with Dunn, a native of Tennessee who can turn something like "fit" into a two-syllable word.
"Yes, I can understand her accent," Goodlett joked. "Since I'm from Mississippi, I definitely can."
Goodlett is poised now to make the Fever's 2012 roster, which is a hard thing to achieve.
"I can't remember a training camp where it was going to be so difficult to pick the 11 players," Dunn said. "Usually, they cut themselves one way or another. I don't think that's gonna happen this time. We've got probably 13 that legitimately are WNBA players, and it's going to be really, really difficult to go from 13 to 11. It's a good sign for us, though."
The Fever didn't have a second-round draft pick this year, using that in an April 2011 trade to get guard Erin Phillips. Indiana especially needed her after Briann January suffered a torn ACL in her 10th game last season.
January is back, as is 2011 WNBA MVP Tamika Catchings, who tore the plantar fascia in her right foot at the end of last season in the Eastern Conference finals. Dunn said they have rehabbed and are easing their way back into playing shape. So far, so good on Catchings and January. But the Fever just lost forward Shyra Ely-Gash to an ACL injury last week.
If Goodlett is able to fill in some decent minutes at center, it gives Dunn more options overall. Dunn sees Goodlett as learning from veterans Tammy Sutton-Brown and Jessica Davenport, but also being a stronger pure low-block presence.
"She's had a really good camp for a rookie so far; she didn't come in the least bit intimidated," Dunn said. "She gets down the floor better than I thought she would at her size. She's adjusting to the fact that the league is extremely physical.
"We see signs of what we really like: her ability to step in and hold the seal, to muscle her way to the rim. And she is very receptive to being coached; just has a lot of positive energy about her."
Goodlett said when she was in college, she focused on getting into shape because that's what Georgia Tech, a pressing team, needed from her. Joseph acknowledges she was harder on Goodlett than she has ever been on a player, because she saw so much potential. Goodlett appreciated that, and now has her chance in the WNBA.
"No way do I feel like I am done yet; I still have more work to do as far as my size and shape," Goodlett said. "But I am ready to take it on. Especially coming to play with a WNBA legend like Tamika Catching is an honor. I'm eager to ask her questions. I know she expects her teammates to be in the gym before and after practice, and she will have that from me."