- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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Watching Kayla Pedersen play basketball, it's not easy to gauge what she's thinking at any given moment. It's not easy when the 6-foot-4 forward is draining 3-pointers at a nearly 50 percent clip. It's not easy when she's taking defenders off the dribble. It's not easy when she's throwing her body around in the paint, rebounding and drawing charges.
It's not even easy in those rare moments when she doesn't play like one of the best players on the court. Her visible emotions run the gamut from quietly intense in Stanford's red away uniform to quietly intense in its home white uniform.
But it's a lot easier than understanding some of the stuff Stanford's stoic junior All-American thinks about when she's off the court. Consider her early career aspirations.
"I originally thought maybe it would be cool to be a neurosurgeon," Pedersen said.
Because who among us didn't dream of being a neurosurgeon when we got to college? As long as by "neurosurgeon," we mean "basketball star."
The blood-and-cadaver realities inherent in pursuing a medical career eventually left Pedersen a little too squeamish to follow through on those early plans, but she has found the next best thing at Stanford. A double major in psychology and communications at a school with a psychology program annually ranked among the best in the nation, she earned honorable mention honors on the Pac-10's All-Academic team last season.
When No. 2 Stanford faces No. 1 Connecticut at the XL Center in Hartford on Wednesday night (ESPN2, 5:30 p.m. ET), Pedersen will be one of the best players on a floor littered with talent that WNBA general managers would dearly love St. Nicholas to deliver to them one day. As a power forward for much of her first two seasons, Pedersen represented the pinnacle of the position's evolution, a strong post presence with soft hands, athleticism and midrange touch. Since moving to small forward midway through last season, she has helped revolutionize what kind of player can fill that role.
But whatever label is placed on Pedersen, the most accurate might be that she'll be quite literally one of the biggest nerds on the court in the season's biggest game. And she's just fine with that.
"I'm definitely that person, that nerdy person that likes going to school," Pedersen admitted. "Especially my psychology classes, it's not a chore to wake up every day and go to class. And the professors make it fun, too. So yeah, I am that person that actually enjoys it."
Her interest in communications came from classes that teammates recommended once she arrived at Stanford after a standout prep career in Arizona. But her interest in psychology predated the move, nurtured by an AP psychology class in high school and fed once she got to college. As she explained, she just likes knowing why people think the way they do.
It's an analytical perspective that proved useful on the basketball court last season. With the arrival of heralded freshman Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Stanford potentially had three post players with All-American ability in Pedersen, Ogwumike and center Jayne Appel. The solution was to move Pedersen, who showed a good handle and an outside touch even as a freshman playing primarily inside the 3-point line, to the wing. The one tiny downside was it meant asking her to essentially completely redefine her game, as Mechelle Voepel chronicled earlier this season.
But if you're going to ask someone to change the way she thinks about the game, it doesn't hurt to start with someone who has a predisposition toward thinking about thinking.
"It definitely helps me," Pedersen said. "I think adjusting to the 3 position after being a 4 for basically my whole life took more mental than physical ability for me. Having that analytic personality I think really helped me. It took a little longer than I'm used to, which I didn't expect. But in the long run, I think it's all worked out. And now I feel pretty comfortable."
The result is both Pedersen and Ogwumike are averaging better than 19 points per game, allowing Appel to round into top form at her own pace after offseason surgery. Still a dominant rebounder at 8.4 boards per game, Pedersen is also shooting 47 percent from the 3-point line on 21-of-45 shooting. She's the tallest player to rank among the top 30 in the nation in 3-point field goal percentage.
And it's not to say Pedersen spends every hour of her day with her head buried in textbooks or debating the existence of free will over espresso, a John Cage score providing silent accompaniment in the background. True, she tries to put aside an hour or so at the end of the night to read simply for her own pleasure, but in addition to her current selection, Tony Dungy's "Quiet Strength," she has also burned through the collected Harry Potter and Twilight catalogues. Malls and movies also have as strong a hold on her as on any undergrad.
It's just that she has never been afraid to embrace her inner geek, either.
"That's kind of who I am," Pedersen said. "My teammates will make fun of it, but yeah, that's just a part of me. And I think my parents really instilled those values in me that you should enjoy school; it's going to be your future after basketball. So yeah, [the geek label] doesn't bother me at all.
Pedersen has more or less stumped opponents for the nearly 2½ seasons she has worn a Stanford uniform. When she goes inside, she's too quick and too agile for her size. When she goes outside, she's too big for her quickness and her agility. But foes shouldn't get discouraged. Sometimes even she gets stumped, as in the most recent round of finals completed before she scored 22 points in a win against Duke.
"I remember just one test was all about knowing at what age certain things happen in development," Pedersen recalled of her toughest finals challenge. "And you have to label everything that kids have to do: when they start to walk, when they know that objects are hidden, when they know that magic doesn't exist, weird stuff like that. I was kind of like, 'Oh, didn't really pay attention to that.'"
Not even Pedersen has all the answers. She just has more than almost anyone in women's college basketball.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
Being labeled a geek doesn't faze Kayla Pedersen. In fact, the Stanford junior admits her book smarts and mental strength helped her switch positions, a move that only made Stanford stronger.