Large in Talent, Small in Stature; Undersized players thrive on the court

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When they walk onto the court, it’s common to overlook their abilities.  Actually in this case, it may be easy to just overlook them.  But when the game is over and, it’s not hard to realize they were there.

One of the misunderstood concepts about the game of basketball is to look at a player and derive an opinion about how good they are by their appearance.  If they are 6-foot-4, people are in fear because of their height.  If they are 5-foot-4, they often don’t take them seriously.

I often hear it all the time (mostly from people who don’t understand the game) how a player won’t be able to play in college “because they stand 5’4” and look out of place” on the court.  Or that 6-foot-4 player will be “automatically play in the WNBA because of her size”.  In both cases, people couldn’t be more wrong.

stebbins_briIt is the general consensus that point guards must be at least 5-8 to be able to get a college scholarship and play that position, because in some people’s opinion, they won’t be able to do what the bigger guards can do.  Now some of that may be true because the point guards in college today can exceed over 6-foot.  It would be difficult for a smaller guard to penetrate and score like they may be able to do at the high school level.

But what is a true point guard?  Very simply put, they are like a quarterback directing their team down the field for the score.  Scoring for a point guard is secondary at the next level (however a player needs to still be a threat to score), but running an offense and being what a true point guard is supposed to be is their primary objective.  It doesn’t matter if you are 5-4, or 5-11.

“Recruiting on the Division I level necessitates that you ask the obvious question first,” said Mark Lewis, who coached major college basketball for over 20 years, and is now one of the main writers for Blue Star Media.  ”Will she make us better over the course of her career? If the answer is yes, it’s hard to justify going a different direction simply on size alone.”

“All things being equal,” Lewis added, “smart coaches and recruiters are going to go with the size but it very rare that all things are equal.”

Often times, those players who are “too small” to play basketball will have to work twice as hard to get to where they are headed, and that work ethic could be what draws coaches to their doorstep.  Realistically speaking, the majority of all high school players regardless of height, won’t play in college.  But for some Dayton area players, like 5-foot-4 Vandalia-Butler grad Kacie Cassell, 5-foot-1 Stebbins senior Bri Williams, or 4-foot-11 Thurgood Marshall grad Tierra Tidwell, it’s all about putting in the extra effort to be taken seriously.

Cassell headed to the University of Akron after graduation from Butler High School, and had to prove herself at the next level.  She did more than just that.  Her junior season, Cassell led the nation in assists for all NCAA Division One schools.

Lewis, who has recruited some of the top players in the country during his days on the sidelines, sums it up when it comes to whether a smaller guard can have a chance of being noticed.

“If a high school player of a smaller size is going to compete at the next level she has to compensate with something to offset a lack of inches,” Lewis said. “Extraordinary physical skills (speed, quickness, strength) or refined and advanced basketball assets (court intelligence, ballhandling, passing, leadership and decision making).”

“She has to give a recruiter a legitimate reason why their scholarship offer should come her way rather than the direction of another player with greater size.  That reason also has to be definitive and substantial.  If any of those physical or basketball attributes are just marginally better, most will sacrifice a little on that end for some additional height.  A ‘little quicker’ or ‘slightly better ballhandling and passing’ aren’t enough.”

There have been some outstanding players over the years come through the circuit and wow the fans with their play.  Lewis mentioned Olympic gold medal winner Dawn Staley, along with Kristi Toliver and Ivory Latta.

“The given challenge is on the defensive end particularly if a program embraces a man to man oriented defensive philosophy,” Mark Lewis said.  “At the same time running the offense both in transition and the halfcourt takes a skilled and knowledgeable guard and not necessarily one  who stands 5-10 or  taller. Size seldom matters if they can’t catch you.”

Tierra Tidwell didn’t reach the 5-foot mark, but has moved onto the next level on scholarship, and the 4-foot-11 point guard is currently playing at Miami University-Middletown.  She is currently in the top 10 in her conference in scoring, and has also dealt with adversities all of the life playing basketball due to her height.

“First off I want to give a honor to God for giving me the gift that he in stored in me,” Tidwell told me last week.  “Throughout my career I have had many ups and downs. However having a praying family helped and motivated me to continue pushing and working hard for what I want. After high school deciding on where I wanted to continue my basketball and academic career was probably one of the hardest things I have faced.”

“I was turned down several times because of my height,” she added. “Yes, I am 4’11 but I have the mindset and heart of a 6’0 giant. When dealing with the let downs of several college coaches that alone motivated me. Being the shortest player on the court never intimidated me. I knew that it would take long nights in the gym and leaving everything out on the court. I always and will continue to give 100%.”

While Tidwell continued to battle the struggles of making the jump to college and proving everyone wrong, she was then hit with a tragedy that would make her work that much harder to make it.

“These last couple months have been extremely hard for me in my family,” Tidwell said.  “I lost my best friend, my motivator and my aunty. Losing her so suddenly was devastating. Through my career she put so much time and effort into me and basketball. Her not being able to see me play on the next level was hard but I knew I could not quit.”

“She was my hero and I will continue to go hard and make my aunty proud. Whenever I feel that I can’t finish I remember what she always told me ‘good things come to those who work and never give up’. “

Tom Jenkins, the Executive Director of the Ohio Girls Basketball Report, agrees that while the bigger players will be the eye of most recruiters, there have been several players of smaller stature that has been successful.  Some of the ones he stated, along with their colleges, include 5-5 Nicole Bell of Indian Hill (Indiana), 5-4 Courtney Davidson of Youngstown Ursuline (Michigan State), 5-4 Korrin Taylor of McKinley (Oakland), 5-5 Naddiyah Cross of Centerville (Kent State), 5-6 Yamonie Jenkins of Reyoldsburg (Ohio U), and 5-6 Alexis Peterson of Northland (Syracuse).

“No question the game of basketball is a big person’s game,” Jenkins said.  “No question the taller players have the initial advantage; but what you find with the smaller players who can play at the collegiate level and are successful is a competitive fire that is unmatched, coupled with a skill or athletic took that far exceeds their biggest counter parts.”

Even this season, 5-foot-1 Briana Williams has been drawing praises from every coach in her league, and the Dayton Stebbins senior will be continuing her career at Owens College in Toledo on a full scholarship.  All of her career, people told her she wouldn’t make it.  Her proudest moment will be stepping onto the floor for the first time next season as a college freshman.

“I have dealt with that growing up, and still deal with that today,” Williams said.  “I just have the mindset to continue to prove people wrong.”

She flashed back to a time in middle school that really gave her the desire to make this game work for her.

“I was checking out a book in the library and the librarian asked me if I played any sports , and I told her I played basketball,” the Stebbins floor general said.  “She was just so startled, and told me I was too short to play basketball, and maybe I should try something else.”

“I was so upset and that’s when my mom told me I was going to get stuff like this, and to use it as motivation.  My parents have taught me to turn negative energy from people into positive energy, and to motivate me.”

“It still motivates me today and I will take that with me wherever I play,” she added.  “My dad told me that when you are smaller, you have to reach things mentally.”

According to Lewis, in NCAA Division I basketball over the past 14 (since the 1999-2000 season) years, just five players 5-7 or shorter have been named to the WBCA Coaches All-American team (formally Kodak).  Three of those five were named twice but that still equates to just 8 of 140 times that an honoree has measured less than 5-7.

So instead of people looking at a player and measuring how tall she is from head to toe, one should measure a smaller player by what really counts… her heart.

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