- Chris Hansen, ESPNHS HoopGurlz
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The Nike Girls' Skills Academy is an instructional program that brings 20 of the nation's top players together to work with and against each other. Gannon Baker runs the Academy's workouts and the collection of players he has to work with this year is truly unique. The 2008 edition will be the most post heavy group to date.
The guards joining this incredible group include Skylar Diggins, Chelsea Gray, Tayler Hill, Afure Jemerigbe, Kaleena Lewis, Tierra Ruffin-Pratt, Odessey Sims, Shenneika Smith, Taber Spani, Morgan Toles and Erica Wheeler.
The event has been guard dominated historically, but the huge Class of 2009 has flipped the script. The number of talented interior players will demand entry passes during competitions. In the drill work the posts and forwards are going to be facing top-shelf talent in waves. If a player brings it weak, her shot attempts are going to be slapped across the Bo Jackson Gym at the Nike World Headquarters in Beaverton, Ore.
The guards also will need to be aware of their surroundings; two of the game's most prolific shot-blockers, Brandon and Griner, will be in the gym. Both players thrive using a combination of height, length, lift and timing. Griner stands an imposing 6-foot-8 with a seemingly endless wingspan. Brandon, on the other hand, has the quickest hops of anyone in the class. During the Regional Skills Academy in Santa Ana, Calif., the participants started calling Brandon, "New Nneka" and "Nneka Jr." The reference is to the No. 6 player in the 2008 class, Nneka Ogwumike, whose shot-blocking exploits embarrassed many a would-be baller as well as some of the best. The Stanford signee also is the older sister of Chiney Ogwumike who will be participating in this year's Academy.
Eight of the ESPN HoopGurlz's Top 10 in the 2009 class are participating. With no USA Basketball Youth Developmental Festival this year (they rotate every other year, between U18 FIBA competitions) this is the only collection of such talent in one gym this year.
Although the number of highly ranked players from the 2009 class will lead to some great battles on the floor, some light will be shed on a few top underclassmen as well. Five players from the 2010 -- Gray, Horn, Jemerigbe, Ogwumike and Sims -- will have the chance to measure themselves against each other and 2009's elite players for a chance at an early lead on the top spot in the 2010 class.
Front-runners Ogwumike and Sims will find that there is so much talent in the 2010 class the competition is going to be fierce. Sims will get to test herself against Gray. Both of them are incredibly talented point guards, but each does it a different way. Sims is a real blazer, perhaps the quickest player with the ball from end-to-end. Gray, on the other hand, is not a super speedster but a strong and powerful player who utilizes her body in traffic and is deceptively quick. Both are playmakers. Sims, a lefty, is more of a scoring point guard; Gray is perhaps the best table-setter in the class.
The forward battle should be intriguing, with a further contrast of styles between Horn and Ogwumike. Ogwumike is a good inch or two taller than Horn, but she has more a finesse game to Horn's power moves on the blocks. Both are agile for the forward position, but Ogwumike's graceful athleticism has many thinking she is a real combo-forward. Both shined very early in their careers and the attention they've received is deserved. While Ogwumike's versatility is touted, Horn may have the most complete post scoring arsenal in her class, and in reality it is comparable to those nasty (in a good way) bigs in the 2009 class.
Jemerigbe cannot be forgotten, either. While there isn't a 2010 shooting guard with whom she can compare notes, this week she'll have plenty of talent to measure herself against. That starts with the best perimeter defender in the 2009 class in Ruffin-Pratt. Both have great explosiveness in their games. Both are fantastic at overwhelming defenders with their bodies, and these two could really help each other by pairing up on one-on-one drills because neither will back down. Another challenging matchup for both of these players will come from Shenneika Smith; a tall shooter from New York.
Most years, the Nike Skills Academy is limited to just two classes, but this year Kaleena Lewis breaks in from the 2011 class, becoming the first freshman participant since Elena Delle Donne in 2005. Lewis started her career as an interior player and has developed into one of the country's best long-range gunners. She is a real inside-outside threat and showed at the Nike Regional Skills Academy in Santa Ana that her interior scoring skill hasn't faltered with her emergence as a top shooter. In one-on-one competition, she scored multiple times on Oliver, one of the best post defenders in the class. Lewis is very strong and has gained a confidence her abilities having been on the big-time club circuit since seventh grade.
Four underclassmen made the USA Basketball U18 team this year and two of those players, Bone and Diggins, will hone their skills before moving on to USA practices the second week of July in Colorado Springs. There really isn't any better preparation for these kids than the Skills Academy. On top of the skill work, they'll get the opportunity to work in scrimmages against the best in their peer group as well as boost their conditioning.
Nike had Regional Skills Academies in Atlanta, Houston, Indianapolis, Philadelphia and Santa Ana this spring. The national academy has a similar format but twice as many workouts in four days.
The staff joining Baker has been notable in years past with a host of former college and pro coaches and Hall of Famers. Nike also brings in current college players to work with the kids, This year four college stars will be help these budding stars reach their potential -- Jayne Appel (Stanford), Angel McCoughtry (Louisville), Renee Montgomery (Connecticut) and Courtney Paris (Oklahoma). This quartet of college stars will have some prestigious swoosh-laden shoes to fill as this year's cast will be without Nancy Liebermann, one of the all-time greats in the game. Liebermann is celebrating her 50th birthday and couldn't make the trip this year.
The players will come out of this event with a better understanding of where they are and what they need to improve on to reach their goals. They'll have tested their skills against the best of the best in their peer group and under fantastic instruction. At the event's conclusion the players will meet with their evaluators, a panel of former coaches from the college and pro game, to go over their strengths and weaknesses.
Chris Hansen covers girls' high school basketball nationally for ESPN.com and leads the panel that ranks and evaluates players for the network. He can be reached at email@example.com.