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Friday, December 26, 2008
Delle Donne's decision rare among highly touted recruits

By Mechelle Voepel
Special to ESPN.com

Nicole Kaczmarski
After one season at UCLA, Nicole Kaczmarski transferred to Georgia, but never played a game there.
Elena Delle Donne's decision to step away from playing basketball for one of the nation's top powerhouses stunned most people.

But when you think about it, maybe it's even more surprising that there haven't been more situations like Delle Donne's. There just aren't a lot of prep players who appeared headed for great college careers but went an altogether different path.

The fact is that most of the high school players who have been projected as the best in the country have indeed gone on to play four years in college. Some aren't as good as projected, and some have transferred. But the vast majority do finish their college basketball careers.

Elena's story

Elena Delle Donne sits down for an interview with Mark Schwarz on "Outside the Lines." Watch extended interview

What has happened with Delle Donne -- not playing college hoops at all, although the option is still open if she chooses it -- is so rare that even the most well-known comparisons to her are notably different.

If you asked devoted women's hoops followers to name prep stars whose college experiences never came close to matching what was expected, two names likely would come up first: Nicole Kaczmarski and Nina Smith. And in a strange coincidence, they both graduated from high school in 1999.

"Kaz" -- as everyone referred to her -- was a Long Island scoring wizard featured in Leandra Reilly Lardner's film "Running Down a Dream," which chronicled the recruiting process Kaz and her father, Pete, went through.

Kaz, a standout guard at Sachem High School, chose UCLA -- much to her father's dismay. She played for the Bruins for one season, then took the next fall off because of injury, illness and an ongoing strained relationship with her family back in New York.

"She came to a place her father didn't want her to go to, and it was a huge transition," said Kathy Olivier, formerly the coach at UCLA and now at UNLV. "Her dad kept telling her, 'Leave.'"

Kaczmarski did indeed do that, transferring to Georgia. But she never played for that program. She went back to New York and attended Stony Brook, although she didn't play basketball there, either.

She was drafted by the New York Liberty in 2003 but didn't make the roster. She played overseas and had another shot at the WNBA, with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2005. But that didn't work out, either.

Nina Smith
Nine Smith played two seasons at Wisconsin, then transferred to Iowa State, where she never played a game. Cyclones coach Bill Fennelly said he thinks Smith had a "burnout factor."

"She was an awesome player and actually a really neat person. She was a fun kid," Olivier said. "The last time I talked to her was right before I got the UNLV job this past spring, and she told me she was back in school and is studying to be a doctor."

Smith was a 6-foot-4 center from Waterloo, Iowa, who ended up choosing Wisconsin over Tennessee. After two seasons with the Badgers -- when she was hampered by a broken foot -- she transferred to Iowa State.

But she never played for the Cyclones. Instead, she finished her career at a Division II school in Philadelphia -- Holy Family. She found that the academics/athletics balance there fit her better.

Now Nina Smith-Thomas, she's married with two children and has helped coach girls' basketball at Waterloo East High. She had played for Waterloo West, and Iowa State coach Bill Fennelly recruited her back then.

"She was Courtney Paris before Courtney Paris," Fennelly said.

He welcomed her transfer to Iowa State, but said he could tell pretty quickly her heart wasn't into the game when she came to Ames.

"I think there was a burnout factor," Fennelly said. "She was pushed extremely hard from a young age to be something that I'm not sure she ever wanted to be. She was 6-foot-4, so her body made everyone think she should be doing this and be great at it. But I think she really wanted to be a regular kid."

Fennelly said that even though there aren't a lot of examples of players who have left the sport at the college level -- or never started, as is the case with Delle Donne -- he thinks there are more who sort of punch their time card in college than people realize.

"The average fan assumes that every kid loves to play, but that's not the case," he said. "Sometimes they play because they just happen to be good. Or because they're tall. Or they need a scholarship. Or their mom and dad want them to play.

"I don't think with some kids [that] it's burning in their belly every day. It's just not."

Fennelly also believes the "push" on younger players now has changed the way some of them look at the sport, turning it into more work than play.

"As college coaches, we see it," he said. "The true love/passion for the game is fading for some kids because they are pushed so hard. Whether it's parents, high school coaches, AAU coaches -- it's hurting [players].

"It's something we all are adjusting to as coaches. There are way more influences on them at a younger age. I go to AAU tournaments now and watch 11- and 12-year-old kids who have better uniforms and gear than my team has. They've traveled and played all over the country, and it's not a big deal for them now. There's still, obviously, a lot of great parts to the game for young people. But it is different, and it's not going to go back to the way it was."

Mechelle Voepel is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.