INDIANAPOLIS -- Nike's fourth installment of its Regional Skills Academy brought some of the best players in the Midwest together to test their skills and mettle. From the outset, the vibe was different than that of previous camps. Of the 35 players on the invite list, just 17 were checked in and ready to go on time Friday night. Sure, there was traffic and not all the participants were in close proximity, but something else was just off.
From the opening whistle, the energy in the gym was simply underwhelming. Even the always-amped camp director, Ganon Baker, couldn't infuse the intensity that has become the staple of the Nike Skills Academies. Some participants looked nothing short of disinterested. The mood was only compounded when more than half the campers failed the written test, and a handful didn't even bother to answer all the questions. Tamika Catchings stopped by Saturday and briefly spoke to the kids, but most didn't even notice she was in the Northwest High School gymnasium. Not a single participant approached her during a water break to pick her brain. None of the players challenged the two collegiate players helping out, Amber Harris and DeeDee Jernigan, to play one-on-one. These were opportunities many kids, even those of lesser talent than the ones at the camp, would jump at.
The second 2008 Nike RSA in Santa Ana and the third in Philadelphia were models of enthusiasm, but the attitudes were different here. Not that there was a lack of talent, but a great deal of players didn't seem to grasp the opportunity in front of them. Scrimmages Saturday night had to be stopped, and the teams were threatened to play with fire and intensity or leave the gym. It was baffling. The best are supposed to be the hardest working, most engaged players, but among the many good players in attendance, the number with the heart and desire to be great was at best minimal.
It wasn't all bad, though. Many players chose the opportunity to work on their skills with other top players over playing in regional AAU qualifiers and other club team tournaments. One participant, Connecticut commit Kelly Faris, worked out at the camp Friday evening, then left a little early to play with her club team Friday night. She injured her back in the game. Even though she couldn't play, she returned to the gym Saturday to watch and to try to learn from the coaches and players at the RSA.
Faris was not the only top 2009 prospect limited in action this weekend. Skylar Diggins, ESPN HoopGurlz's No. 4-ranked player in the class, played Friday but missed Saturday to go to prom. Tayler Hill, the No. 12-ranked player, didn't make it to the gym until Saturday. But throughout this odd weekend, there still was talent on display.
Samantha Arnold (Medinah, Ill./Lake Park) has played on the perimeter most of her career, but at 6-foot-4, she needs to keep advancing her interior game for the next level. She bounced between the guards and the posts for drill work to get a taste of everything. She played hard, and to improve, she simply needs to play a more physical style when she does get inside. She's not a weak kid at all, and learning to get leverage and play with contact also will help her on the perimeter. Her footwork is sound, she can make plays passing the ball and her face-up game from the mid-post is outstanding, but when going one-on-one against players her size, she has to get comfortable taking it right at the defense and reading their movement.
Alex Bentley (Indianapolis, Ind./Ben Davis) is a smooth two-guard, but at 5-7, she's going to have to work that much harder than all the 5-10 guards at the next level. She has a strong upper body. Bentley was one of the few who took the drill work and applied it in the scrimmages, especially attacking the defenders with contact and exploding by them. She uses her strength and aggressive style of play inside to finish against taller players. She needs to continue to master her change of pace and attack with perfect angles to be successful against the guards who will be quicker and taller than she is. If she learns to use her body on the perimeter the way she does protecting the ball on dribble penetration, she will be harder to defend. The framework is there, though.
Skylar Diggins (South Bend, Ind./Washington) was easily the most skilled player in the camp. She brings great body control, ballhandling, footwork and basketball IQ with a work ethic that the other players in the gym should have been emulating.
She isn't afraid to attack a new skill with vigor and isn't afraid to fail. She simply wants to get better. Strength is really her only limiting factor right now, and she's not exactly weak, either.
Adrienne GodBold (Chicago, Ill./Marshall) was probably the most explosive athlete in the gym. Her hops and explosive movement are comparable to those of Shacara Rucker, although she is not quite as big. GodBold is tenacious, and when she smells the blood in the water, she attacks. She made a couple of the kids who simply were not trying look ridiculous and even mixed it up with the posts on some drills. Her first step is quick and powerful; she also can handle the ball and finish at the rim. She shot off the dribble a little from mid-range but was sporadic in hitting longer-range shots. Her shooting mechanics are not bad, but she needs improved footwork and repetition to be a truly good shooter.
