USC Women's Basketball

USC’s ‘college ready’ McDonald’s All-American watches film of the best — Dawn Staley

It’s all about the guards for South Carolina women’s basketball in 2018-2019, but even with the logjam of talent the Gamecocks have in the backcourt, freshman Destanni Henderson stands out.

Henderson is USC’s first McDonald’s All-American recruit since 2014, when A’ja Wilson and Bianca Cuevas-Moore committed to Dawn Staley’s team, and Staley described the Fort Myers, Fla., native as the most “college ready” of the squad’s freshmen after less than a month of workouts.

“She is doing things that just naturally are really promising,” Staley said in June. “She can pass the ball, she can get to the rim, she communicates like she’s been around the block, and that’s really, really encouraging, especially from a young player that’s going to play the point guard position for us.”

Henderson was the highest-ranked point guard in her class by ESPN, but in Columbia, she’ll have to scrap for minutes alongside junior Tyasha Harris, who set the program record for assists in a season last year, and Cuevas-Moore, who decided to leave Carolina for her fifth year, then changed her mind and returned.

How exactly Staley will juggle that trio is not yet clear, but regardless, Henderson said there are no statistical benchmarks she’s trying to reach her rookie season. She just wants to get better.

“Just taking it day by day, just trying to learn each other, play well with each other. Trusting each other too, because for me, I’ve never played with them before, so it’s a lot of trust building,” Henderson said. “As a point guard, I feel like I have to know everything about each player on my team and if she can go left or right and how can I make us better?

“ ... They’ve been here longer than I have, so they, obviously, know more than what I do, so just trying to learn from them.”

Henderson is familiar with facing stiff competition— her introduction to basketball was playing against boys and male relatives.

“I always played with boys and my uncles, so before I actually started playing with the YMCA, I always played with boys,” Henderson said. “I actually started playing at the age of 11, like actually learning basketball skills, and I’ve been playing ever since.”

In that regard, Henderson is like her new coach — Staley also grew up playing boys in Philadelphia. But unlike Staley, who grew up before the WNBA existed, Henderson also developed by watching the women’s pro league, including a 5-foot-6 point guard considered one of the best players in WNBA history: Dawn Staley.

“She’s just had so much success, one of the best point guards I’ve ever seen,” Henderson said, explaining that she watches film of Staley in the WNBA. “She’s a big role model, and I want to do some of the things that she’s accomplished, and there’s just so much I can learn from her.”

All of those accomplishments were on display for Henderson and her mother, Joyel James, when they stopped by Staley’s office on their official visit.

“She was able to see Dawn Staley’s awards and all the stuff she had in her office on display for these kids to see that you can accomplish anything, and I think that’s what stuck out to her,” James said. “She really looks up to coach Dawn.”

That official visit, however, came after Henderson already had committed to South Carolina in her junior year of high school. She was offered by the Gamecocks in eighth grade and never took an official visit anywhere else.

“She was like, ‘Mom, I think this is it.’ And I was like, ‘Are you sure, baby?’” James said. “I said, ‘Well, I’m following your heart, and if that’s what you decided and that’s the relationship you built at that school, then you should go ahead and do it, because that would be something special.’”

The clincher, both James and Henderson said, was Staley’s home visit in Florida.

“It was just something that I had the mindset for, building trust and if I can be myself around the coaches, and then also the home visit. That really made me feel like, OK, yeah, this is where I want to come,” Henderson said.