Between the three days of workouts and practice sessions in Colorado Springs, Colo., the snow-capped mountains provided some perspective for LaDazhia Williams. She was a long way from home, working with the best high school players in the country for a chance to represent her country at the highest level her sport offers her at the current moment.
The four days that Lakewood Ranch’s center spent in Colorado at the end of May were already affirmation of her spot in the prep basketball landscape. Her actual performance at the United States Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, though, gave her a chance to see firsthand.
“It was a great experience. I had fun playing against all the other girls and competing in a new environment was fun.”
Williams was one of 30 athletes to spend four days in Colorado vying for a spot on the United States U18 national team, and one of 16 with no prior Team USA experience. Williams was also one of only 10 players from the Class of 2017 competing with a crop of players who will mostly be heading off to college for the fall.
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IMG Academy forward Rellah Booth, an Ocala native, was the only Florida player chosen for the team and one of five players from the Class of 17 picked.
Although Williams missed the cut for the 12-player team, which will represent the United States this summer at the 2016 FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Chile, the four days around the best high school players in the country and Team USA’s facilities are a virtually unparalleled summer experience.
It wasn’t always smooth, though. Williams struggled early on before improving as the weekend went on, said Kenny Kallina, Williams’ coach at Florida Girls Basketball.
“I thought I played good, but I could’ve done better,” Williams said. “I could’ve probably done better scoring on the offensive end and playing a little harder.”
Kallina chalked up some of it to inexperience. Williams missed the cutoff for playing with the U17 team by about a month and the setup for the U17 tryout provides a bit more wiggle room. Team USA invites 150 players to its U17 tryout and whittles down the numbers throughout the tryout. The level of competition is a bit lighter during the early days before gearing up when just the top handful of players is remaining.
At the U18 tryout, Williams was thrown right into the fire. As soon as she hops off the plane she’s pitted against Lauren Cox, the No. 1 player in the Class of 2016.
“In AAU or in high school those kids are few and far between,” Kallina said. “She’s going to end up going to a really big time college and it’s going to be that competitive all the time. That’s something she’s just going to have to be prepared for.”
Cox, a Baylor-bound senior, was one of eight McDonald’s All-Americans who Williams found herself competing against at the US Olympic Training Center, and nearly half of the competition had prior experience with Team USA. In a new setting, Williams struggled to adjust immediately.
The actual setting affected her, as well, although Williams assumes it affected most of the players. Playing in the thin Colorado air took a toll on Williams’ endurance and taught her another lesson.
“Just to play hard throughout everything,” Williams said. “The altitude change probably messed up a lot of people. Don’t let stuff get in your head. Play through everything.”
Instead of spending her summer with Team USA, she’ll now be on track to play with Kallina and FGB, where she’ll be the centerpiece of a team with a chance to be a national Amateur Athletic Union power.
Kallina’s primary objective with Williams for the summer is mental. It’s obvious Williams has a chance to be one of the most dominant players in the country — she led the Mustangs to the Class 7A championship game while averaging nearly 16 points and seven rebounds per game — she just needs to be a bit more consistent.
At FGB, Kallina is hoping to create an environment which lets Williams dominate in stretches while maintaining her efficiency. She led Ranch by shooting 52 percent from the floor during the winter and managed to score her 15.8 points per game on 12.2 shots.
“She’s a kid who can dominate all the time and from a coaching end we’ve got to get her to that point,” Kallina said. “She is so talented, she can take over a game and it moves at her pace. We’ve got to get her to realize that, we’ve got to get the other kids on our team to realize that and we’ve got to go out there and go do that.
“She floats between being really efficient — so she doesn’t have to go out there and do all sorts of weird, crazy things to be successful — but also I think sometimes she could play a little harder.”
LaDazhia Williams was the centerpiece of Lakewood Ranch’s run to the Class 7A championship this season.
* — led team