Tayler Hill (Minneapolis, Minn./South) has one of the best first steps in the class. She is quick with it, stays low and explodes by the defender. She covers more ground than most defenders can handle. With the ball, she is very fast on the break. Advancing her footwork is the next obstacle, as her physical tools would be unleashed even more -- specifically being able to come out of that hard dribble and first step into a one-two step, pull-up jumper or step back. Perfecting those types of moves would make her almost impossible to guard at the high school level and a handful at the collegiate level as the kid can shoot the ball too.
Inesha Hale (Kansas City, Mo./Raytown) excelled in drill work focused on protecting the ball while exploding her body into the defender and was actually moving a player that outweighed her by a long shot. The big issue for Hale was staying that compact and explosive in five-on-five. Perhaps it was fatigue but she played too upright under close ball pressure or in transition leading to some passes losing their zip and getting caught off balance when she attempted a jump stop. When working on crossover pivots her knees weren't bent and the ball was kept away from her body where she couldn't protect it. Unfortunately it went uncorrected but in seeing her ability to stay compact in earlier drills it seems to be more a question of focus rather than ability. She sees the floor but has to maintain that focus to be a top tier point guard on the next level.
Robyn Hobson (Leawood, Kan./Blue Valley North) joins Diggins and a few others in the hardest working group. When working at coming off of screens and attacking she worked at game speed and intensity down to the scowl she had on her face while doing it. Hobson doesn't have to be asked to play hard, it comes naturally. She is a streak shooter who is confident enough in her shooting ability both on catch and shoot as well as off the bounce. The streakiness seems to come from her form which has her shooting arm coming across her body a little. It isn't the quickest shot but she knows how to create the space to get it off. She is a player that would be great both in games and in practice as this Skills Academy setting proved.
Katie Loberg (Princeton, Minn.) may be the most improved player in the country. She is much more confident and strong with the ball than a year ago. She completely shocked the defender on one play where she did a quick spin to the baseline and hit a fall away jumper that was straight nylon from eight or nine feet out. She is playing stronger but needs to continue to get more comfortable on offense playing with and initiating contact. None of the other posts really challenged her by trying to push her around but she wasn't going out of her way to establish her presence either. The message for Loberg is the same to the rest of the post players in the camp -- get physical.
Alexis Rogers (Westchester, Ohio/Lakota West) has the strength to overpower most wings but lacks the ideal height to be a prototypical post player at 6-0 or 6-1. She possesses strength from her shoulders and arms through her legs and when she stays low and explosive she can move many of the post players out of position. She has nice handle for her size and changes speeds pretty well which is important as she isn't as quick as some perimeter players. When she turns the switch on she is capable of competing even if her position isn't defined.
Kelsey Smith (South Elgin, Ill./St. Charles North) did better than anyone on the written test. She was here last year but several other returnees didn't duplicate her score or offer to answer questions posed by the coaches the way she did. Smith was definitely one of the better attitudes in the gym and it helped at the stations she worked at. She has very solid footwork in the post but often predetermined her moves. In many cases it was a step-through pivot she decided on even before the defense moved. On several occasions the defender was right there waiting for her, knowing that it was coming. Being more physical would really help her on both ends of the court. She is a strong kid and, at 6-4, creating the contact will take the defender's leaping ability away and with it their ability to bother her shot. Her drop steps and pivots often take her around the defender instead of into their hips or legs. As the weekend went on she did a much better job of staying low and making that first contact before catching the ball.
Sharena Taylor (Pontiac, Mich./Detroit Country Day) was one of the biggest surprises of the weekend. The 5-8 scoring guard played with great tenacity and made some of the players choosing not to compete look silly by darting by them off the dribble or being physical on dribble penetration and moving them out of her way. On the interior she played more physical than most of the posts and really utilized what was taught about protecting the ball and not letting the defense foul the shooting hand. She had trouble with making post entry passes right where the post defender could poke at the ball. The game was stopped and she was taught how to make a better bounce pass away from the defense and she turned around and applied the new skill on the very next possession leading to a quick two points for the post.
Destini Williams (Benton Harbor, Mich.) looked like one of the best players in the gym at times and then blended into the fray at other times. She was one of the few post players who initiated contact with regularity. With her ability to put the ball on the floor she is a legitimate high post and low post threat at 6-3. Consistency and the will to dominate inferior competition is what she needs to prove. Does she want to be great? She has the body to be a successful player in college. Her quickness is a step above the rest of her post competition as those fast twitch muscles can really get her to spots on the court that a lot of posts and even some wings can't.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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