Class is in session and there's a lot to like after a week of practice
There is a lot of excitement about Stanford women's basketball for this season. There are high expectations for the Cardinal among experienced analysts of the game, such as Michelle Smith ranking Stanford No. 3 in a poll released Wednesday.
There also is a great deal of optimism within the program from a staff known to be tough to impress.
Stanford lost all-time great forward Alanna Smith but return many of the key players from an Elite Eight team.
The hyped freshman class was No. 2 in the country when they were 2019 recruits. Now they're skilled but wide-eyed student athletes trying not to be overwhelmed to the point of tears, which has been known to happen at or after Stanford practices.
So far, there have been no tears and the competition level is at an intensity that Hall of Fame head coach Tara VanDerveer said may be the best she's seen in recent years. Cardinal Sports Report caught up with VanDerveer and center Maya Dodson after practice Tuesday.
Q&A with Tara VanDerveer
Obviously there is a lot still to learn about this team, but after a week of practices what do you think you know about this group?
"The freshmen are catching on to things really quickly. They're doing really well. The main thing is we need everyone to get healthy. We're not as healthy as I want us to be right now. A lot of them (are limited or out). It's just dings. A ding here, a ding there, but it drives me crazy.
"I've seen really good improvement. I'm really excited about Anna Wilson and how she is practicing. I'm really excited about Lexie and how she's practicing. Those two are locked in. It's kind of weird to be practicing in September, so we're doing a lot of shooting, a lot of teaching -- teaching offensive things. We're trying to keep people healthy.
"One other thing I've learned is this team might be one of the most competitive teams. Obviously we haven't started any games yet but we have a lot of very talented players on this team. A lot of it is playing hard, knowing what we're doing, improving, coming out and practice hard every day."
How has that competitiveness shown up for you?
"Games are close. I don't know if I could make a team and say, 'Well this team will win'. The games are really competitive. If one team gets beat then the other team will come back and beat them after that.
"I would say a lot of different people have really worked hard in the offseason. I think Jenna (Brown) has worked hard. The sophomores (Jenna, Lexie and Lacie Hull) understand it better. Lexie missed a lot last year so she is really playing hard. She wants to be out there. Some of them with how they're practicing are saying, 'You need me out there'.
What are the developments you've seen from Jenna?
"She has worked on her shot. I think she knows what we're doing. She's playing more, thinking less. Just play."
VanDerveer then pointed to freshman Hannah Jump going over practice video with associate head coach Kate Paye: "This is one of the best shooters ever here. She is unbelievable in drills. Her numbers are off the charts. Off the charts. Same thing with Ashten (Prechtel). Our freshmen flat out are unbelievable. They get you really excited to come to the gym every day. They're just really, really good and they're steady. They catch on quickly. You can coach them, which is great. And they can take it."
VanDerveer was having a one-on-one video session with Haley Jones before I spoke with the head coach. So I asked: Given the versatility she brings to the court do you feel like you're still learning about how best to use her?
"Definitely. She is the most versatile player on our team. Ashten is the tallest person on our team. Hannah is the best shooter on our team. They all bring something. Fran (Belibi) is the only dunker.
"Versatility in what we do is really important. She (Jones) can play one through five. She knows what we're doing. Everyone has different strengths. She is a very smart basketball player. The things she does you can't teach. She just has vision on the court. Her passes, she's very unselfish. She rebounds, pushes it in transition. Plays basically positions on the court."
Q&A with Maya Dodson
What are your first impressions of this group coming together in these practices?
"In the summer we realized that we've always had a tight-knit group but each year it gets stronger and stronger. The freshmen are working really hard and we're trying to help them out. They're very talented and we're throwing a lot at them as well.
"Of course, it's preseason so it's not as clean as we want it to be. It's not as clean as it's going to be in January or February but we're making strides toward being a really great team this year and hopefully competing for a national championship."
What examples of noticeable developments do you see from the summer to these practices?
"It's always just with drills and certain plays that we implemented in the summer, coming back to those drills and seeing how we're better at executing those drills. Seeing how we're getting faster and stronger from lift and conditioning we did in the summer. Also, getting accustomed to this three-hour practice definitely will get you in shape."
The team worked a lot on ball handling and offensive skill set development during the summer. Was anything different about the drills you worked on and what gains have you noticed?
"Summer is definitely when we're trying not to overload the freshmen yet. We only have an hour or so a day and we only go for four days. We go over ball handling and do a lot of shooting. Just fundamental drills that we usually do in the summer.
"When we transition now to three-hour practices it's a lot more about learning sets. We're going over out-of-bounds plays -- new out-of-bounds plays every day, at least one or two. Going over offense, we haven't even scratched the surface of how many plays we have. That's why we have preseason. We have a couple weeks. It's going to be a lot but we always get it done."
What development have you seen from yourself?
"I think I'm more comfortable taking a leadership position. Last year I kind of was still watching and not being as vocal. This year that's one big focal point to be vocal.
"Also, on the basketball court we lost Alanna and Shannon. They were some big-time posts for us. So realizing that now that they're gone I have to pick up the slack more and do things I didn't have to do last year, like score more. Take more of the load on than I did. I think I'm ready for that this year compared to last year. I'm making sure I'm ready for that."
What stands out to you when you watch Ashten and Fran play?
"Once again, the freshmen are phenomenal. We throw a lot at them. I think now that I'm a junior I forget how much you have to learn.
"Fran and Ashten are going to be wonderful post players for different reasons. They're not the same but they complement each other very well. I think once they develop more their freshman year they're going to be able to help us later on in the season."