Vaioletama's back and better than ever

WALNUT, Calif. -- The U.S. owes Alexyz Vaioletama. The smooth, explosive 6-foot-1 forward from Fountain Valley, Calif., helped the USA Basketball U16 team cruise through the FIBA Americas qualifying tournament last summer. The U.S. advanced to the FIBA U17 World Championships this summer in France, though partially at the cost of Vaioletama's junior season with the Mater Dei High School (Santa Ana, Calif.) girls' basketball team.

So her country owes her, big time.

Vaioletama entered international play knowing the price would be high. She'd been playing for months with stress fractures in the shin area of both her legs. On a scale of 1-10, she says, the pain would climb to "10."

The worst times would be "warming up or getting out of bed," said Vaioletama, the No. 14 overall prospect in the 2011 class, per ESPN HoopGurlz.

It took nine months for Vaioletama to finally return to the court. She made her debut this past weekend with a new club team, West Coast Premier, in a tournament that included the best talent in California, as well as national powers Boo Williams Summer League, DFW Elite and Essence.

Most importantly, Vaioletama says her legs are free of pain. Right off the bat, she seemed smooth as ever with the ball, explosive as ever off the floor, and even appeared to have a truer mid-range jump shot and a little more on-court savvy. Jordan Adams, a teammate on WCP, Mater Dei and the USA team, says Vaioletema watched carefully and learned plenty during her layoff from basketball.

"I think she's better than where she was," said Adams, one of the top prospects in the 2012 class. "Before she was a jumper-rebounder type of player. Now her jump shot is a lot better, and her defense. She's definitely gotten a lot smarter and more disciplined. Her leadership skills are better. If she keeps going, she'll be 10 times a better player than she was."

Vaioletama says the "little things" she used to take for granted -- getting back on defense, blocking out on missed shots -- sometimes were difficult to register. After many sessions in the pool, stationary bicycle and weight room, conditioning was not the issue it might have been with other players.

None of this compares to the largest struggle of her post-USA experience. Once home, Vaioletama had to tell Mater Dei coach Kevin Kiernan and her Monarch teammates that she was going to miss the 2009-10 season with them. With her, Adams and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis having played for USA Basketball, Mater Dei was a consensus preseason No. 1 pick in national high-school rankings.

The first Monarch whom Vaioletama encountered was Christine Collins Kiernan, the team's top assistant. She took care of the notification Vaioletama dreaded most -- informing her husband, Kevin, the head coach. Still, telling her teammates was very hard.

"Tears hard," Vaioletama said.

Without Vaioletama, the Monarchs won the country's most prestigious high-school event, the Nike Tournament of Champions in December. They stumbled in January against rival Brea Olinda, but plowed through the rest of their schedule, winning the CIF Division II championship and reclaiming the No. 1 spot in most national polls with a final 32-1 record. Rather than feel regretful or left out, Vaioletama said, "I felt proud. Without me, they had to get out of their comfort zone, and they did that."

The road remains difficult for Vaioletama. She has been invited to try out for the USA Basketball team that will compete in the FIBA U17 World Championships this summer in Rodez and Toulosse, France. The trials are about three weeks away, and Vaioletama is most concerned about her conditioning because the June 8-11 sessions take place in Colorado Springs, Colo., and its mile-high altitude.

"Breathing is a problem," Vaioletama said.

Last summer, Vaioletama started all five games for USA Basketball, playing the sixth-most minutes and averaging 7.4 points on 60-percent shooting. The Americans won all five by an average of 70 points. For continuity's sake, you'd think Vaioletama's odds of making the team again were good.

Besides, her country owes her one.

It is a chit, however, that Vaioletama is not inclined to collect. So she will gulp down as much of the scant oxygen supply as she can and count on the absence of pain in her legs to be a factor that will carry her through. It is, after all, the biggest change that has occurred the past year.

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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A member of the Parade All-American Selection Committee, he formerly coached girl's club basketball, was the editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at glenn@hoopgurlz.com.