USA Basketball’s Top Junior Women Scrimmage Against and Learn From the Best
NCAA Next Generation Showcase a chance for elite players to play one another and learn valuable lessons from legends.
On the same day the NCAA Women’s Final Four in Tampa drew worldwide attention with the nation’s greatest college players vying for a national championship, across the bay in Clearwater was a gym filled with top-ranked national and international players aspiring to get their shot at the next level.
On Thursday morning, members of the USA Basketball Women’s Junior National Team took part in the NCAA Next Generation Showcase. The event featured a minicamp and 3x3 scrimmages for six USA players as well as 34 players from Australia, China, India, Latin America, Europe and Africa. Additionally, a handful of NCAA international student-athletes attended.
“It’s cool to get to compete with girls from another country,” said Haley Jones, one of the USA participants. “It benefits our own games.”
The program, hosted by the NCAA in partnership with USA Basketball and the NBA Academy, is similar to the one for men that held its first edition during their Final Four last year. The women’s NCAA Next Generation is in its first year.
“We have programs that fit internationally with a lot of what the NBA is trying to accomplish with these kids,” said Carol Callan, USA Basketball Women’s National Team director. “It’s just a good environment to bring together players from around the world. The talent level is very impressive.”
The roster of USA players was comprised of four high school seniors — Aliyah Boston (committed to the University of South Carolina), Sam Brunelle (University of Notre Dame), Maori Davenport (Rutgers University) and Jones (Stanford University) — along with juniors Paige Bueckers and Hailey Van Lith. Bueckers has verbally committed to the University of Connecticut, while Van Lith remains undecided.
During the first of Friday’s Final Four semifinal games, Boston, Brunelle, Bueckers and Van Lith were recognized for winning gold at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games. The four, along with Jones, also helped USA Basketball win the gold medal at the 2018 FIBA U17 World Cup, where Boston and Jones were named to the all-tournament team.
“To be able to unite with different people from all over the world, I think it’s special,” said Brunelle.
“We got to meet people from all over the world,” Boston said. “For the six of us it was a great experience.”
Added Bueckers: “It’s a great experience getting to play with other [college-bound] athletes. It’s about improvement and working on your weaknesses.”
Like the others, Bueckers and Van Lith were at the camp, in part, to hone their skills on and off the court in order to go back and help their high school teams succeed. Bueckers played on three straight state runner-up teams at Hopkins High School in Minnesota before winning it all this season. Similarly, Van Lith played on three consecutive state runner-up teams at Cashmere High in Washington and aims to win it all as a senior.
Following the 3x3 competitions, players gathered for a panel discussion organized by the NBA Academy. Moderating was Morgan Cato, director of business operations for the NBA.
The panel, representing an array of women in various avenues of basketball, featured: Tamika Catchings, four-time Olympic and two-time World Cup gold medalist and vice president of basketball operations for the Indiana Pacers; Ticha Penicheiro, a WNBA legend who now is a sports agent; Natalie Sago, one of three female referees in the NBA; and Briana Green, one of three female Harlem Globetrotters.
Additionally, there were seven representatives on hand from the NBA Academy, an initiative to develop elite basketball players on and off the court around the world.
Penicheiro put it rather succinctly when she said, “Women need to empower women, girls need to empower girls.”
The panelists spoke of being motivated to succeed, remaining positive and serving as role models.
“They broke some barriers, they faced some challenges,” Cato said of the panelists. “It took a lot of hard work. Because they worked so hard someone noticed them.”
“The word ‘no’ fuels me to try to prove people wrong,” said Penicheiro, a native of Portugal. “If I was afraid of the unknown, I never would’ve left Portugal and played in the WNBA.”
“Have dreams as well,” was the message from Sago, who aspires to one day officiate Game 7 of the NBA Finals.
The six USA players took those messages to heart.
“You have to be persistent in chasing your dreams, even when some people are telling you no,” Davenport said, adding that it is imperative to surround yourself with “positive people who have your back.”
One message everyone seemed to agree on was relayed to the group by Penicheiro: “Basketball gave me more than I could ever imagine. Don’t forget to have fun. Don’t forget to have passion for the game.”
Added Catchings, “Just be willing to stand out in anything you do. Enjoy the moment.”
Bueckers concurred with those statements, saying, “When I was a little kid I never thought I’d be in this program. If you work hard and have fun, opportunities will come to you.”
Added Van Lith, “Don’t be afraid to take risks and value every opportunity you get.”