Juniors Making Massive Jumps
Players take on larger roles and increase production during their third year
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Some players start their college careers off strong, making significant contributions right away their freshman year. For others, it takes a little longer to develop or play a significant role. It may be because they’re playing behind more talented players, so it’s harder for them to shine. Or it could be as they gain more experience, they enhance their versatility, increase their confidence, or improve their decision-making. Below we highlight a few juniors who’ve stayed with the same program and have seen a notable uptick in their stat lines this season—even after accounting for increased time on the floor—and look into some of the key factors contributing to the growth in their games.
Snudda Collins, Ole Miss
With nine new players and the loss of the No. 3 WNBA draft pick, Shakira Austin, there was definitely an opportunity for returning Rebels to increase their contributions. Snudda Collins has done just that. The 6-foot-1 forward has been a key piece in the team’s 14-2 record. Even though her minutes have only increased from 22.4 to 27.1 per game, she’s nearly doubled her average in points from 5.9 to 11.3. This jump is not only from Collins increasing her field goal attempts (6.4 to 9.8 per game), but also improving her offensive efficiency (0.87 points per scoring attempt to 1.02 this season). During a recent win against Auburn, Collins scored 15 points, pulled down five rebounds, and had one block and one steal.
Over the summer, Collins spent time working on her ball handling, getting to the basket using different moves and contact, and her shot. She’s also been more diligent about her nutrition and her mental health.
“After improving my nutrition, everything else started to improve as well,” Collins said. “I also focused on making sure that I was healthy mentally and letting go of a lot of the things that were stopping my growth. Since then, I’ve been able to produce on the floor and focus on making sure I’m bringing what my coach and teammates need more of night in and night out.”
Aaliyah Edwards, UConn
After losing three players to the WNBA following last season’s run to the national championship game and having multiple players sidelined with injuries this season, the Huskies needed their experienced players to step up. Aaliyah Edwards has done a phenomenal job answering that call. The 6-foot-3 forward has improved in almost every aspect of her game, more than doubling her average in points (7.9 to 16.5) and increasing her field-goal percentage (52.1% to 63.4%), rebounds (5.1 to 9.5), assists (1.4 to 2.8), and blocks (0.5 to 1.1) per game, all of which have been crucial to UConn’s 13-2 record. Edwards has already racked up seven 20-point games, including a 23-point and 20-rebound game against Creighton that made her the first UConn player to post a 20-point, 20-rebound performance since Maya Moore in 2010.
During an interview earlier in the season, Edwards described some of the work she put in over the summer that has contributed to her success.
“Just learning about different ways to finish around the rim.” Edwards said. “It comes with watching film as well. Just knowing which ways I can score and being a versatile player is what I keyed in on this summer.”
But her improved play is also due to the work ethic and mindset she brings to practice every day.
“One of my goals going into the season was consistency with the double-doubles and getting after those,” Edwards said. “It starts with practice. My intensity and how I approach being a competitor in practice, and that will just translate into the games.”
Yvonne Ejim, Gonzaga
Gonzaga is another team that lost multiple players to graduation and has been riddled with injury and illness this season. But Ejim’s contributions have been on a steady climb since her freshman year, and now that she’s a starter, the 6-foot-1 forward has been a reassuring presence for the Bulldogs. Ejim has increased her points (10.1 to 16.5), field-goal percentage (51.6% to 55.2%), and rebounds (5.6 to 8.1) per game, helping her team to a 15-2 record and a No. 1 ranking in the Womens Mid Major Top 25. In a recent game against Loyola Marymount, she scored 24 points, grabbed eight rebounds, and had three blocks, two assists, and one steal. Ejim has attributed a lot of her improvement to the work she put in during the off-season.
“One of my main focuses was on my shot and being able to develop it to be more consistent, use it in my game, and expand myself as a threat outside of the paint,” Ejim said. “I also obviously worked on my inside game as well and being able to maintain and increase the dominance that this part of my game brings to the court and to my team.”
Ejim also believes focusing on her mental health has been an important factor in her success.
“At this level it is so critical to how many players perform,” Ejim said. “Making sure that I am taking care of my mental health and adapting habits and practices into my daily life to help manage my mental health has been important for me throughout my college life. Whether that includes meditation, journaling, talking to someone, or taking the night off from work, I continue to try and develop a healthy relationship with my mental game to help optimize everything else about my life.”
Darrione Rogers, DePaul
Without their three double-digit scoring guards from last season’s team, the Blue Devils not only needed Rogers to increase her production, but they also needed her to take on more of a leadership role. So far, the 5-foot-11 guard has more than stepped up to the challenge, nearly doubling both her average points per game and her assists per game, from 9.9 to 18.9 and 2.7 to 5.6 per game,respectively. Rogers also recently recorded the sixth triple-double in DePaul women's basketball history in the Blue Devils’ 81-56 win against Howard and earned Big East Player of the Week for her efforts.
Over the summer, Rogers worked out multiple times a day to improve her conditioning and enhance her defensive play. She also spent a lot of time practicing her mid-range game.
“I knew coming into the season teams were going to focus on me as a shooter, and I was going to need to find other ways to score,” Rogers said.
But the biggest adjustment Rogers made was more of a mental one.
“This year, my mindset is completely different because I have a completely different role,” Rogers explained. “The last couple of years I was labeled more as the role player compared to this year. I have to be a leader and be more aggressive in order to put my team in the best position possible to win games. So my mindset this year is to be on attack mode, not only for myself, but to open up things for my teammates, and just go out there and do the things I need to do in between touches on both sides of the ball.”
Hailey Van Lith, Louisville
The Cardinals graduated three starters from last year’s roster and added eight new players, so having the returning players step up was critical, and Van Lith has done a tremendous job. The 5-foot-7 guard leads the team in points, averaging 20.5 per game (up from 14.4 last season), and she’s increased her field-goal percentage (43.2% to 44.6%), rebounds (3.6 to 5.4), and assists (2.2 to 3.4) per game. In a recent game against Georgia Tech, Van Lith played 38 minutes, scored 24 points, and pulled down four rebounds.
For Van Lith, developing a more veteran mentality, which includes being more patient yet persistent, has been an important piece to her success, especially when the Cardinals face adversity. During a press conference earlier in the season, Van Lith exuded this kind of maturity when asked how she was approaching a tough stretch of losses.
“It’s not the end of the world,” Van Lith said. “This is game 10 in a very long season. Our main focus in practices has been an environment of positivity and keeping people’s hopes up.”
In addition to becoming more patient, Van Lith has also developed a greater appreciation for simply being able to play the game, which she expressed when asked about her recent milestone of reaching 1,000 points.
“I just felt gratitude for being here.” Van Lith said. “People get hurt every day. People get their opportunities taken away from them. And I get to be here, and I get to play. Every day. I get to play my hardest. I get to play with these girls. I get to play in front of these fans. It was a great moment for me to just be very grateful.”
Overall, putting in a lot of work during the off-season and prioritizing their mindset and mental health has helped these juniors step up their game, and that’s a credit both to them and their coaching and training staffs.