As basketball evolves, ballhandling a point of emphasis for girls during development

Although St. Frances’ Angel Reese stands 6 feet 3½ as a sophomore, she didn’t tower over anyone as a sixth-grader playing Amateur Athletic Union basketball. That, she said, was a good thing.

Growing up as a guard has given her the skills to play any position on the court.

“I used to be one of the shortest people on my team, so playing for the Maryland Shooting Stars in fifth and sixth grade, I was a point guard,” Reese said. “When I was in about eighth grade, on my AAU team, they would try to put me down in the post, but I didn’t want to be in the post, because I had a lot of guard skills so I really wanted to be an all-around player.”

Like Reese, many other tall girls develop guard skills as youngsters, and even if they don’t spend most of their time in the backcourt, they can handle playing different positions. In the Baltimore area, there aren’t many prototypical power forwards and centers, so guards dominate high school rosters. Taller, agile girls often play the wing, and when they grab rebounds, they jump-start the offense.

McDonogh’s Kayla Liles, Western’s Jasmen Walton and Catonsville’s Jasmine Dickey are all around 6 feet and can play inside and out. Like Reese, all are All-Metro players who could play multiple positions in college.

“I was pretty short and, I would say, kind of chubby,” said Liles, now a 5-10 senior guard. “When I grew, I was skinny for my height, so it was harder for me to be a big. Because of that, I’ve been working on my guard skills. I really wanted to play every position that I was capable of and I know with my trainers, they saw weaknesses in my ball-handling ability, so when we started working on it, I knew that was something I wanted to be good at.”

She grew and became a better ball handler at around 15, Liles said, and that skill has helped her become a more versatile player and one who likely will play the wing in college at Elon.

McDonogh coach Brad Rees said ball-handling skills are emphasized more now in the developmental leagues.

“I think everybody, no matter what their size, they’re encouraged to develop ball-handling skills, so as the girls mature and they get bigger or they don’t grow, they still have these basic skills,” Rees said. “Kayla is almost 5-11, but growing up she was destined to be a guard, so that’s something she focused on. As she grew, she took these ball-handling skills with her and she’s one of the better guards in the area now.”

Local high school basketball has become much more guard-oriented in recent years, but the game has also changed from the WNBA down. Coaches at all levels like versatile players. Not everybody fits into a traditional role of point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward or center. Many players have the skills to play several positions.

“The game has evolved a lot in that respect,” Poly coach Kendall Peace-Able said. “When you look at your Diana Taurasis and Breanna Stewarts and those people, that kind of started changing the game. That created a shift where everybody wasn’t saying, ‘Just because you’re 6 feet doesn’t mean you’re a post.’ I think some of it comes with the expectation of increasing marketability, but I think in some cases, like with Angel, it just happened, because Angel wasn’t tall when she was younger.”

In addition to those WNBA players — Taurasi, a 6-foot guard, and Stewart, a 6-4 post who can handle the ball — changes have occurred in the NBA as well, and Howard coach Scott Robinson said that filters down to the girls, too.

“In the NBA, you have to have five players on the court that can handle the ball, and we try to do that,” Robinson said. “I really think the evolution of it goes back to when the European teams were beating the United States teams at the world games and so forth, and that style of play, the European style of play, has translated to the United States.

“The big girls, they’re not all guards, but you look at St. Frances — they can all handle the ball and that’s just the way basketball has evolved. I think the days of a post person not being able to handle the ball are becoming less and less,” he said.

Manchester Valley coach Heather DeWees said some of the change has to do with the 3-point line. Teams can get more points more quickly from the perimeter. Not too long ago, a 5-9 player, such as her daughter Mackenzie, a versatile Mavericks senior guard who likely will break the Carroll County scoring record this year, would have been a post player just because she was taller than most of her teammates.

“Everybody now faces the baskets and shoots the 3,” Heather DeWees said. “ If you watch the Division I level, everybody handles the ball, everybody can shoot outside. It’s not so much that everybody’s a guard, it’s just that everybody has the ability to play that position. I also think kids are being pushed into that position. We’re starting to see more and more taller kids being pushed into ball handling, pushed to shoot. It’s not a bad thing, but I do think the art of post play is going down.”

Reese, who tried out for the United States under-16 national team last spring, has a solid midrange jumper and is working on her 3-point shot, but she will have to play primarily in the post this winter after the Panthers graduated Player of the Year Mia Davis, a true post player. Even though she’s their tallest player and the No. 1 Panthers are loaded with guards, Reese said they will still take advantage of her versatility.

“We do have some plays that I do bring the ball down the court or I do start the plays,” she said, “but I still have to get in and box out because we really don’t have a height advantage this year and we don’t have Mia to get most of the rebounds. Coach [Jerome] Shelton told me this year if I get a rebound I can push the ball, and that’s an advantage.”

katherine.dunn@baltsun.com

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