At 11, Columbia’s Ashlyn Watkins has not yet reached middle school, but her basketball talent has basketball fans nationwide talking.
The 6-foot-tall fifth-grader dunked on a 9-foot rim while competing with her All-Star team in a tournament game this past weekend. The dunk was caught on video and the next day it was being watched across the country on social media. ESPN later aired the video on “SportsCenter.”
“It felt exciting,” Ashlyn said. “I kept trying and missing, but when I tried one more time I made it and everybody was excited.”
She also was excited, though low-key, about the attention the video of her feat has received. “It feels good. People keep asking me if I saw myself on ESPN,” she said.
“It was kind of amazing, really,” her father, Vancito Watkins, said. “This was her first dunk in a game, and it’s amazing just to see her be able to do it.”
Ashlyn said that she was delighted to see the clip on television and that relatives from around the country had called to congratulate her.
Ashlyn joins names such as Lisa Leslie, the first woman to dunk in a WNBA game, and Georgeann Wells, the first woman to dunk in a women’s college game.
Her father and coach Danny Nelson III encouraged the youngster to go for the dunk.
Neither has measured Ashlyns’ vertical leap or done any specific workouts to increase it. But both were sure she could do it.
“I noticed last year that she had quite a bit of hops for her age, and this year, when I found out that they were going to be playing the district tournament on a 9-foot rim, I knew she could do it,” Nelson said. “I’m the type of coach that, whatever I see that a kid has the potential to do, I push them to reach that potential.”
Regulation height for a rim is 10 feet, and Ashlyn is accustomed to playing with the higher goal. But because Saturday’s gym had the lower rim, it allowed her to go for the dunk. Nelson said he believes that as she gets older and stronger, she will be able to dunk on regulation rims.
Watkins said he offered his daughter $100 to entice her to try it. “We didn’t do anything special; we didn’t really work on it or do any special training,” he said. “It’s really just natural ability.”
Ashlyn is tall for her age and much taller than most of her teammates and competitors. Her father stands 6-foot-4, and a cousin who plays college basketball in Memphis is 6-foot-8.
Ashlyn has been playing basketball for several years and joined the East Columbia Youth Basketball League three years ago.
Ashlyn, who lives in Northeast Richland and attends Roundtop Elementary in Blythewood, is a member of the ECYBL All-star team, which will compete for its third consecutive state championship on Saturday.
“We have been blessed to have girls with similar talents in our league before, but she is the first of her kind, the first to do that,” said Tracee Walker, president of the ECYBL, based at Caughman Road Park.
“But what we’re most proud of is that we are a community-supported program and we work with girls like Ashlyn to promote the spirit of teamwork and sportsmanship.”
With the dunk, Ashlyn leapt onto a national stage.
But Nelson and Vancito Watkins said that is where she was headed anyway. “Eventually she would have gotten her name out there,” Nelson said.
“This did not change what is possible for her,” her father said. “This is just a lot of hype, earlier than it would have been. Her potential did not change.”