PHOENIX -- La Jolla Country Day School has figured out the recipe to becoming a girls' basketball powerhouse: by becoming a mentor factory.
First it was former LJCD and WNBA star Candice Wiggins mentoring future No. 1 draft pick Kelsey Plum several years after she graduated from the San Diego area high school. Then it was Plum, who now stars for the Las Vegas Aces, mentoring Te-Hina Paopao, the No. 33 prospect in the Class of 2020, who signed with Oregon. And now it's the senior Paopao mentoring freshman Breya Cunningham, LJCD's next star, who already has offers from several Power 5 schools.
Each has passed on lessons learned from their years and experience in the game. Now it's Paopao's turn. And, so far, Paopao and Cunningham have been exactly what each other has needed this season.
In her final high school season before she heads to Eugene, Paopao has a post player in Cunningham who could end up being the difference between a championship and an early exit in the California state playoffs.
And Cunningham, in her first season on varsity, has a teacher, a guide, a cheerleader and a benchmark in Paopao.
"T has been her biggest fan," said coach Terri Bamford, who has been at La Jolla Country Day for 22 years.
Together, they've helped lead La Jolla Country Day to a 17-1 record, a title at the recent Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix and the No. 4 ranking in the espnW 25 Power Rankings.
"I think we can be very, very good," Paopao said. "But we just take one game at a time. I mean, you want to win state championships -- you want to win everything -- but I think it all comes down to one game at a time."
Since they started playing together this past summer, Paopao has been helping and mentoring Cunningham both on and off the court. Paopao is constantly talking to Cunningham, Bamford said, despite them not texting each other -- like, ever. Paopao and Cunningham said they see enough of each other all day at school from Monday to Friday that they don't feel the need to keep talking when they get home or on weekends. They each hang out with friends in their own grade but have created the kind of point guard-post relationships that titles are built on.
Paopao has been Cunningham's personal motivator, a role that the upbeat, outgoing senior fits into naturally.
"She'll be like, 'Oh, good job, don't worry about that last play,'" Cunningham said. "She's good at hyping people up during games and during practice and stuff like that."
The more Cunningham hears it, especially from Paopao, the more it'll sink in, Bamford believes.
"I think T encouraging her every game, telling her how good she is, telling her how important she is, when you're hearing that, on a daily basis, you change the view of who you are," Bamford said. "And, you can hear it all the time, like when your parents tell you you're great or your coach says you're good. But when your teammate, who's that good, has already made it, going to Oregon, could be a McDonald's All American, one of the best guards in the country, is telling you that every day, I think you start to internalize it. You start to believe it."
Cunningham admits she's shy and doesn't have a lot of confidence. She doesn't think she's athletic and doesn't like to talk publicly. She thinks she sounds awkward.
"I'd just rather not talk to people," Cunningham said.
"I think T encouraging [Cunningham] every game, telling her how good she is, telling her how important she is, when you're hearing that, on a daily basis, you change the view of who you are." La Jolla Country Day coach Terri Bamford
For now, she is content letting her game do her talking. She has become a double-double machine this season -- 15 in her last 16 games -- while playing against some of the best bigs from around the country. She had 19 points and 10 rebounds to help La Jolla win the Nike Tournament of Champions.
"She could be great," Bamford said. "She's so strong. She's got great hands, like in transition, when she runs, she doesn't drop the ball. I mean you could throw it in a double-team, she goes and gets it. She keeps the ball high. Now, as a freshman, to me, that's really impressive.
"She's got everything it takes, and you teach her the little things: how to drop, how to hold off, how to finish. And she's like, 'OK,' and then she does it. We're working on her perimeter skills, guard skills, 2s, 3s, midrange. She's becoming a pretty good shooter, too."
Cunningham and Paopao grew close this summer when they played for Bamford's 17-and-under team. Bamford moved the freshman up to the oldest team in her program for three reasons: She needed a post player, she wanted to see what Cunningham had on the court and she wanted to Cunningham to learn through a baptism by fire. It worked.
It took Cunningham a while to get accustomed to the size and pace of the high school game, one Paopao made even faster by running an up-tempo offense. Cunningham quickly saw improvement last summer.
"I think it helped a lot because it allowed me to ... grow IQ-wise because the older girls have higher IQs and they play faster and they're more athletic," Cunningham said. "So, that helped me grow and figure out how to, because I'm not that athletic, I figured out how to play around them."
The first time Paopao played with Cunningham, Paopao ran past Bamford and said: "She's going to help us."
Indeed she would.
Cunningham gave La Jolla Country Day a post presence it didn't have last season, when the 5-foot-9 Paopao, a point guard, was the tallest player on the roster. The lack of size caught up with La Jolla in the state playoffs, where it got outrebounded and lost in the regional championship.
Enter Cunningham, who's "giving our team a chance for another possession or a fast-break opportunity. But she's scoring, too. She's giving us double digits every game," Bamford said.
Paopao has watched Cunningham's confidence grow, which has led to an improvement in her communication -- namely on the block. Cunningham has started demanding the ball more -- the result, she said, of Paopao being unselfish.
"I've had to learn how to know I'm open and call for the ball and be more demanding with the ball, because she will throw it at me," Cunningham said. "I have to be ready to catch it."
Added Paopao: "She's a true post. She doesn't stay on perimeter like post players are doing nowadays. But now she's a really good post player, like a true post player. She stays in the key. She sets screens. So, being able to have someone like that is a very good lesson."
In Paopao, Cunningham sees what it takes to become a highly coveted prospect. She also sees perseverance.
The summer after eighth grade, Paopao became one of the hottest prospects in the Class of 2020. Prior to her freshman season, she tore one ACL during an open gym. She came back in four months. Then, during her first practice of her sophomore season, she jumped and tore her other ACL. She didn't return until the start of her junior season.
Two years later, Paopao said she feels 100 percent but still does her rehab exercises as though they were mandatory.
Cunningham has already received offers from Arizona, Louisville, USC, San Diego State and San Diego, among others, and has already taken a handful of unofficial visits. But Paopao isn't bombarding her with advice on college. She's still just a freshman.
But as Cunningham watches Paopao jump rope during breaks and embrace every drill, she notices how Paopao handles the aftermath of her recruitment: She still maintains relationships with coaches who recruited her and plays like she is still fighting for an offer.
And that, like all of Paopao's talks, passes and confidence boosts, has helped Cunningham prepare for the next step, whenever that time comes.
"I learned how to be like more open with people, like talking to people because Te-Hina talks to a lot of people, she knows a lot of coaches, and I've had to start to pick up on how she has relationships with all these coaches and how, like even though she's already committed somewhere that she still goes really hard in games, even though like she's already, like in practice and all that stuff," Cunningham said. "So, just basically like no matter what you do, you still have to work really hard."