Minta Spears takes risk, reaps rewards

During the club season, Minta Spears helped set the table for teammates Nicole Kornet and Peyton Little. With her high school team, Spears has become one of the top scorers in the country. Glenn Nelson/ESPN.com

Last February, her team just knocked out of the Texas 3A state tournament, Minta Spears' next command performance was a spring and summer club season with two of the nation's best scorers as teammates. But darned if Spears isn't your typical teenager and was taking a longer view of her basketball career. A year later, she'd have to pull a huge scoring load for her high school team and, a year after that, she'd be facing bigger and faster athletes at the college level.

So Spears made a startling decision -- one not often, if ever, made in good conscience by a high school girls' basketball player.

She ... gasp ... changed her shot.

"I could shoot the ball pretty well before," said Spears, who has signed with Texas Tech. "But I had a little too much left hand on the ball. People weren't exactly criticizing me for it, but they would say, 'She shoots weird.' "

With the "weird," almost two-handed shot, the 5-foot-10 Spears averaged 20.9 points for Bullard (Texas) as a junior and was invited to play for Cy-Fair's top Nike-sponsored club team. But she was determined. She had to be: Spears gave herself six weeks until she had to play with Cy-Fair in the Boo Williams Invitational, the biggest tournament during the NCAA spring evaluation period.

Spears told one person, her father Randy, about her crazy plan. They both were big Duke fans and once read how Blue Devils star J.J. Redick had tweaked his shot. Randy Spears was in. He was a former high school basketball coach and P.E. teacher who'd spent so much time helping his daughter with her shooting drills, he often billed himself as "the No. 1 rebounder in the nation."

All that was left was for the duo to wheel out Bullard's automated shooting aid, a contraption called "The Gun," made by Shoot-A-Way, which Spears calls "the greatest invention."

Spears put up 500 shots a session. Her goal was to make 100 straight free throws in practice. A couple weeks ago, she sank 171 straight.

Last Friday night, during a 58-50 upset of top-ranked Neches (Texas), Spears hit 19 of 21 free throws en route to a 40-point explosion. The next day, during two losses at the Great East Texas Shootout, she had a combined 49 points and her season averaged dropped -- yes, dropped -- to 34.1 points per game, still one of the highest in the country.

It's probably fair to say that Spears has been successful in changing her shot.

Bullard coach Greg Gay often thought his prized guard's mechanics could use a little adjusting, but he's been around the game long enough not to dare suggest it. But Gay isn't surprised that she succeeded.

"She's got a will unlike any player I've ever coached, and I've coached boys and girls," Gay said. "If she sets her mind on something, she's going to get it."

Right now, Spears' mind is set on winning, which accounts for her increased scoring. Last year, Gay started four seniors, plus Spears, and Bullard led the Texas 3A division in 3-pointers made. However, with those seniors went Spears' offensive support and most of Bullard's experience.

So earlier this season, Spears scored 51 points, making five 3s in the process, but Bullard still lost to Tyler (Texas) by three. Her season low, to date, was 21 points during a 13-point victory over Pinetree (Longview, Texas).

Predictably, Spears was OK with the latter, not so OK with the former. The 51-point game, she dismisses as "one of those things."

Gay says he was awed once this season. Bullard missed two or three straight shots from a scrum in the lane. One of the Panthers somehow snared yet another offensive rebound and kicked the ball out to Spears, who was a good four feet behind the 3-point line. After her shot swished through the net, Gay turned to one of his assistants and said, "That's a nice option to have."

Bullard is 11-4 this season, and Gay says, "She needs to score 25-30 points for the team to have a chance."

Spears' focus further adjusted after she committed to Texas Tech in April. In anticipation of playing against bigger and better athletes at the next level, Spears started strength and conditioning workouts with an outfit 15 minutes away in Tyler. She's gained 15 pounds of muscle as a result and says she feels quicker and stronger.

Every year, Spears has picked an aspect of her game to improve upon -- shooting, driving to the basket and pulling up off the dribble. Her increased strength has improved her ability to do all three, as well as taking contact and finishing her shots for and-one opportunities. Moving her left hand off the ball and into a guide for a right-handed launch has improved the consistency of her shot. This, her final year of high school, indeed has been about "putting it all together."

And Spears continues to keep it all tight with daily 60- to 90-minute workouts. Those would be in addition to team practices or games.

Gay said he was tempted, earlier in her career, to tell Spears to slow down and take a break, fearful that she'd burn out. Realizing she simply was being true to her personality, he left her alone. "I'm reaping what I sow," she reasoned.

What she is reaping this year is a place in Bullard, Texas, lore -- the basketball 'slinger with the chewing-gum-sounding name. Actually her first name comes from her great grandmother. That, Minta Spears decided, is something best left alone.

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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 glenn@hoopgurlz.com.