Burdick, Williams lead U.S. together

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. -- They've changed -- that much is obvious. And maybe they've helped change each other. Just the watch otherwise stoic, often-regal Elizabeth Williams performing shoulder bumps with Cierra Burdick before tipoff. Or see Burdick, an erstwhile on-court sourpuss, be so ridiculously effervescent that Williams just has to chuckle.

"E … E!" the chatty Burdick will blare on the court, jolting Williams to attention, as if no one had ever called her "E" before. Maybe no one ever meant it the way Burdick does.

"Opposites attract, I guess," Williams said.

The blend of Burdick's boisterous blizzard and Williams' quiet storm could become the basis for the U.S. quest for gold that begins Friday before a sold-out crowd in Rodez, France, at the FIBA U17 World Championships. Williams, of Virginia Beach, Va., has won MVP honors in her first two international competitions and is ranked No. 1 in the 2011 class by ESPN HoopGurlz. Burdick, of Charlotte, N.C., is ranked fourth in the class and, at 6 feet 2, is probably the country's most versatile player.

For years, Team USA's odd couple was separated by just a six-hour drive up or down I-85, but it took chance encounters in faraway places to unite them. The first took place in San Diego for Junior Phenom Camp when they were 10. Later they met during last year's U16 trials in Colorado Springs, Colo., and again at the now-defunct Nike National Skills Academy in Beaverton, Ore. They shared a taste of international hoops in Mexico City last summer and this spring became club teammates with Boo Williams Summer League.

"We've been going at it, head to head, for a long time," Burdick said. "But when we're on the court together, we're family."

That kind of statement speaks volumes for Burdick. With her previous club team, D.C.-based Team Unique, she was heading toward a reputation for being a poor teammate. That perception was based mainly on her penchant for public demonstrations of her frustrations with herself and her teammates. Burdick also clashed with coaches who believed her performance, particularly in the scoring column, did not match her prodigious talents.

"They said I should be dropping 50 points a game," Burdick said. "That's easy for them to say. I didn't want that. I was just 14. I wanted to fit in. I'm just starting to learn from all my experiences now. Everybody thinks I had an attitude. I was just getting frustrated at myself. I didn't know how to channel that frustration. The team situation did have an impact. That's why I like playing for (Boo Williams). You don't have egos on this team.

"The biggest thing is that I've matured on the floor. I've learned that the game is 98.9 percent mental. It's finally starting to click that I don't have to be so unselfish. I can play my game, as well as get my teammates involved. I have a confidence now. It's definitely been boasted and I'm working harder."

Burdick, who has committed to Tennessee, says she is in the gym twice a day. Sometimes she goes to the local health club at 5 a.m. "just to get some time in before school." She has been working on her strength and fitness with a trainer, Dexter Desir, as well as continues to work on her individual basketball skills with a longtime coach, Tim Fields.

Being on the U.S. team, as well as with Williams on Boo Williams, has cast Burdick's basketball toolbox in a different light. At her size, she can handle the ball on the perimeter and break down defenders off the bounce, as well as post up with authority. She also could be the most creative playmaker in the class, with great vision, unique passing angles and ability to think outside the box to make plays. She has become lethal with a mid-range jumper and her longer-range shooting, never a strength, has been improving.

The sum of Burdick's parts scream conduit, albeit one at the elite level. If some interpret that to cast Burdick as a complementary player, she has a near-perfect teammate in Williams, who long has suffered, in both high-school and club environments, from the inability of teammates to get her the ball and stretch defenses away to give her room to operate. Having built her reputation as a defensive and rebounding menace, the 6-3 Williams is surprising some with the dexterity she is showing at the offensive end.

"I love playing with Cierra," Williams said. "She is a great passer and always plays with high energy. She really keeps you motivated."

For Williams, keeping motivated means keeping her from taking too much refuge inside her own head. She says the biggest change in Burdick is keeping a cooler, more positive demeanor on the floor. Williams admits she has fed off that positive energy.

"I'm not that outgoing," Williams said, "and Cierra makes me want to talk more. If something bothers me, I know I have to let it out, and I know if I say something, people will listen. But if I get upset, I think I just go into a shell. I can help my team more by being more outgoing than I could being mad."

Shoot, it wasn't that long ago, Williams says, that she let her team have it. They were getting sloppy and she knows coach Boo Williams does not like sloppy practices.

"I think I said something like, 'Let's go!' " Williams said.

Elizabeth Williams smiles a knowing smile that says major change doesn't come immediately, but it is indeed on the way.

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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.