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Legacy of WNBA great and former Sun Devil Briann January rises into history

Shane Dieffenbach Avatar
November 16, 2021

When Briann January first committed to Arizona State, coach Charli Turner-Thorne knew she was getting an incredibly talented athlete. A high jump state champion in 2004, she also led her basketball team in assists all four seasons. In her senior season, she helped the basketball team reach the semifinals. She was named first-team all-state by both the Associated Press and Seattle Times, and she finished up her high school career averaging 13 points per game.

What Turner-Thorne likely didn’t know was just how deep January’s commitment to representing the program would be. Reflecting on what January has accomplished since joining the program 17 years ago, she’s gone on to make Sun Devil Nation proud.

January received one of the top honors on Friday night when her No. 20 jersey was officially hung from the rafters of Desert Financial Arena, commemorating her tremendous contributions to the ASU Women’s Basketball program.

“To me, Bri is inspiring because she just is such an incredible leader,” Turner-Thorne said. “She has such great energy no matter what, whether she’s losing a game or is injured and can’t do something. She’s just someone who’s a real inspirational person.”

Finding out she was going to be honored by Sun Devil Athletic came unexpectedly. Keeping in close contact with Turner-Thorne, January thought she was receiving a phone call for one of their regular check-ins. When January heard the news, she said she was stunned.

“I thought it was going to just be a routine conversation, but then she dropped that on me, and I was honestly speechless,” January said.

January helps see Sun Devil Women’s Hoops soar to new levels

January was part of the Sun Devil Women’s Hoops squad that helped set new levels and expectations of success. From when she first set foot on campus in 2005, January had an instant impact on the team.

Throughout her time at ASU, she racked up a number of accolades and accomplishments.

January received AP All-America honorable mentions in 2008 and 2009. She was the two-time Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year and made first-team All-Pac-10 in 2009.

At the time, her 538 career assists were good for first place in Sun Devil record books. She also finished in second overall for steals with 265 and free throws with 401. Finishing her career with 1,317 points, she currently sits in ninth place on the list of all-time scoring leaders.

“I could go on and on about Bri’s accolades,” Turner-Thorne said. “Clearly, one of the best players to play the game.”

“I give total credit to my team,” January said. “We played some awesome basketball. We had a lot of fun and we had a lot of success.”

During the time January was playing at Arizona State, the Sun Devil Women’s Basketball Team won 77 percent of its games. They also qualified to the NCAA Tournament all four years, with Elite Eight appearances in 2007 and 2009.

“[Turner-Thorne] has created such a culture here,” January said. “A culture that extends off the basketball court that I’ve taken along with me throughout my career. The things I’ve learned here have allowed me to be successful at the next level.”

In 2009, January was drafted as the sixth overall pick by the Indiana Fever. Helping the Fever to a 2012 WNBA Championship, January also helped them to the 2009 and 2015 WNBA Finals. January is, according to the WNBA, the most prolific point guard in Fever history.

Returning to coach, Briann January’s impact on the program grew more significant

In August 2017, January landed an assistant coaching position with Sun Devil Women’s Basketball during the offseason. Working in her favor, she was traded to the Phoenix Mercury in March 2018. January remained involved with the program until she was picked up by the Connecticut Sun during the 2020 free agency.

“I was so impacted by the coaches I had here at Arizona State,” January said. “That was one of the main reasons I came back to coach… I was impacted so positively by everybody that was around me, I wanted to come back and give back and do that.”

Because of her recent coaching stint, she’s still incredibly connected to the program. During her time, she was able to coach both seniors Taya Hanson and Jade Van Hyfte.

“Briann’s a legend,” Hanson said. “She came here and all four years she worked her butt off. I’m just so proud of her and feel so privileged to have the opportunity to be coached by her.”

January’s return to the program has allowed her legacy and contributions to live on in more than just history books. While she might not be with the program at the moment, January has remained connected by coming back to speak with the players regularly.

“Most of the players on our team have had some good interactions with Bri and have an incredible appreciation for her, which reflects our ASU Women’s Basketball Culture,” Turner-Thorne said. “It’s more about who we are than what we do. She’s an even better person than she is basketball player, and they see that. That’s what Im the most proud of.”

Really taking her presence and messages to heart has been sophomore Jaddan Simmons.

“I’ve talked to [January] and she’s helped me a lot,” Simmons said. “I’ve been to some of her games, and she’s just confident and always worried about her teammates.”

After a stellar freshman season, the recency of January’s jersey retiring has Simmons contemplating the legacy she’d like to leave behind one day. With a father who’s left his own mark on Sun Devil athletics, Simmons now has a second motivating force helping motivate her in her quest to the top.

“She’s never worried about herself, even if she scores zero points,” Simmons said. “That same game she’ll probably have 12 assists. Just talking to her and watching her play really shows me how great of a player she is. I want to get to that same level.”

It was clear that being a team player was something on her mind in both the opening game against Northern Colorado and Friday’s game against Minnesota. On the opening night, she had 9 points, 5 assists, 4 steals, 3 rebounds and 1 block in the 71-41 rout of Northern Colorado. In the overtime loss to Minnesota, Simmons had 4 points, 4 rebounds and 2 assists.

Love for the game fuels her passion and desire to do more for those behind her

Making the decision to honor someone like January, Turner-Thorne said, really came down to figuring out a date. January still plays professional basketball overseas in the offseason when she isn’t playing in the WNBA. Originally set to be in Europe already, an injury kept January in the United States a bit longer.

“I think with someone like Bri, there’s not a lot of conversation, it’s just when, and it worked out this year,” Turner-Thorne said. “She actually was scheduled to be in Hungary before she got hurt. We were going to fly her back from Hungary just to be at this game because she agreed to do that, and her coach agreed for to do that.”

At just 32 years old, January still has a long career ahead of her to continue making an impact on the sport of basketball. Third in all-time WNBA postseason assists, January sits only behind Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird, respectively. It’s a pretty elite group to be included amongst, truly emphasizing her contributions the court.

“Obviously, we’re playing for the greater good, but hard work pays off and it is fun to leave that kind of legacy that Bri is leaving,” Turner-Thorne said.

“I’m just so beyond proud of her, she’s put everything into this game and she deserves her number up there,” Hanson said.

Briann January celebrates with Mercury teammate Brittney Griner
The Phoenix Mercury’s Briann January and Brittney Griner (right) celebrate a basket against the Atlanta Dream in the second half on Aug. 17, 2018, at Taking Stick Resort Arena in Phoenix, Ariz. Atlanta .vs Phoenix 2018

After her WNBA career comes to a close, a return to coaching is what January has her sights set on.

“Eventually after I’m done playing, I’ll find myself coaching somewhere because I think that’s such an important role to continue trying to share the culture I learned here at Arizona State,” January said.

While it would likely be a few years off, it’s definitely a possibility to see January return to work with Sun Devil Athletics again in the future. Should Arizona State keep the “pro model” they’ve implemented, Briann January fits the mold perfectly.

“She just brings a level of intensity and passion to the game that I really needed that year that she coached,” Hanson said.

Bringing a former player back to work with the team can be magical in its own unique way, and the University of Arizona is a prime example. Adia Barnes, who had a phenomenal career with the Wildcats in the mid-to-late ’90s, took over the program in 2016. In four years, she was able to take the Wildcats to the NCAA Finals, shining a national spotlight on the newly ignited flame within the program.

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