The Nell Fortner era at Georgia Tech has gotten off to a solid start, with the Yellow Jackets reaching the Sweet Sixteen in the 2021 NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament and returning the bulk of their roster for the 2021-22 season.
Adversity has struck the program, however. Promising sophomore guard Loyal McQueen transferred to Alabama just three games into the regular season, and her backcourt partner, senior Kierra Fletcher, hasn’t played at all after undergoing surgery on her foot. It’s severely hampered the Yellow Jackets’ depth, with Fortner rolling out just a six-player rotation in many games thus far.
It’s situations like these when programs must lean on their stars, and luckily for Georgia Tech, it has one in Lorela Cubaj.
Cubaj, a 6-foot-4 forward from Terni, Italy, decided to use her extra year of eligibility (granted by the NCAA due to the COVID-19 pandemic) to return to Georgia Tech for a fifth season, despite her impressive senior season in 2020-21 earning her WNBA Draft consideration.
Fortunately for the Yellow Jackets (14-4; 5-2 ACC), Cubaj has gotten even better since then, and her experience and diverse skill set have been paramount in her team maintaining its winning identity while making the necessary adjustments through its roster upheaval. Georgia Tech is currently ranked No. 18 in the country in the Associated Press women’s basketball poll. As the ACC regular season continues, let’s look at how Cubaj has helped keep the Yellow Jackets afloat and what it means for her as a future WNBA draftee.
Honors and statistics
The No. 2 international prospect in the class of 2017 according to ProspectsNation.com, Cubaj has steadily improved throughout her collegiate career. As is typical for players who aren’t offensive centerpieces, it took a while for Cubaj to be recognized nationally, but the honors began pouring in during her junior season: She was named Co-Defensive Player of the Year, sharing the award with Syracuse center Kamilla Cardoso, after averaging 11.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. Cubaj was also named an All-American honorable mention in 2021 by the WBCA.
Prior to her senior season, Cubaj was named to the preseason All-ACC Team by the conference’s Blue Ribbon Panel and coaches. She was also named to preseason watch lists for the Wooden and Naismith player of the year awards, as well as the Katrina McClain Award, given to the country’s top power forward.
Internationally, Cubaj has been competing with Italy for several years. She was on the Italian roster in FIBA’s U17 and U19 World Championships — she won a silver medal in the prior — and in FIBA’s U16, U18 and U20 European Championships. Most recently, she participated with Italy in FIBA’s 2021 Women’s EuroBasket competition, where she averaged 4.5 points, 6.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game.
How she helps the Yellow Jackets
Georgia Tech’s lack of ball handlers has forced the Yellow Jackets to play a brand of basketball that many wouldn’t consider to be aesthetically pleasing. Fortner’s crew keeps game scores low by playing at an excruciatingly slow pace — only a handful of teams average fewer possessions per 40 minutes, according to Her Hoop Stats — and relying on its defense to do the rest.
It’s a sensible strategy when a team’s best player is such an accomplished defender. Cubaj is the fulcrum of a Georgia Tech defense that currently ranks second in all of Division I in efficiency, allowing just 71.5 points per 100 possessions. She moves remarkably well for a player of her size, allowing the Yellow Jackets to field an array of defensive schemes to keep opponents off balance. Cubaj is comfortable switching onto perimeter players and her overall level of activity makes her a candidate to snag just about any available rebound. Her Hoop Stats currently ranks her third in Division I in defensive rebounding percentage (30.7 percent), a hair up from her No. 11 overall rank last season (30 percent).
Cubaj’s impact isn’t exclusive to the defensive end of the floor, though. A willing passer with a good feel for the game, Cubaj has seen a sharp uptick in her playmaking this season, no doubt a result of the team’s scarcity of guards. She’s actually Georgia Tech’s leader in assists per game (4.4) and assist percentage (32.4 percent), frequently operating at the top of the key to find cutters or center Nerea Hermosa in high-low action.
Look no further than Georgia Tech’s early-season upset of then-No. 3 UConn for an example of what Cubaj brings to her team. With Cubaj anchoring their defense, the Yellow Jackets held UConn to just 44 points in the game, while Cubaj herself stuffed the stat sheet with 13 rebounds, seven assists, two blocked shots and two steals. It was classic Cubaj; Fortner credited her “grit” postgame, saying that her star forward “refused to lose.”
The additional playmaking duties for Cubaj may have been out of necessity for Georgia Tech, but her larger role this season raises some interesting questions about her WNBA Draft stock. Compared to most other forwards and centers in the 2022 Draft class — Michigan’s Naz Hillmon, Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed are just a few of the many bigs WNBA teams will have to choose from this spring — Cubaj’s game is somewhat unorthodox in that she’s not often seen as a go-to scorer for her collegiate team, yet she contributes in virtually every other area. Thus, while it’s unlikely that WNBA coaches and GMs will see her as a player to build their teams around, she’ll also be able to fit in almost anyone’s training camp, thanks to her wide variety of skills.
Fortner and Georgia Tech, of course, are not worried about that just yet. They’ve found a way to win in one of the toughest conferences in the country and one can bet that as long as Cubaj is on the floor for the Yellow Jackets, they’re going to find a way to compete.
Watch her play
The Yellow Jackets have held their own in ACC play thus far, but they still have plenty of challenging matchups remaining on their schedule. One such matchup is a Feb. 7 game between Georgia Tech and the No. 4 NC State Wolfpack (ESPN). Cubaj and Wolfpack center Elissa Cunane have done battle for years, and with both players presumably entering the 2022 WNBA Draft this spring, that individual matchup will definitely be one to watch closely. Cubaj will then get a crack at the Virginia Tech Hokies and All-ACC center Elizabeth Kitley on Feb. 10 (RSN) in what promises to be another highly physical battle in the paint.
All statistics and team records for the 2021-22 NCAA season are current through Jan. 21, 2022.