2013 class oozes with 'It' factor
The "It" factor is difficult to define, but you know it when you see it.
Most of the time, that is.
Courtney Vandersloot seemed to have something special when it came time to rank the girls' basketball class of 2007. I'd known her since she was a fourth-grader in Kent, Wash., and I had my fifth-grade team from Seattle triple- and quadruple-team her because "darned if we're going to let the little blonde girl with the ponytail beat us by herself." She grew into a rare high school player who so quickly could make the decision between setting up a teammate and taking her own shot, maintained crystal-clear vision of teammates and defenses during a dribble drive, and who only missed shots by millimeters.
Plus Vandersloot had an unmistakable swagger or belief in self that belied all the measurables.
But the HoopGurlz rankings panel saw a girl with talent but who didn't have the size to be counted among the elite of the elite 2007 prospects. It wasn't an uncommon viewpoint. Neither of the Pac-10 schools in Vandersloot's home state even offered her a scholarship. In fact, a coach from one of those programs continued to argue that Vandersloot could not survive the day-to-day rigors of Pac-10 play -- even as she, at the time, was leading the nation in assists for Gonzaga.
It's almost embarrassing to admit, but we ranked Vandersloot as the No. 64 prospect in the 2007 class, as much an endorsement of her future as for any kid we rank in our top 100, but not really an indication that we thought that she'd go on to become the first player, female or male, in Division I history to post 2,000 points and 1,000 assists in a career, be drafted No. 3 overall in the WNBA Draft and earn All-Star and All-Rookie honors during her first season with the Chicago Sky.
And, most likely, Vandersloot could have withstood the day-to-day rigors of Pac-10 play.
You'd think we'd all have learned our lesson, but the very next year we all fell in love with Samantha Prahalis, of Commack, N.Y., as a prospect but, when push came to shove, we allowed ourselves to be scared off by her size and dropped her in our final 2008 rankings from top 20 to No. 30. We did better than we did with Vandersloot, but Prahalis finished her Ohio State career with a bushel of school records, and every honor imaginable, before being taken No. 6 overall in the WNBA Draft.
You might say that we finally see "It," especially when it's right in front of our faces.
A prime example is the 2013 class, whose rankings we have "refreshed," taking into account the high school season and the spring NCAA-certified evaluation weekend. We have in the past expanded our rankings of 2013 and 2014 prospects at about this time, but, starting last year, we postponed the expansions until after the USA Basketball trials, which we consider the ultimate proving grounds for college prospects.
The top four prospects in 2013 have the kind of swagger you don't need a radar to detect. No. 1 Mercedes Russell of Springfield, Ore., has grown light years into the kind of confidence befitting a post with her crazy kind of varied skill set. No. 2 Kaela Davis of Buford, Ga., and No. 3 Diamond DeShields of Norcross, Ga., are daughters of former professional athletes who have very mature skills and white-hot competitive fire. No. 4 Taya Reimer of Indianapolis, Ind., is the versatile offensive forward we've been thinking for years that we've found, but who finally may have arrived.
Our new No. 5, Linnae Harper of Chicago, is a Vandersloot-like example of a player whose "It" factor trumps physical limitations and puts her into orbit as a prospect. At 5-6, she is not supposed to be the leading rebounder in almost every game she plays, but she is. She isn't supposed to score so easily inside, like she does. She is, quite simply, a warrior.
Harper is no undersized forward masquerading as a guard, either. She proved that during USA Basketball trials last year, and as a key component of the USA U17 team, which she led in assists and steals while it was claiming gold at the FIBA Americas championships. She reinforced that by hitting big shot after big shot for Whitney Young (Chicago), including many during its epic, quadruple-overtime victory over archrival Bolingbrook, as well as for her Lady Fire club team, for which she sank a halfcourt, game-winner at the Deep South Classic.
We elevated Harper only one spot, but it is an indication that we believe she deserves to be in 2013's "It" factor penthouse.
This class, in fact, may be fraught with more "It" than any that has come along in a few years. No. 6 Rebecca Greenwell of Owensboro, Ky., is coming off an ACL injury, but certainly had as much swagger as any prep player in the country last summer. Though not lacking for size at 6 feet, No. 7 Allisha Gray uses self-confidence, as much as anything, to take on any and all defenders. No. 10 Tyler Scaife of Little Rock, Ark., does the same with a smaller, 5-8 package.
At 6-feet, Marques Webb of Montgomery, Ala., defies expectations with a powerful and polished inside game that befuddles defenders several inches taller. She is one of 2013's biggest risers, improving to No. 24 from No. 37.
There are five newcomers to the Super 60 -- No. 44 Aurjane'e Alix of Houston, Texas; No. 45 Andrijana Cvitkovic of Culver, Ind.; No. 46 Alexandra Harris of Lorain, Ohio; No. 49 JeTaun Rouse of Tinley Park, Ill., and No. 53 Siera Thompson of Gardena, Calif. -- who in their own right have exhibited swagger.
During nearly two decades of covering the NBA, I saw physically gifted athletes wash out, time and time again, while visually unassuming players like John Stockton and Steve Nash went on to Hall of Fame-type careers. The women's game is no different. "It" factor often wins the day.
In that regard, 2007 was not a complete embarrassment for HoopGurlz. There was a kid named Jeanette Pohlen from Brea, Calif., whom many scouts dismissed as not being athletic enough to thrive at the next level. We saw a prospect with unshakeable confidence with good handles and an even better shot who covered more ground on defense than she logically should have. In other words, she had "It." We not only ranked her, at No. 22 overall, we may have been the only ones who did.
And the Pohlen kid has had a pretty good career, so far. Supposedly lacking in foot speed, she went coast-to-coast to beat the buzzer and Xavier, sending Stanford to the 2010 Final Four. After her senior season, she was named Pac-10 Player of the Year and an All-American, then was drafted No. 9 overall by the WNBA's Indiana Fever.
Sometimes the hardest part of finding "It" is acknowledging the discovery.
Rankings Panel: Brandon Clay, Rebecca Gray, Chris Hansen, Keil Moore, Glenn Nelson.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org.