Spring evaluation period in full bloom
HAMPTON, Va. -- A busy season of club basketball kicked off this past weekend with the NCAA spring evaluation period and 39 certified events nationwide. The longest running and one of the largest tournaments, the Boo Williams Invitational, brought both college coaches and club teams to Hampton, Va., for the 25th consecutive year. A total of 212 teams from 29 different states and Puerto Rico participated in eight divisions on 28 courts Friday through Sunday. While the teams will continue playing throughout the spring and summer, recruiters will next be in the gym during two separate 10-day segments in July.
There was plenty of talent on hand and in the first of two tip sheets we take a look at some of the athletes whose performances caught our eyes.
Rachel Banham: The folks at the University of Minnesota seem to have a commitment who keeps getting better and better all the time. The 5-foot-7 point guard from Lakeville, Minn., demonstrates a consistency both in her play and her improvement. Her textbook skills and court instincts have a smooth confidence to them that wasn't as evident in the past. In addition to being in command of the floor, she has the stroke and range to force defenders to play her honest and in turn making her all the more effective. Physically she has the tools to hold her own with both bigger and quicker guards. If her play this weekend is any indication, opponents should be the ones worrying about holding their own with her.
Cierra Burdick: Whether it was a new team, a different position of just having future coach Pat Summit of Tennessee courtside, Burdick played some of her best club basketball in a while. There was an energy and enthusiasm that allowed the 6-2 Matthews, N.C., native to be a force at the forward spot alongside new Boo Williams teammate Elizabeth Williams. Working almost exclusively at the forward spot she was effective with her short and mid-range games and offered some high-low options with Williams that would give any opponents nightmares. The aggressiveness that she played with had an impact defensively but really paid off on the glass as she gathered in almost every ball that came her way. If she continues to play with the same approach the well-known potential could become reality. It's crowded at the top of the 2011 class but her play reminded some of why she's already at No. 6 and looking to climb a rung or two.
Krystal Forthan: There's a new era in post play in women's basketball and the premium, thanks to Brittney Griner, is going to be on aggressive and explosive players who can play at new heights. While Forthan's listed 6-4 height may be a stretch on paper, on the court it seems to be understated. Her address and teams may have changed a couple of times over the past year, but the reality of her play and potential has remained the same. She's played at the rim for a couple of years now but her knowledge of where and when to use her physical gifts seems to be evolving into a much more reliable weapon. There's still refinement to be done with her skills to capitalize on the heights she can play at but few have the tools to join her up there defensively. While the Georgetown, Texas, resident may have slipped several spots to number 12 in the most recent ESPN HoopGurlz Super 60, her play this weekend may have added some "lift" to her standing.
Virginia Johnson: Bound for her home town University of Iowa, this 6-1 wing almost defines the word versatile. Combining size, athleticism and skills, she has taken multi-taking from the corporate world to the basketball court. She's effective both on the break and in the halfcourt. She can attack off the dribble and get to the rim or pull up with good elevation on the short jumper. While perimeter opportunities are secondary to her attack of the dribble, the form is there to be a threat and could be a real asset at the next level. Defensively, she has the feet and the speed to match up with smaller and quicker guards and the wingspan to eliminate most of their offensive options. She's effective on the boards and isn't hesitant to throw her lean build into the mix when things get physical.
Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis: It's hard to imagine that UConn commit and ESPN HoopGurlz's No. 2 prospect Mosqueda-Lewis still is evolving but when she steps on the floor there's a lot more to contend with than her shooting. The 6-1 guard from Anaheim, Calif., is showing more attack to her game and a knack for creating looks for her teammates off the dribble. No, she's not ready to move to the point but her passing in the gaps of rotating defenses is sharp and well read and there's never been any hesitancy on her part to give it up. At the same time the confidence and consistency of her shot, from any range, continues to grow to extraordinary heights and challenge opposing defenses game in and game out. Physically she appears more fit than ever and may even have added some noticeable height to her frame. Sunday's championship game found her the focus of an aggressive Boo Williams defensive attack and the short end of the final score. Some rushing and frustration were evident in her game, but this is a reality with which she'll have to deal as she'll certainly continue to draw the compliment of opponents' defensive schemes designed just for her. Despite the result of the final, her play over the entire weekend should be cause for lively debate over the top spot in the 2011 class.
