BEAVERTON, Ore. -- The Nike National Skills Academy is a great opportunity for players to find out what they're really made of and what facets of the game they truly need to work on. With the pace of the event combined with the vast array of skills the players are asked to work on, weaknesses are uncovered at every turn.
From an evaluation standpoint the little things that become so important at the next level stick out in a setting such as this but at the same time all 19 of the players here this week are so ahead of their peers that when they return to their club teams for the NCAA Certified Viewing Period beginning July 6, they will be more dominant than ever. For every critique there are so many things these kids do well that the future of the game is as bright as ever.
The post players here really made this Skills Academy one of the best because they challenged each other relentlessly and went at each other with the intensity and physicality of champions. After some great battles both in the post and on the perimeter we have compiled a tip sheet covering every player participating this week with the exception of Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, whose action was greatly limited by a knee injury.
Gennifer Brandon showed all the tools that have made her a top-10 recruit. However with the extraordinary level of talent in the gym, she found herself needing to rely more heavily on fundamentals rather than just her athleticism. As those skills progress she could be that special combination every coach looks for at the 4 spot. She has the ability to drive from the high post with an incredible first step but must find other ways to create her own shot in the paint. Her aggressiveness and fluid movement without the ball make her tough to defend. As a defender herself she countered bigger and stronger posts with both quickness and speed but found herself out of position at times.
Skylar Diggins is a consummate pro. Her work ethic speaks for itself and she plays every single possession like it's her last. There are players here quicker, stronger, faster and taller, but none of them are as complete a player nor as effective as Diggins. She is a smart player and in this setting uses her body position and initiates contact to outplay quicker defenders. Defensively she is always a threat because she stays focused. There were several possessions she slapped the ball away from her opposition when they relaxed. Diggins is a playmaker, hard worker and a real gamer amongst gamers.
Brittney Griner is the future of the game and seeing her work with the present with Jayne Appel and Courtney Paris working with her you see the knowledge being passed on. Paris was driving home the principals of gaining good post position and how to hold it. Early in camp Angel McCoughtry was playing coach and defender at Griner's station and got around her and tipped the entry pass numerous times. Paris schooled the young star on the benefits of getting low and wide and how it resulted in the defender only being able to push on her, not get in front. When she realizes she is unstoppable, she goes to the rim like all the coaches here are telling her -- it's game over. Her dunking and shot-blocking exploits entertained as usual and her defensive dominance forced the rest of the camp to the next level.
From Norfolk in the spring to Cincinnati on Memorial Day and now to the Nike National Skills Academy, Jasmine Hassell has become a freight train in taking her game to a higher level. Competing with the best posts in the class, she proved no discussion of top recruits is complete without her. She showed an aggressive approach every moment she was on the floor, whether it be in Gannon Baker's drills, two-on-two, three-on-three or even five-on-five. Her willingness to mix it up with Griner, Reed, Oliver and Brandon down low produced results time and again. Hassell brings to mind an image of Karl Malone and his Utah Jazz playing days. Her midrange game is still a question mark and will have to come along to make her more of a multi-dimensional player.
Tayler Hill has one of quickest first steps of any high school player and even here with a wealth of quickness she can get by people. In the gym this week against the top players it showed her quickness alone will not allow her to score at will. She must master setups and counters to maximize her abilities at the next level. When setting up moves with her jabs becomes automatic and she can read the defense instantaneously, her game will take off even more. She has the ability to hit the step-back jumper and collapse defenses, so becoming a more refined passer could also expand her game offensively.
Christina Marinacci struggled early with the speed of the game but seemed to settle in as the event progressed. She is a kid with a high basketball IQ and trying to match the speed of some of the competition took her away from her game. When she slowed down and went back to what she does best -- move without the ball, read and react -- she was an effective passer and scorer. Marinacci may have struggled at times here but is one of the kids you will see next week with her club team against typical competition and she'll eat their lunch and make them pick up her trash. The exposure to this much size and athleticism and having to adjust may have been the best part of the event for her development, not the skill work. She did show her range and ability to handle the basketball in the open court and make the right reads in scrimmages.
Monique Oliver showed this week she has focused a lot on the one part of her game holding her back -- finishing. Even with three big-time shot blockers in the gym, Big Mo seemed unfazed. She made strong pivots and exploded up to the rim and finished. She is a high-motor kid and outworked a lot of people here. Getting more comfortable finishing with a jump hook when she can't get all the way to the rim seems like the next step for Oliver offensively as her face-up game has long been a strong point.
The class with the "big two" posts isn't an accurate description for 2009 any longer. Already an elite prospect, Cokie Reed demonstrated against all comers why her name should be mentioned in the same breath with the others. Her effort in both the drill and scrimmage sessions was focused and productive. Reed's size and strength combined with her willingness to use them make her a formidable presence on the court. Describing her as an attacking post would be a gross understatement. She does play very upright and is going to have to get lower and play with a wider base against opponents of her own size.
