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Skyrocketing recruit from Paraguay has Brittney Griner height and a world of potential

Andrea Aquino struggled with self-esteem growing up in Paraguay. And then she heard about an American named Brittney Griner. Courtesy Andrea Aquino

Andrea Aquino looks up to 6-foot-9 WNBA star Brittney Griner. That's figuratively, not literally.

Aquino, a 6-9 junior center at Eastside (Paterson, New Jersey) via Paraguay, had a chance encounter with the Mercury star at a Phoenix airport in December 2015.

Griner was nice enough to pose for a photo with Aquino, who was visiting Phoenix to play in the prestigious Nike Tournament of Champions.

"I was in shock," said Aquino, who could barely keep it together at the thought of meeting her idol. "I had always asked God, 'Please, I wish I could meet her one day.'

"When I saw her, I said, 'No, this can't be.' ... She was really nice."

Aquino, 18, said that when she stood next to Griner, she was a tiny bit taller than the two-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. And it is that rare height -- along with uncommon mobility for someone her size -- that has made Aquino a major target for college coaches around the country. Currently ranked the No. 11 center in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2018 class, Aquino is expected to skyrocket when the rankings are updated after the high school season.

"She has a chance to be special," Eastside coach Ray Lyde Jr. said of Aquino, who is averaging 17 points, 12 rebounds and 6.5 blocks. "She has the work ethic; she wants to be great. She will work out several times a day if you let her."

Raised by a single mother in the small city of Caacupe, Paraguay, Aquino, the youngest -- and by far the tallest -- of four children grew up playing street soccer while barefoot. The kids used rocks in lieu of goalposts.

Growing up wasn't easy for Aquino. Besides being poor and not knowing her father, she also dealt with children -- and adults -- making fun of her because of her height.

Shunned by peers as a teen, Aquino would go to school, come home on her motorcycle and pick up her mother, Milda, taking her to different clients where she would sell clothes.

Aquino, who got straight A's in school, didn't have much of a social life.

"I never had self-esteem," Aquino said. "But I always prayed to God that he gave me this height for a purpose."

That purpose began to crystallize at age 15, when a friend of her mother named Alfredo Salinas told Aquino she should try basketball.

Salinas took photos with Aquino and sent them to the Paraguay Basketball Federation. Aquino got a quick response -- the Federation invited Aquino to take a two-hour bus ride to their facilities in the capital city of Asuncion.

"I was excited," Aquino said. "But I was scared. I didn't want to leave my mother."

Aquino, who was 6-7 at the time, knew nothing about basketball. She said Valentin Sanchez of the Paraguayan Federation taught her the game from scratch, taking two months before putting her in an actual game. Her teammates told her she reminded them of an American player named Griner.

The next step in Aquino's basketball education was to try to come to the United States, where she had a cousin in New Jersey.

Aquino had seen a lot of American movies -- "Home Alone" was her favorite -- but she was shocked when she arrived in New York with her mother (who returned to Paraguay after a short stay) and saw the skyscrapers. Later it was the bone-chilling cold weather that made her jaw drop.

"I couldn't believe it got to 16 degrees below zero," she said.

When she arrived in the United States in April 2015, she knew very little English -- just "yes," "no" and "OK."

Now, she does all her schoolwork without the help of a translator.

Breyenne Bellerand, an AAU teammate with the New Jersey Sparks who has signed with James Madison, said Aquino is outgoing and eager to learn her new language.

"As soon as she sees me, she runs and gives me a hug," Bellerand said. "She's bright and funny. She loves to learn new words. And when she messes up, she just laughs."

Aquino is just as much fun on the court, Bellerand said.

"My first reaction when I saw her was, 'Wow, she is so big -- I wonder what she can do.' I couldn't wait to get on the court and work with her.

"Now I see her as an all-around player. ... I love watching her because of how far she has come."

Aquino, who wants to study business in college, weighs 180 pounds and is working on getting stronger. So far, USC, Colorado, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Rutgers, North Carolina, Indiana, Oregon State, Dayton and Eastern Michigan are leading the recruiting charge. A year of prep school next year is a possibility.

Keith Gilchrist, her coach with the Sparks, said Aquino can put her palm over the rim and can dunk in practice.

"At the rate she's going, she's going to be able to dunk in transition without any problem," Gilchrist said. "When she first came to us, she couldn't even do two pushups. Now she can do several sets of 20 each. She's a natural athlete with great hands and a nice touch on the perimeter. And she can move side to side and also down the court much better than most centers."