Alaina Coates and the upside of staying inside

Alaina Coates is a 6-4, back-to-the-basket center, a throwback player and a rarity among her peers. Gluekit illustration

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POINT GUARDS, BASKETBALL'S vertically challenged demographic, tend to view post players with a mix of exasperation and admiration. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley, a former point herself, is no different when she looks at 6-foot-4 senior center Alaina Coates.

"It seems like for bigs, there's no middle ground," the 5-5 Staley says. "They're either soft or they're physical, it's not like there's an in-between."

"Soft" is a bit harsh -- even bigs who drift to the perimeter still end up taking some punishment inside. But Staley sees the women's game changing, with fewer pure centers who play with their backs to the basket and don't act like 3-point shooters.

Of course, part of her perspective comes from having such a valuable commodity in Coates. And with junior A'ja Wilson, a 6-5 forward who prefers to face the basket, she has two very different types of dominant bigs. The Gamecocks relied on the inside-outside strength of the duo to go 33-2 and win the SEC title last season.

While Wilson is a superstar -- she was a consensus All-American and national player of the year candidate last season -- and the face of one of the country's best teams, Coates is also an elite professional prospect, one who will be in the mix to become the WNBA's No. 1 draft pick in April.

"Because of her willingness to play a style that few are willing to play, she'll find her way into a positive role with a WNBA team," says Cori Close, coach of Pac-12 preseason favorite UCLA, which will face South Carolina on Dec. 18. "You can't put a price tag on it."

In the WNBA, big players with guard skills abound: Los Angeles' 6-4 forward-center Candace Parker, Chicago's 6-5 forward-guard Elena Delle Donne and Seattle's 6-4 forward Breanna Stewart are all among the two tallest players on their teams, but only Parker is designated as a center. No matter how they're listed, they have similar styles: Stewart made 45 3s this past season, Delle Donne 43 and Parker 42.

In contrast, Minnesota's 6-6 Sylvia Fowles has attempted just one 3-pointer in nine WNBA seasons. Phoenix's 6-9 star Brittney Griner has taken none. Fowles says it's simple: Players such as Coates should perfect what they do best.

Staley, who played alongside 6-5 Lisa Leslie in the Olympics -- Leslie was a four-time Olympian and three-time MVP with Los Angeles -- has the same vision for Coates. "Lisa was really smart in that she knew where she was going to make the most money," Staley says. "Which was: 'I've got to get down there and score in the paint.' She worked at it."

Staley says Coates, while still a work in progress, "can be the most dominant player in the country just being a back-to-the-basket player. She's embraced that."

That allows Staley a luxury that few other college coaches have. According to Synergy Sports Technology, the Gamecocks posted up 64 percent more than the national average last season.

Coates considers Wilson the perfect high-low partner -- "I trust A'ja" -- and they share the joy of being local stars who have helped South Carolina become the nation's attendance leader (14,978 per home game last season) in women's basketball. Coates is from Irmo, just northwest of Columbia, and Wilson is from Hopkins, to the southeast. Their towns are 35 minutes apart, with the university downtown right between them.

"Alaina and I have been playing together since we were 12 or 13 years old, with AAU," Wilson says. "It's fun to have a true back-to-the-basket player, especially with a person like me who's not. It's a nice balance."

Coates, who posted up 33.3 percent more than the average player last season, was the only center among the SEC's top 20 scorers (12.1 points per game). Just 15 percent of the SEC's top 41 rebounders were centers, with Coates leading at 10.3 rpg.

She was mentored from an early age by her father, Gary Coates, a command sergeant major in the Army National Guard and active-duty military for 33 years. "Playing the post makes you mature," says Gary, whose brother, Ben Coates, was an NFL tight end for 10 seasons.

Alaina has taken her dad's lessons to heart.

"I enjoy being a 5," she says. "Being a center means you're going to war down there on the block. I like the feeling that I'm going to bully my way around out there."

The kindhearted Coates says this with a laugh. But Staley prefers Coates to have a bit of an edge. That may be the difference in the Gamecocks' run at the 2017 national title.

"I don't like when she plays passive or when she makes herself blend in," Staley says. "She's physical, she's imposing, she's mobile, she's quick. She's all of those things.

"And if she's anything less than that, then she might as well be 5-11."