Shenneika Smith stood out this week even among the great guard talent and the laundry list of big-time post players. Her ability to create space is second to none and she doesn't need to make a ton of fancy dribbles to do it. Smith is one of the best at using subtle, threatening movements, both with the ball and with her feet to make the defense react. Combined with her shiftiness she also has one of the quickest jump shots from start to finish. You rarely see her shot blocked or even bothered. Smith can handle the basketball and can get the rim even more than she does. Strength and posture is what limits her in dribble penetration situations. If she adds strength and plays in a more compact and explosive position when penetrating she will be able to turn the corner on defenders that she doesn't beat outright.
Taber Spani, a perimeter scoring threat, found the range time and again, making defenders pay for allowing her to set up. Smart and fundamental, she's one of those players who make those around her better. She seemed to be a one-dimensional scorer and will need to find ways to keep her defenders honest. Developing more of an attack, as she showed in many of the drill situations, is right around the corner. With each scrimmage session she was more and more of an impact player and showed why her ranking and collegiate options are way up there.
Morgan Toles has both speed and quickness. Her first step is one of the quickest in the class and despite her lack of height, she covers a long way with that step by maximizing her stride. She gets from stopped to full speed almost instantly but her biggest area for improvement is changing her speeds more than that initial burst. If she can harness her quickness and control her tempo, she can be one of those guards impossible to maintain pressure on. Toles was one of the best at the stationary two-ball dribbling drills this week and her handle shined in changing directions, but again the next evolution is mastery of tempo.
Erica Wheeler exhibited her top-tier quickness and first step against a roster of special players. The Florida native penetrates effectively and has the ability to shoot the pull up as well as dish the ball. Her lack of size only becomes a factor if you can catch her. Erica exhibited some range at times which will force defenders to close out on her, thus allowing her to attack the rim. She showed aggressive on-ball defense at times but needs to become more consistent and apply it every possession. A migraine affected her Wednesday evening and kept her on the sidelines during the day's second workout.
An athletic wing from northern California, Chelsea Gray had some outstanding moments in Portland. She can attack with and without the ball. Her ability to turn the corner off screens is going to create a lot of scoring opportunities for her in the future. Her choices and decision making were suspect at times, but there seemed to be an awkward adjustment to having some of the nation's top posts in the paint. You can see the refinement of her game coming at both ends of the floor as she has the ability to attack defensively as well. The best is yet to come.
Kaneisha Horn is another perimeter player who may have established claim to the power guard position. Having size, strength and a quick first step, she got to the rim again and again against the Nike invitees. Not too many slashers have her physical tools and the willingness to use them. Her ballhandling, while effective on the drive, was suspect at other times in the half court. Extending and refining her perimeter skills is going to make her a very dominant 3 at the next level and one of the top prospects in the 2010 class.
Afure Jemerigbe's explosiveness has been touted for the better part of the last year and deservedly so. She ran up against a plethora of challenges defensively that your average high schooler can't pose but that she'll see on a regular basis in college. With the collection of fantastic post players here, all the guards had to adjust to a game where there was always a shot-blocking presence in the paint. That's a change for Jemerigbe, who can usually elevate over the defense even if the help does collapse. She scored well at times and found the lane clogged others, and gaining a further understanding of spacing offensively and reading where the help defense is and when to attack will really help her on the next level. Unfortunately her athleticism has made things so easy that until this week it has never been that important.
Chiney Ogwumike is maturing as a player minute-by-minute. Her effort this week was great, leading to her making a bigger impact defensively than expected against such incredible offensive talent. That full-throttle effort did lead to some uncharacteristic turnovers, but as her ballhandling improves it gets her into situations she has not been faced with as an interior player. The game here is faster, but with her athleticism she doesn't need to hurry to keep up, a lesson she started to learn as the event went on. The comparisons to her sister Nneka really aren't fair because even against this top competition it is evident she will be a big wing in college. Her ballhandling and perimeter shooting need to continue to improve as they have over the past year.
Odyssey Sims, a left handed 2010 speedster, showed an ability to get to the rim time and again. She'll want to be more efficient on those drives as a lot of them came away without a bucket, assist or foul. The reality is she creates opportunities for both herself and her teammates, but her decision making isn't as quick as her moves. Helpside is going to be less and less effective against her drive as her ability to read defenses and her shot selection progresses. Parts of her game may seem unpolished but the many glimmers that she shows are a brilliant shine.
The youngest player participating in the skill academy, Kaleena Lewis, showed the continued advancement of her game is not slowing down. She took the floor with the maturity and confidence of the older athletes and proceeded to establish herself as the perimeter player to watch in the 2011 class. While not a clone of Katie Smith, she is from that mold and has the rare and special identity of a power guard. She has the stroke and range to force defenders to come out on her. At the same time she can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. She's very active and the power aspect is already there. It's going to have an even greater impact when she becomes more explosive with her first step.
Chris Hansen covers girls' high school basketball nationally for ESPN.com and leads the panel that ranks and evaluates players for the network. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Mark Lewis is a columnist and national evaluator 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.