Syracuse recruit and long-range specialist Nikki Oppenheimer expands her horizons
When Nikki Oppenheimer was 7, she had no idea what the word "coed" meant when she read it on a sign in her neighborhood park. Until this past summer, the 17-year-old had no clue what the word "bola" meant, either.
Both discoveries were crucial on her road to becoming one of the nation's surest shooters and a Division I women's basketball prospect.
Ask Oppenheimer, and she'll tell you that her Spanish is a work in progress. It's good enough to order some of her favorite dishes -- arroz con pollo, platanos maduros and empanadas -- but not much else.
It got a lot better during the summer when the 5-foot-9 guard and Syracuse commit represented Puerto Rico in the FIBA Americas U18 championships in Chile. Averaging 11.6 points per game, Oppenheimer helped lead Puerto Rico to a fourth-place finish and a spot in next year's U19 world championships in Italy.
"It was insanely amazing," Oppenheimer said of playing in such a big international tournament, which was won by the United States. "We qualified for worlds, and I was told that was only the second time Puerto Rico has done that."
Oppenheimer, a senior at Montini Catholic (Glenview, Illinois), is the daughter of Josh and Adrienne. Josh is an assistant coach with the NBA's Houston Rockets, and Adrienne is a former college volleyball player. It is Adrienne's Puerto Rican roots -- her parents were born on the island -- that led to Nikki playing for the national team.
Adrienne, who has cooked her daughter hundreds of Hispanic meals during the years, is fluent in Spanish. But that's not the case with Nikki or her older sister, Gabriella. "Nikki has learned Spanish through school, but it's been hard to teach her at home," said Adrienne, who was born in Los Angeles. "Since Josh doesn't speak Spanish, I would feel bad to speak it at home to the girls.
"Mostly what I taught the girls at home were commands -- sit down, stand up. Nikki knows those, but she never got conversational."
Now, Nikki wants to minor in Spanish at Syracuse, and her time with the national team has rekindled her Puerto Rican heritage.
During a 10-day training camp in Puerto Rico, which was held before the team left for Chile, Oppenheimer immersed herself in the island's culture.
"Some of the girls didn't speak English so that was a bit of a struggle, but we got along great," Oppenheimer said. "During training camp, I stayed with the family of one of the girls. It was great."
On the court, Oppenheimer coped as her bilingual coach would mix the two languages freely during speeches and instructions.
"They say 'bola' instead of ball, and they said 'muevete' when they wanted me to move," she said. "Things like that."
Love for basketball
Adrienne, who was a 5-10 right-side hitter in volleyball, met Josh during their days at Northern Arizona University. Known for his perimeter shooting, Josh played nine years of pro ball, mostly in Europe and the Middle East. When his playing days ended, he embarked on a career as an assistant coach. When he landed at DePaul, he and his family settled in the Chicago suburb of Glenview.
Early on, it was apparent that Gabriella, who is now a triple major at the University of Alabama, studying economics, finance and communications, wasn't interested in playing sports. When the family would go to games, Gabriella loved the dancers and the halftime show. That wasn't the case for her little sister.
"Even at 3 years old," Adrienne said, "Nikki wouldn't take her eyes off the game."
Oppenheimer has been playing some form of basketball since she could walk, starting with her Fisher-Price hoop. Josh taught her the correct shooting form, and Nikki took things from there. When she was 7, Nikki noticed a sign at the park across the street that said "Free Coed Basketball Clinic."
"Nikki was old enough to read the sign but not old enough to understand the 'coed' part," Adrienne said. "When I explained to her that it meant that boys and girls could play, she immediately wanted to sign up."
The next day, Nikki went to the gym with her mom. Sneakers laced up so she would be ready to ball as soon as she walked in, she was disappointed to find no other girls had shown. It was just Oppenheimer playing against all those boys.
"I was a little nervous and intimidated at first," she said. "But once we started playing, I was fine."
When she started to think about high school, Oppenheimer opted not to go to Glenbrook South, which was five minutes away from home. One of the reasons the Oppenheimers settled in Glenbrook was because they were impressed with the school district. But Nikki had other ideas. She wanted to go to Montini Catholic -- which is a half-hour away in Lombard, Illinois -- because of its reputation as a basketball powerhouse.
Adrienne took Nikki to a few Montini games, sitting behind the bench run by coach Jason Nichols, who has a hard-driving style. When Adrienne asked Nikki, who was in seventh grade at the time, if she could take that type of coaching, the kid didn't flinch.
"I saw that he was really hard on his players and that he yelled a lot," Nikki said. "But I was used to that with my dad. I knew I could take it.
"Getting yelled at is never the best thing, but I knew the reason behind it. I knew he was trying to get us better. I like that he will keep coaching us even if we are up by a lot. He teaches us to play the right way so we can be prepared for college."
A developing star
Oppenheimer isn't only a basketball player. She has a 4.3 GPA and is interested in becoming a sports agent. She loves to read for fun -- "Looking for Alaska" by John Green is one of her favorite books. And she loves dogs. She has a feisty 10-pound Maltese/poodle mix that somehow survived getting hit by a car.
Oppenheimer has shown similar toughness in her basketball career, battling for time at an elite program such as Montini, which is loaded with college prospects on a yearly basis.
Her shot is very pure. It's one of the best shots I've seen in 10 years coaching girls.Dave Yates
As a freshman, Oppenheimer contributed to a team that won a state title. She became a starter last season, and her reputation as a shooter with range out to the NBA 3-point line precedes her everytime she walks on the court.
"The first thing that came across when I met her was her jumper and her ability to knock down shots and stretch defenses," said Dave Yates, who has coached her for three years in AAU ball with Midwest Elite. "I've seen her miss a couple of shots and still have confidence and then make the next four in a row. Having that type of confidence is rare for kids.
"Her shot is very pure. It's one of the best shots I've seen in 10 years coaching girls."
Because every team that plays her is aware of her skills, Oppenheimer has become proficient at shot fakes, putting the ball on the floor and hitting a midrange jumper and also coming off screens, Yates said. Nichols, her high school coach, said Oppenheimer has improved at Montini.
"I really started to see her game evolve last year," Nichols said. "She knew how to create her own shot from the moment she walked on campus. But last year she became a more willing passer off the bounce, making the right reads.
"Her better days are ahead of her. I think by the time she is a sophomore at Syracuse, she will be a big-time contributor."
Nikki's father, who is commuting from Houston to Glenbrook as often as possible, said his daughter can be an "elite level" shooter in college.
But he is also proud of her demeanor.
"She's the most unselfish player I've ever seen," Josh said. "All she cares about is winning."