Jaelyn Brown on the fast track
As an 8-year-old, Jaelyn Brown was so much faster than everyone else that she would often race down court, shoot a layup and then wait for the other players to catch up so she could play defense.
"I was a hustle head," Brown said.
The 15-year-old rising junior at Vista Murrieta (Murrieta, California) has since sprouted to 6-foot-1, but she is still faster -- and better -- than most kids her age.
The talented wing is the nation's No. 2 player in the espnW HoopGurlz Terrific 25 for the 2016 class, and she started keeping a book with one letter from each university that has shown interest in her.
That one book has become two and nearly three as more than 60 schools have made recruiting overtures, including offers from Vanderbilt, Southern Cal and Washington, among others.
Given her success, it's amazing to consider that Brown was born with two club feet, a congenital deformity in which a person's feet appear to have been rotated at the ankles.
"Doctors were afraid she wouldn't be able to walk very well," said her mother, Leah Brown. "We had to cast her feet for six months. ... I cried a lot."
Those tears turned to cheers soon thereafter when Brown began walking at 10 months.
"She kind of skipped past crawling," Leah Brown said. "She just started walking fast or 'stumbling running.' She had a lot of pent-up energy."
Brown found an outlet for that energy in basketball. At age 12, she played in a coed rec league, and her advanced skills created a stir.
One boy even cried, apparently, after Brown applied consistent pressure, stealing the ball away from him repeatedly.
But Brown's biggest breakthrough came in the summer between her eighth- and ninth-grade years.
Brown, 13 at the time, was playing her first year of club ball, and she helped her team, Cal Sparks 15U, reach the semifinals of Fila Nationals in Atlanta.
The next day, she was moved up to Cal Sparks' Gold 17U team. Playing with and against numerous players who were three and four years older, Brown did not look out of place.
That team, led by incoming UCLA freshman Jordin Canada at point guard, had an incredible summer, finishing 44-1 and earning a No. 2 national ranking, according to coach Elbert Kinnebrew.
Brown, who is left-handed, filled in when another UCLA recruit, forward Lajahna Drummer, got hurt. Kinnebrew said Brown fit right in as a reserve in the rotation.
"Jaelyn is an incredible athlete with amazing leaping ability," Kinnebrew said. "I've seen her jump up and grab passes that you think are surely headed out of bounds. She's an all-around talent who is hungry to get better."
Brown was an instant hit as a Vista Murrieta freshman, producing 24 points, 11 rebounds, 6 steals and 3 assists in her first varsity game.
"She was an immediate starter for us, and I was interested to see how she would do in her first game," Vista Murrieta coach Chris Jones said. "It was a tournament [in San Diego], and there were a lot of college scouts there.
"Well, she was four steals short of a triple-double."
As a sophomore, she led her team in scoring (18.3), steals (3.7) and blocks (1.2). She also averaged 9.6 rebounds for a 23-7 team.
The next step in Brown's evolution is her jump shot, which sets her apart and also holds the key to her future to a large extent.
Kinnebrew said Brown is a rarity at this level in that she shoots a true jumper, releasing the ball at the height of her leap. That's true even on 3-pointers, on which she gets 18 inches of elevation.
Because of that, Brown's shot rarely gets blocked. But the accuracy -- just 18 percent from 3-point territory for Vista Murrieta last season -- needs to improve significantly.
"When she shoots the 3, she becomes a mere mortal," Kinnebrew said. "I'm trying to get her to focus on her midrange game, where she is a terror. If she attacks the basket more, she can be a 20-point scorer."
Jones said Brown projects as a small forward in college. But the coach thinks she can play shooting guard and maybe even the point.
"Jaelyn is dynamic off the dribble," he said. "When she makes up her mind that she will get to the basket, she is going to get there. Going right, going left -- that's her true gift.
"She is long and athletic and a lockdown defender. She is an above-average shooter right now. But when she gets that jump shot completely down, she will be unguardable."
Brown, who is interested in studying psychology, said she is in no hurry to pick a college and likely will wait until the end of her junior year before she commits.
In the meantime, she will have a little extra motivation since she was recently cut from the USA Basketball U17 tryouts in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Brown made the cut to 46 players, which was the last trim before the final 12 were selected.
Brown was obviously disappointed yet exceptionally mature about everything that happened at the tryouts.
"There was a whole bunch of talent there, and I think anyone could have made the team, especially in the last round of 46 girls," Brown said.
"It was a pretty fun experience. I didn't get my hopes up too much -- I was going to be OK with whatever they decided. The level of competition was amazing, and I obviously didn't show enough. It definitely motivates me to make the team next year."