Morning or night, New York's top basketball prospect is up for a challenge
Sometimes it's morning. Sometimes it's night. When Emily Engstler looks out her window, the basketball hoops, the clean white nets, call her. She bolts out of bed and jogs to the courts across the street from her home on Roosevelt Island in Manhattan, New York.
The 6-foot-2 senior at St. Francis Prep waits on the sideline, dribbling the ball between her legs before staking claim: "I got next!"
She's the only girl here, on the concrete courts that face the East River, and always has been. Back in middle school, though, no one picked her up. She hadn't earned respect yet, so she came day after day to study the way the guys hustled, the way they protected the ball.
Engstler, who has racked up scores of Division I offers, including her top three -- Syracuse, Ohio State and Miami -- as one of the most versatile prospects in the 2018 class, is now also a top pick on the concrete.
"It's my favorite thing," said Engstler, a wing/post who bangs inside, lives for rebounding drills and blocks shots into the stands. "I love doing it."
Last month, a guy defending her didn't think she was that good. He sagged off, as she stood about two feet beyond the 3-point line. Engstler made him pay, tossing the ball between his legs, throwing him off balance. She retrieved the ball and drilled the long 3 in his face.
"Everyone went crazy," said Matthew Altamirano, Engstler's close friend who attends Forest Hills High. "She's fearless and never scared or nervous."
It doesn't matter if it's 5-on-5, 4-on-4, 3-on-3, 2-on-2 or one-on-one; Engstler's game. "It doesn't matter what age they are," said Marilyn, her mother. "She plays with 50-year-olds, 40-year-olds, 20-year-olds.
"She doesn't care who she plays against. She just loves to play the game."
Engstler would play point guard every day if you let her. Seriously -- what big doesn't love the rare thrill of a coach allowing her to run down court and direct the show rather than doing the normal dirty work of sealing down low, awaiting a pass?
The difference, though, is Engstler can actually handle the rock -- and does so on the daily. Helping St. Francis Prep to a 13-12 record last season, she often snatched the ball off the backboard and led the break, shaking free of her defender with a spin move to take it all the way to the cup.
Patterning her game after Elena Delle Donne and Kevin Durant, Engstler relishes being able to play the two, three, four and five.
Last season, Engstler posted a quadruple double against Nazareth Regional: 27 points, 29 rebounds, 11 assists and 10 blocks. As if that wasn't enough, the next game against St. Anthony's High, she fell two assists shy of another one: 23 points, 10 blocks, 16 rebounds and 8 assists.
"That kind of describes how she plays: she can do it all," St. Francis coach Kerri White said. "She's all over the place."
Growing up, Engstler wasn't encouraged to try other positions. Coaches stuck her under the basket. That was to be her fate, especially once the coaches glanced at her family. Her mom is 5-10. Her dad, Billy, is 5-11. Her brother, Justin, is 6-4. Her sister, Danielle, is 5-11.
When she first started playing AAU ball, she was included in guard dribbling drills. She was beyond nervous. She'd been stripped before. What if she dropped the ball again and it went soaring out of bounds? Would her coaches ever give her the chance to dribble again?
She worked and worked, dribbling with tennis balls, dribbling around Roosevelt Island with a basketball. Soon, her hand felt connected to the ball.
"I felt like my game was finally developing for me properly and I could finally reach my potential as a player," Engstler said.
But her shot needed some work. She shot two-handed coming into Christ the King High School, where she spent her freshman season (she wanted a better fit academically, she said, so transferred to St. Francis). Her mother had played for Christ the King in 1974-77.
Christ the King's coaches Bob Mackey and Joe DeLuca helped correct her form. When she started knocking down shot after shot with the girls, and began to earn more cred in pick-up with the boys, Engstler realized basketball was more than a hobby.
It was who she wanted to be. She couldn't stop talking about it.
"She's a thinker. She's very strategic, very perceptive," Marilyn said. "She's constantly talking about plays and what could have been done and what should have been done and what she can do better."
Talking was one thing -- playing, another. She'd have to prove herself, after sitting out her sophomore season due to transfer rules. Besides the AAU circuit, most college coaches hadn't seen her put together a complete season.
She rose to the challenge, averaging 19.0 points, 15.7 rebounds, 3.4 steals and 5.9 blocks per game last season. She dropped a career-high 33 points against Archbishop Molloy.
She'd often score in bunches in a hurry: 10, 12 straight points, especially when her team trailed late in the fourth quarter. She never seemed to run out of steam.
That's her favorite part about hoops: the constant hustle. Basketball has a rhythm, a flow that never seems to stop. When you score, you have to sprint back on defense. You're constantly moving, constantly on edge.
"It's always an adrenaline rush and I love that," Engstler said. "During the game I get so emotionally involved and I think that's why I love it so much. Playing against other players who are good, and just going at it -- it's such a great feeling."
That's why sometimes after St. Francis Prep's practice, she returns to the concrete courts. Sometimes she gets her shot blocked, especially when battling guys that are 6-5, 6-6, and even a close friend of hers, who is 6-8. "They tell me: 'I'm not going to take it easy on you,'" Engstler said.
She wouldn't have it any other way.