Shakena Richardson: If you're looking for that point guard who can make something happen, you don't need to look much further than this 5-6 Neptune, N.J., native. With the ball in her hands there aren't many defenders who have a prayer of staying in front of her. She gets into the paint almost at will and does it with explosive speed and quickness. Change of speed and change of direction leave opponents standing and her ballhandling has that built-in hesitation that foolishly brings defenders out of their stance and lunging at the ball. Her vision on her penetration is exceptional and despite her small size, allows her to make sharp interior passes. She can finish in traffic and has a reliable pull up but at times will over commit and leave herself hung out to dry. Ironically, she often still finds a way to still make a play even after leaving her feet undecided. Defenders should think twice before "giving her" a step to take away penetration as she has both the stroke and the range to make them pay.
Alexis Prince: At a time when so many athletes seem to hit plateaus in their development and make marginal progress in their games, this 6-1 wing from Maitland, Fla., seems to be on a steady track of improvement. Already well established as a perimeter prospect, she's continued to refine her skills and add depth and confidence to her play. She's combined effective and efficient ballhandling skills with her long, lean build to make herself a challenging matchup for any opponent. Off the dribble she can get to the rim and take on the bigs or she's just as comfortable pulling up and knocking down the mid range jumper. Her size and form give her the range to force defenders to close out deep consequently creating more penetration opportunities. Defensively that same size can cause havoc for smaller opposing backcourts and she has the footspeed to turn ballhandlers. She still has a tendency to relax and stand up on the weakside but with consistent effort she could be an impact player at both ends.
Imani Stafford: Every once in a while you can almost see a player improving right in front of you during the course of a game. Stafford seems to get better almost by the possession and may just be finding out herself just what possibilities are in front of her. Though her height seems more than a bit exaggerated at 6-7, her potential certainly is not. In addition to her size the Los Angeles, Calif., native has a long athletic build and a fluid mobility that serves her well in both the half and full court. Her low-post skills still need some sharpening as well as more consistent use to develop confidence in them but it's obvious that she's already put some work in. She did hit a 10-footer that if consistent, could become a real asset to setting up her other options. Defensively she has all the tools to be a real force should she chose to embrace that role like Brittney Griner on the college level or Elizabeth Williams in the class in front of her.
Breanna Stewart: She's got size, athleticism, instincts, skills, and a blue collar work ethic. It's hard to know if you should be excited about the player she is or the player she might become. The 6-4 forward plays a complete game that may well set her apart from the rest of the 2012 class. One of the most noticeable things about the Syracuse, N.Y., product is the ease and fluidity with which she moves. Whether it's on the drive offensively, running the lane on the break, or rotating to help on the defensive end, she has a smoothness to almost everything she does. With the ball in her hands she is effective from the elbows with the jumper or putting it on the floor. Down low, she finishes while protecting the ball and exploiting her impressive reach on either block. Defensively, her timing and anticipation makes her a game changer on the boards and as a shot blocker. Physically, she's just beginning to fill out and with added strength and maturity could add to or magnify the skills already in place. At both ends and from tip to buzzer what may really establish her impact is her consistency of effort. Regardless of the score or time on the clock she plays one way.
Tyler Scaife: The 2013 class is shaping up to be one of the deepest to come along in a long while and this 5-8 point guard from Little Rock, Ark., adds some serious depth to the talent pool. Her wiry build is deceptive as it hides an explosive quickness that's equal to or beyond many athletes several years older. She has impressive one-on-one skills that keep defenders on their toes and create both scoring and passing opportunities for her and her Cy-Fair teammates. Her speed with the ball in her hands in transition is often faster than the defenders who are trying to get back. Her pull-up shot has good elevation on it and comes off a quick and sudden jump stop that's hard to anticipate. Consistency from the perimeter will be critical to keep opponents honest and closing out. Defensively, that same speed and quickness serves her well on ball and gives her the potential to work over opposing ballhandlers. With the right focus and commitment, Scaife could be a special player among a talented class.
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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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