Stafford poised for stardom

Imani Stafford of Los Angeles has had to live up to the high standards of her mother, Pam McGee, an all-time great in women's basketball. Glenn Nelson / ESPN.com

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- From here on out, it's probably safe to refer to the 2010 U17 national team trials as Imani Stafford's coming out party.

The 6-foot-7 center from Los Angeles arrived at the U.S. Olympic Training Center last month and took a deep breath. Surrounding her was the future of the women's game -- there was Elizabeth Williams, the top ranked prospect in the 2011 class. Over here was Breanna Stewart, the best prospect in the 2012 class.

And that was just the beginning. In total, 36 players were vying for a spot on the team that would be take on host country France Friday at the FIBA World Championships. Stafford, who boasts a basketball pedigree many would kill for, simply blended in.

"Everyone out there already had names for themselves," she said. "Nobody knew me. I had nothing to lose from going my hardest. Everyone else had to prove they were as good as all the talk."

But a funny thing happened during drills -- Stafford found out she was just as good as anyone else in Colorado.

It started during the three-on-three games, when the lanky Stafford swatted away anything close to the basket. Offensively, she used her length to reach around players and score, and moved around the paint so quickly it was hard for slower posts to keep up.

"I just looked at it as an opportunity," she said. "I look around and said, 'This girl is number so-and-so but I can beat her in this position, I can beat her in this drill.' "

Beat them she did. At the end of the trials, the 2012 prospect -- ranked No. 23 in the ESPN HoopGurlz Terrific 25 -- was a no-brainer to join the U17 roster.

"I did not expect her to be that dominant," said Barbara Nelson, the U17 coach. "She's been a very nice addition to us. She does a great job closing out when her man is outside or she has to rotate to shooters, she gets a lot of rebounds and she gets a lot of touches on balls that are trying to get in the hoop."

For Stafford, the daughter of former WNBA player Pam McGee, the arrival was a long time coming.

McGee did just about everything you can do as a successful athlete, setting the bar high for her kids. She won back-to-back titles at USC with her twin sister, Paula; earned an Olympic gold medal; played alongside some of the most dominant players in the history of the women's game while in the WNBA. She had two children, JaVale McGee (now with the Washington Wizards) and Stafford, and everyone thought they would become superstars.

But growing into her 6-foot-7 frame took time, and Stafford struggled with expectations. So she sought the advice of one of her mom's former teammates, Lisa Leslie.

Stafford says she and Leslie will talk for hours on end about what it's going to take for Stafford to excel in the women's game. Stafford has the genes and the build, but still needs to improve her skill.

"I'm blessed that a lot of people who played at a high level are around me and they helped me prepare," she said. "They helped me strength my weaknesses."

In Colorado Springs, one glaring weakness came out the second day -- Stafford doesn't drink enough water.

Shortly after the first session on day one, Stafford became so dehydrated that she had to be taken to the hospital, and wound up staying there as they pumped fluids into her. She missed the second session, which came as a surprise to her roommate, Bria Smith.

Turns out, Stafford wanted so badly to make sure her roommate had a good shot at making the team that she sneaked out of their room without waking Smith, who didn't find out until the next day where Stafford had gone.

"I didn't wanna wake her up and mess up any chance of her making the team because she would be tired or something," Stafford explained, giving one more example of how she stood out from the crowd at the trials.
Stafford's club coach, Ray Mayes of FBC, says Stafford is "a different breed" -- she wants to win of course, but nothing comes ahead of being a good teammate. Basketball-wise, Mayes thinks Stafford is just getting started.

"Her greatest days are ahead of her," Mayes said. "She's gonna be special and I think she's gonna exceed expectations real soon. She's so quick off her feet her timing is great … she's one of the new age kids who's so long and agile.

"What she brings is height and length and when her skill catches up to that … I don't know who can match her in that class."

Stafford doesn't want to be remembered for who she shares DNA with. Hanging on the wall of the gym at the Olympic Training Center was a quote Stafford memorized: Skill wins, not pedigree.

"That's perfect for me," she said. "It doesn't matter who my mom is, who my brother is. At the end of the day if I'm not working for it, I'm not gonna get that spot on the team. I don't want to be the daughter of, the niece of …

"I want to be great."

She's already showing signs of heading for greatness. Mayes says he's seen Stafford dunk countless times, throwing it down with one hand. How's that for dominant?

Oh yeah, there's this, too – she's probably not done growing.

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Lindsay Schnell is a staff writer for HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has been involved in the Oregon girls' basketball community for most her life as a player, high school coach, writer and fan. She also has been regular contributor to The Oregonian and won several awards for her writing. She can be reached at lindsay@hoopgurlz.com.