Year after national title, Dawn Staley looks for USC’s new identity
For Dawn Staley, South Carolina’s recruiting class of 2018 may be her masterpiece — or an incredible near-miss.
Either way, the Gamecocks will end up with some extremely talented players, according to Dan Olson, director of Collegiate Girls Basketball Report and the man behind ESPN’s HoopGurlz recruiting rankings. It’s just a matter of how many.
Already committed, or “in the nest,” as Staley likes to say, are guard Destanni Henderson and forward Victaria Saxton, ranked No. 9 and No. 50 in their class by Olson, respectively. Henderson took advantage of the early signing period on Wednesday and signed her letter of intent, while news of Saxton’s verbal pledge broke the same day.
“Once again (South Carolina) has proven they are one of the nation’s elite with a superb class,” Olson said. “They’ve got the makings of an incredible class.”
Olson called Henderson perhaps the best guard in her class and said she will benefit from Staley’s tutelage. He also said Saxton, despite ranking below several of her peers, could be an “absolute stud” and a star player.
“The sky’s the limit on (Saxton),” Olson said. “She’s not a skilled offensive player yet, but her defensive ability is unbelievable. The length and the wingspan ... she’s like a 747 on two legs. She blocks shots, just creates havoc in the paint ... she’s long, lean (and) can run the floor like a guard.”
But what may still elevate South Carolina’s class from elite to extraordinary are the only two remaining undeclared players in Olson’s top 50: No. 1 Christyn Williams and No. 5 Olivia Nelson-Odada. Williams is set to decide between South Carolina and Connecticut on Friday, while Nelson-Odada has named USC, UConn, Georgia, Florida State and Duke as her finalists.
Should South Carolina manage to secure commitments from both Williams and Nelson-Odada, there is no doubt in Olson’s mind that the Gamecocks will have the best class in the country and in all of Staley’s tenure in Columbia.
“If they get both, they’re got the top class in the country ... you can’t deny that. But the magic hasn’t happened yet,” Olson said. “You’ve got two players in Nelson-Odada and Saxton that might be the two highest ceiling players in that entire class.”
Nelson-Odada has not released a timeline for her final decision, and she is recovering from a knee injury that has kept her off the court for a while, but her talent is so great that even if she misses time at the beginning of her college career to recover, she’ll still be an enormous get for any team, Olson said.
“She’s really got a knack for out-quicking bigger defenders and getting to the rim and either making the play or getting to the free throw line or both,” Olson said of the 6-foot-4 forward.
Over the past six recruiting cycles, Olson has ranked South Carolina’s class 10th in 2017, 11th in 2016, unranked in 2015, second in 2014, unranked in 2013 and 18th in 2012.
That class in 2014 was headlined by A’ja Wilson, Jatarie White, Bianca Cuevas-Moore and Kaydra Duckett, all of whom ranked in the top 40 nationally. However, the Gamecocks had a built-in advantage with Wilson and Duckett, who are both from South Carolina, and White, who is from Charlotte, North Carolina.
By contrast, Henderson is from Florida, Saxton and Nelson-Odada are from Georgia and Williams is from Arkansas.
“If they were to pull (Nelson-Odada) and Williams, that would be a better class (than 2014),” Olson said. “Because you’ve got three players in the top 10 as opposed to two. And you’ve got (Saxton), but then you don’t have anyone other than that. You have four super players. They’d easily wind up being the top class.”
Of course, in order to secure pledges from Nelson-Odada and Williams, the Gamecocks will have to beat out Connecticut and the legendary Geno Auriemma. The Huskies have no current commitments in the class of 2018 and have that much extra motivation to lock down the only remaining five-star recruits on the market.
But as Olson pointed out, both Auriemma and Staley have been able to find other ways to improve their teams besides recruiting high schoolers: transfers, especially graduate transfers, have become a ubiquitous presence in women’s basketball and a factor every coach has to take into account now, Staley told ESPN earlier this week.
“You have to plan for your current roster being different because people will transfer,” Staley said at the NCAA’s national media day. “At the end of every season, you find out who's transferring, and who might be fifth-year grad students who could play. That's part of what we do every year now, because you have to.”
As a result, Olson said, high school recruiting still remains vital for elite programs, but its significance has receded slightly, and if South Carolina or Connecticut lose out on both top recruits, he predicted that the programs will find a way to recover.