Has girls’ basketball passed its peak? by Clay Kallam
Do I hear a canary singing in the coal mine? Let’s hope not…
1. Megan Walker and Evina Westbrook. The top two recruits in the class of 2017 went to UConn and Tennessee, respectively – but don’t write down Final Four appearances in 2019 for either program quite yet. Though Walker and Westbrook are both outstanding players, and pretty clearly the top of their class this year, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are program changers.
From all accounts, this was not a particularly strong class of graduating seniors. Again, though Walker and Westbrook are both very fine players, both have a significant weakness: They can’t shoot all that well. And more and more it is becoming clear that the difference between a very good player and an elite player is the ability to consistently make outside shots. Walker, for example, made just 28 of 102 three-pointers last year for Monacan High School, and note that the high school distance is shorter than the college distance. Westbrook’s stats are not to be found on the Internet, but the word is that perimeter shooting is not her strength either.
But someone has to be the top recruit, and someone has to be second, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with either Walker or Westbrook. They both look like WNBA players, and they both should play significant roles for quality teams as soon as they enter college. Still, it’s like having the first-round draft pick in the NBA when there really isn’t a potential superstar available, which leads to…
2. There are more Division I scholarships than there are Division I players. This is a constant, given that women’s basketball teams have 15 scholarships, as opposed to only 13 for the men, and so roughly 1,000 players get full rides each season. (Actually, the number is higher than that because some Division II schools give full scholarships, and so do many NAIA Division I schools.)
So when the top of the recruiting class isn’t quite as strong as the bottom in most years, some lucky young players wind up with their college paid for when that might not have been the case in other years. I was talking to someone very familiar with the girls’ basketball scene, and as we were going over which players were going where for college, and he kept saying “Really?” Or “I can’t believe she went there”.
Of course, he was happy these girls were getting an opportunity to play at the Division I level, but his surprise was palpable over exactly who was getting that opportunity. Which leads to the question, why aren’t there more quality girls basketball players? And why does it seem to be so different on the men’s side, where competition for scholarships could be charitably described as cutthroat?
3. Volleyball – and to a lesser extent, soccer. These are the two sports that are consistently cutting into the participation levels for girls’ basketball at all levels and ages. Volleyball especially is on the rise, for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is that the uniforms are a lot more attractive and there is no contact.
Now this is to take nothing away from volleyball, which at the highest levels is a demanding, physical sport that requires skill, strength and mental toughness. But the lack of contact (and the ability to wear makeup while playing) make it more attractive to many girls then basketball, where bodies fly on a regular basis.
Soccer, of course, is physical, but given the way youth sports are structured, boys and girls at age 5 and 6 are exposed to soccer, while basketball has to wait a little longer as more coordination is required to play the game with any kind of proficiency.
This doesn’t mean that no elite athletes are playing basketball, but the numbers strongly suggest that the limited number of elite athletes is being divided up more equally between basketball, volleyball and soccer than it was in the past. That might mean that players like Walker and Westbrook will become the norm for the top recruits, rather than the exception.
Or not — after all, the talent cycle has always gone up and down, and the next Diana Taurasi or Maya Moore could but just be lacing up her sneakers as a freshman right now. But longtime observers are getting more and more concerned, as the list of potential superstars seems to grow shorter each year. And in fact, this year, there were none.