It seems strange to describe a five-star recruit as underrated.
But in South Carolina’s 2018 class, Victaria Saxton was certainly far from the most heralded prospect Dawn Staley’s staff pursued. Ranked No. 47 in the class by ESPN, Saxton wasn’t even the most coveted forward in her home state of Georgia — UConn commit Olivia Nelson-Ododa grabbed the headlines with a dunk at McDonald’s All-American weekend.
By comparison, Saxton was under-the-radar, not heavily wooed by some traditional powers or highly rated by recruiting services. Her commitment to USC generated a fraction of the attention that Carolina got with her classmate Destanni Henderson, or the four stars it reeled in in this most recent class. Fans hoped she would be the precursor to other, bigger signings.
Flash forward a year and a half, and Saxton is blossoming into a solid contributor and future star for Staley. After posting a career-high 19 points and nine rebounds against Arkansas, Saxton was named SEC Freshman of the Week — the program’s first player to do that since A’ja Wilson.
“I was really surprised, honestly. I wasn’t expecting it. I felt blessed,” Saxton said.
Honors like that will continue to come throughout Saxton’s career, both Staley and Wilson said.
“For her to peak around this time, close to tournament time, it’s definitely a good thing, and I’m glad I got to watch her grow this season so far and come into her own,” Wilson said. “I think she really deserved the Freshman of the Week and there’s going to be more to come.”
“Her upside is incredible,” Staley said. “Once she gains a little bit of weight and strength and some experience under her belt, she’s got a couple more great games for us this year, but next year should be a year in which you’ll see vast improvement in how she plays every game.”
Physically, all the tools are there. At 6-foot-2, Saxton has the spring and energy of a guard combined with the frame that allows her to battle in the post. And mentally, Staley raves about her basketball IQ.
“She’s really cerebral. She’s really a smart individual,” Staley said. “She understands how to play basketball. She just needs more and more experience. What she did at Arkansas is pretty much what she does (in practice).”
Perhaps the biggest key to her recent play, however, has been her growing confidence. Coming into South Carolina as an under-the-radar prospect, Saxton admitted she didn’t have the highest belief in her abilities.
“I feel like it’s grown a lot,” Saxton said. “Listening to (senior Alexis Jennings) and (junior Mikiah Herbert Harrigan), the older people, they help me a lot, they talk to me a lot. ... Just talking to coach (Lisa Boyer), coach (Fred Chimel), they help me get my confidence up also, because I used to not be real confident in myself, and it’s gotten a lot better.”
Something as intangible as confidence can be fleeting and hard to measure, though. That’s why Staley thinks it’s so important to capitalize on Saxton’s self-belief now.
“That’s what happens to young players. They go in and out of being confident. In coaching that, you gotta strike when the confidence is at a high, and she performs when we need her,” Staley said after the Arkansas game. “She’s less nervous when she knows she’s gotta make a play for us.”
Sure enough, against Ole Miss on Thursday, Saxton was the first player off the bench for Staley. She needed just 14 minutes of play to to score 12 points, pulled down three rebounds and blocked two shots.
Wilson, watching from a courtside seat, saw in Saxton a player getting more and more comfortable, playing about as well as a freshman can be expected to play.
“You can tell she’s really coming into herself and her role as a player,” Wilson said. “That’s all you can ask for as a coach and as a teammate. She’s earning minutes on the court, she’s doing all the little things, doing all the good things to be out there on the court. She doesn’t do everything great, but she doesn’t do anything bad either. She does everything well.”
On Monday, Saxton and the Gamecocks will face one of their biggest challenges of the year, traveling to Connecticut to face No. 5 UConn. The Huskies have a roster stacked with former top recruits, including Nelson-Ododa, who’s averaging 3.8 points and 3.2 rebounds per game in her rookie year.
Comparatively, Saxton is unheralded. But she could prove crucial, just like Staley knew she would.
“She definitely was underrated (in high school), but the people that recruited her, they knew how special she’s going to be,” Staley said.