If you subscribe to the notion that national institutions develop the next-generation leaders, then our initial national high school player of the year watchlist for the 2011-12 girls' basketball season should not surprise. Our top five candidates all played meaningful roles on USA Basketball national teams in international competition. No wonder they are leaders of what are expected to be some of the best teams in our country.
And, yes, winning on a national level counts. This isn't about the best player, regardless of circumstance. This isn't about the best college prospects. Being the best in a team sport means, to us, contributing to team success.
This watchlist will be updated throughout the season. These are our preseason projections:
1. Breanna Stewart, Sr.
Cicero-North Syracuse (Cicero, N.Y.)
The corrollation to Stewart as one-girl band might well be Elena Delle Donne, now projected as a No. 1 overall WNBA pick. Delle Donne had to do pretty much everything, save selling hot dogs at halftime, to make Ursuline Academy (Wilmington, Del.) a national power. Stewart, a freakishly athletic and versatile 6-feet-3, will have to do much the same for a Cicero-North Syracuse team that begins the season ranked No. 26 in the POWERADE FAB 50. She brings to the table leadership experience on four USA national teams, and will have a national stage in the Nike Tournament of Champions, where it will take every ounce of her talent to keep her team in the hunt.
2. Alexis Jones, Sr.
MacArthur (Irving, Texas)
If previous accomplishment is the main initiative of expectation, Jones is exactly where she belongs. A frenetic, 5-9 presence at both ends of the court, she has done the heavy lifting for MacArthur during her whole time there, plus has been a thrilling solo act on the club circuit the past couple years. On USA teams, Jones has been a willing role player -- offering up lockdown defense and occasional spark-lighting offense. On her high school team, she has several more gears altogether. And this year, with No. 10 MacArthur playing at the Nike TOC, Jones takes her enthralling show beyond the Texas borders for a change.
3. Morgan Tuck, Sr.
The Raiders have been a fixture on the national scene during Tuck's career with them. However, the team has brimmed with elite talent, not the least of which came in the point guard package of Ariel Massengale, now a freshman at Tennessee. Bolingbrook, a preseason No. 8 choice, still has the depth of athleticism to play its uptempo game, but Tuck's leadership, versatility and ability to keep interior defenses occupied will be the foundation of the team's success. The Connecticut signee is another with USA Basketball experience. That, plus three previous appearances at the TOC, should help Tuck stake a national claim in Phoenix later next month.
4. Diamond DeShields, Jr.
An electrifying performer, DeShields' USA Basketball experience has taught her to turn down the wattage in order to better fit into a team experience and make her teammates better. She arguably had better talent around her as a freshman -- namely, Kaela Davis, now at Buford -- but now needs to deliver -- big -- every night for her team to maintain footing not only nationally but in a state, Georgia, that may be the most competitive in the country this season. Her USA-prompted maturation should serve her well in this quest, but, as evidenced by No. 32 Norcross' early slip to No. 13 McEachern (Power Springs, Ga.), hers is a daunting task.
5. Jordan Adams, Sr.
Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.)
Adams is the basketball cognoscenti's candidate. The USC signee has earned FIBA gold medals and two straight mythical national high-school championships setting the table for some of this country's best players, including former Mater Dei and USA teammate Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis. She is a long, skilled 6-1 combo guard who is more likely to stroke her teammates' egos than her own. How this plays out with new teammate Nirra Fields, an alpha scorer, may not be obvious to casual observers who need to be fed ladles of statistics, but No. 7 Mater Dei is a program that spends the season in the national spotlight. Squint, and you will notice Adams' brilliance.
6. Bianca Cuevas, So.
Nazareth Regional (Brooklyn, N.Y.)
Cuevas has been anointed the Big Apple's next great guard since she was barely a middle-schooler. Based on her summer and fall play, and emergence as an honor-roll student, she finally seems ready to fulfill expectations. Teammate Brianna Butler is a heralded senior with a college-ready body and skills, but Cuevas, the mightiest of the nation's minis at 5-5, has the streets-honed toughness and proclivity to put herself out there. If Nazareth, a small inner-city school without many resources, is going to hold on to its preseason No. 1 ranking, it likely will be because Cuevas is posting big numbers and putting on a traveling show for the ages.
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Glenn Nelson is a senior writer at ESPN.com and the founder of HoopGurlz.com. A graduate of Seattle University and Columbia University, he formerly coached girls' club basketball, was a co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online sports network, authored a basketball book for kids, has had his photography displayed at the Smithsonian Institute, and was a longtime, national-award-winning newspaper columnist and writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.