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Wanted: D-1 schools chase Ladazhia Williams

September 27, 2015
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LaDazhia Williams steps out of a workout inside Lakewood Ranch High’s gymnasium, hops up on the scorer’s table and begins listing her college suitors. She sounds as if she’s reading a grocery list.

Ohio State, Louisville, UNC, FSU, USF, UCF. They’ve already made offers to the 6-foot-4 forward who is less than a month into her junior year, and who has already been rated a four-star prospect by ESPN.

“It’s a little overwhelming,” Williams said. “But I don’t let it get to me.”

It’s a lot of hoopla for a 17-year-old. But if the pressure is getting to her, Williams isn’t letting anyone in on it.

“I have to say to her, ‘You do realize this doesn’t happen to everybody, right?’ ” said Tina Hadley, Lakewood Ranch’s girls basketball coach. “She acts as if it’s a natural thing.”

Hadley has a point. Not everyone gets a home visit from UConn coach Geno Auriemma, who stopped by earlier this month, or has a basket at home filled with birthday cards from the coaching staffs at Tennessee, Florida State, Ohio State and Virginia Tech.

“She’s even-keeled,” Hadley said. “She’s definitely the right girl for this.”

Watch her play and it’s clear why Williams is the right girl for nearly a dozen upper-echelon Division I programs. She averaged a double-double last season, scoring 19.8 points per game and pulling down 10.2 rebounds per game for a Mustangs team that reached a regional final for the first time in program history.

In other words, Williams is now the polar opposite of the seventh-grader who played on Hadley’s travel-ball team. She was tall, standing 6-1. She was skinny and athletic.

Oh, and one other thing, Hadley said: “She couldn’t play an ounce of basketball,” Hadley said. “She never wanted the ball. I finally said, ‘LaDazhia, do me a favor: Just turn and look at the goal. Make me happy. You don’t have to shoot it.’ It was nerves.”

What Williams lacked in skill she made up for in desire and athleticism. Hadley praises Williams’ present day work ethic, commenting on how the player spends as much time as she can in the gym, honing everything from shooting to ball-handling. Williams was the same way four years ago, constantly working on whatever drill Hadley threw her way.

First she learned lay-ups. Then came the Mikan Drill, where a player alternates hands in making lay-ups and grabbing rebounds. Once Williams mastered that, Hadley tossed another ball into the drills.

Then came ball-handling, where Williams learned how to dribble the ball behind her back and between her legs. “She wanted to learn,” Hadley said. “She was athletic, so she picked things up very easily.”

Williams started for Hadley’s Mustangs as a freshman and poured in 15.7 points per game. Lakewood Ranch reached the second round of the Class 7A playoffs that year thanks in large part to Williams, whose 27 points and 13 rebounds helped the Mustangs rout Clearwater, at the time ranked ninth in Class 7A, in the regional quarterfinals.

“She’s very dedicated to the sport,” said Southeast coach John Harder. “She’s one of the better players to come through the local systems.”

Harder watched Williams score 23 points last December in a Lakewood Ranch victory that snapped the Seminoles’ 38-game winning streak, and came away impressed with her ability to beat double teams inside the paint.

“Her height and her post were very strong, She was great at sticking back and kissing it off the glass,” Harder said. “My thought was she was beginning to reach her goal.”

A solid two seasons at the varsity level coupled with playing on the Florida Girls Basketball travel team has made Williams a hot commodity among college coaches. Among them was Auriemma, who visited Williams in her home the first day of collegiate contact period.

“He’s actually a pretty cool guy. He’s not like how he is when he’s coaching,” Williams said. “He’s the complete opposite.”

Auriemma has yet to make Williams an offer. But roughly 10 other schools have, and coaches from Florida State, Ohio State, Louisville and UNC have also made visits, while Notre Dame plans on heading to Bradenton, too.

“I’m pretty nonchalant about things. I don’t really get that hyped up about stuff like that,” Williams said, adding she doesn’t have any favorites yet. “When I go out, I play for the team and not just myself.”

Hadley and Williams are installing wrinkles in her game that will be beneficial for the team and the player. In order to become more versatile, Williams will play on the perimeter more this season.

“Once we teach her how to stretch the floor, and we start pulling her away from the basket and she starts making some 3s, once she starts handling the ball more … on the perimeter, she’ll be unguardable,” Hadley said. “Last year, everybody we played wanted to double, triple team her. Can’t do that now … she’ll be facing the basket. What are you going to do? Put two people on the perimeter? That wouldn’t be a smart basketball move.”

Hadley saw the progression last year, when she went from being a strict post player to one who took the occasional jump shot and helped run a fast break. Others noticed it, too. “The more versatile you are, the more recruitable you are, so that’s probably another reason why her stock went up,” Hadley said. “She just keeps adding stuff to her repertoire.”

The more Williams does, the more she may have to add to her box full of recruiting letters and birthday cards. And the more coaches that may add Williams to their travel schedule.

“It’s been amazing,” she said. “It’s a great opportunity to have all these colleges to come in, see that I’ve been working hard and see where I’m at now. It’s just a blessing.”

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