It's in the stars

Pitted against each other in the NCAA national championship game, Brittney Griner of Baylor and Skylar Diggins of Notre Dame once were acclaimed participants in a national skills academy in 2008. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

Nearly four years ago, in a gym on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Ore., Skylar Diggins was the kid instructors kept trotting out as an example of how to run fundamental drills correctly, and Brittney Griner was the kid some of the instructors -- stars already in the college game -- tossed lob passes to so they could watch her dunk.

This was back when Nike assembled all the very best college prospects in the country and drilled and pitted them against each other in what it called the National Skills Academy, just before the launch of the NCAA-certified summer evaluation period. It was there the above portraits were shot.

Back then it was easy to envision the matchup that will unfold in Denver on Tuesday night -- a team led by Diggins (Notre Dame) playing a team led by Griner (Baylor) for the NCAA national championship.

A lot of you must be thinking: "Yeah, right, hindsight always is 20-20." But, truly, the staff at ESPN HoopGurlz believed the top of the 2009 high-school class to be game-changing. We'd never seen a women's college post prospect like Griner and never before beheld a point guard prospect like Diggins. And post and point guard are the two most critical positions in basketball.

Because of Griner, I kept referring to 2009 as a "Halley's Comet" class -- one that bursts into view about once in a generation. Certainly, we'd never seen anyone like her.

I first saw Griner play in a back gym in Birmingham, Ala. After that game, I asked her if she could dunk a basketball. She promptly picked up a ball and slammed it through the rim. The look on her face was not unlike that of a kid who loves ice cream, after taking the first lick of her cone.

Earlier, in that same gym, I saw Taber Spani, now at Tennessee, play for the first time. I mention that now because one of the highlights of that 2008 Nike National Skills Academy came during the opening moments of the very first scrimmage. Spani attempted a 3-pointer from the corner and Griner, standing under the basket, uncoiled like a snake and blocked the shot. The gym momentarily went silent, as everyone processed what they had just witnessed, then everyone went crazy.

Earlier that year, I'd been down to Griner's home in Houston and, with video camera rolling, watched her dunk, time and time again. These weren't barely-dunks, either, but windmills, reverses, catches off the backboard and 360s. She could dunk all day, which is significant. I covered the NBA for 17 years and once witnessed a prominent Hall of Fame-destined player, who was 6-feet-4, struggle to make even a single dunk while filming a commercial for Nike.

But it wasn't the dunking that made Griner our clear-cut No. 1 prospect for 2009. It was everything that went into those dunks -- the fluid athleticism, the ungodly coordination for a player who was 6-8, the leg strength, and the infinite wingspan.

Diggins, on the other hand, didn't have such obvious physical gifts. She had good, but not exceptional, size at 5-8. She wasn't stronger than everyone, or faster. But she had a quick mind and a strong heart and, heading into the summer of 2008, began to ooze with "it" factor that prompted us to grant her, at No. 3 overall, the highest ranking we'd ever assigned a point guard prospect. The Irish and Stanford both were desperate to have her, and the day during the early signing period in 2008 when she chose between them was one of the more dramatic recruiting developments we'd ever covered.

She'd also come from good stock. Her mother, Renee, though seven inches shorter than her daughter, is an absolute fireball. Diggins was coached much of her youth by her step-father, Moe Scott, who never sought to control his prodigy the way a lot of fathers do. He allowed her to do what was best for her career, and Renee clearly was on board.

We'd first seen Diggins as a slightly scrawny shooter. She had good enough handles and a quick release on her jumper. Mostly, she was starved for improvement. Every year, she'd ask me and my colleague, Chris Hansen, what she could do to improve. I remember at that 2008 Skills Academy, we'd been critical of her defense. It's not surprising that she just led the Big East in steals and came up with a timely block against Connecticut in the national semifinal on Sunday.

What I remember most about Diggins at that 2008 Nike Academy was her passion for DJing. I'd asked her to compose a rap that she would record for one of our podcasts. On the last day of the academy, we made the recording out of earshot of the rest of the players. She was very nervous. And that was absolutely the last time I ever saw her in such a state.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.