Next generation full of talent, promise

By Mechelle Voepel
Updated: September 5, 2009

Skylar Diggins

Skylar Diggins

KANSAS — Kelsey Bone knows who Dena Evans and the Burge twins are. Skylar Diggins can name everyone who played for Notre Dame’s 2001 NCAA championship team.

“And not just because I go here now and it was a requirement,” Fighting Irish freshman Diggins said, chuckling. “I watched them growing up. It was inspiring. I wanted to be at that level.”

Elizabeth Williams wants to be a doctor like her father … albeit one who plays basketball with the polish of Tim Duncan. Ariel Massengale comes from Candace Parker’s part of suburban Chicago. But because Massengale is a point guard, it’s Renee Montgomery she most wants to emulate.

Bone, Diggins, Williams and Massengale … to borrow from the old WNBA inaugural-season catchphrase: “They’ve got next.”

Will we see them in the pro league one day? We might. Will they be wearing Team USA jerseys at some future Olympics? They may be.

For now, though, they are coming off a summer in which they had great experiences and won gold medals. They are in the USA Basketball pipeline, having already worn the red, white and blue.

Bone and Diggins were part of the United States team that in early August took the FIBA U19 World Championship gold in Thailand. They now are adjusting to their first year in college. Williams and Massengale are high school juniors with the big decision about college still looming. Also in August, they were part of the team that won the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Mexico City.

We take this opportunity to tell you more about these four, using their stories to represent the upcoming generation of women’s basketball players: the ones born — take a deep breath, “older” folks — in the 1990s.

They really don’t know about a world before the WNBA (it started when the oldest of them, Diggins, was just 6) or cell phones or the Internet or iPods or digital cameras.

With a legend such as Lisa Leslie — who at 37 grew up without any of those things — preparing to step away from playing basketball, the game is recognizably in a transition stage.

Leslie symbolizes that evolution as well as anyone — a player who finished her college career in 1994 with no place in the United States to compete professionally but now has four Olympic gold medals and two WNBA titles (with hopes for one more).

Bone, Diggins, Williams and Massengale are among the kids who have long been watching players like Leslie. They and their peers are soon to take the baton. How well will they run the race?

Only time will tell. But so far, so good. In fact … so far, very good.

One stays near, one goes away

Bone had every opportunity to stay in Texas but decided to leave.

Diggins had every chance to leave Indiana but decided to stay. You’ll see them as college freshmen this season, both among the most coveted signees from the high school senior Class of 2009.

Bone is a 6-foot-5 center from the Houston area, and the college coaches in the Lone Star State very much wanted to close the border.

Bone knew a lot of folks — including her own family — were expecting her to choose a Texas school. But South Carolina landed her, thanks mostly to Bone’s admiration for Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley.

“I’ve seen a lot of clips of Coach Staley when she was at Virginia,” Bone said, referencing Staley in the days she played with Cavaliers teammates such as Evans and twins Heather and Heidi Burge.

“And she finished her WNBA career in Houston, so I saw her when she was with the Comets, too.”

Bone felt such a connection to Staley and her staff, which includes two other former Olympians in Carla McGhee and Nikki McCray, that it convinced her the move would be best.

“My family understood,” Bone said. “Once I explained what I think I could learn at South Carolina and what I wanted to help build there.”

Bone made the move from one of the biggest cities in the country to much smaller Columbia, S.C. At first, she was startled that everywhere she went, people seemed to know who she was. Then she realized they had seen her picture with the news of the “star recruit” Staley had landed.

“It’s so personal being here,” Bone said. “People come up and say, ‘We’re rooting for you guys this year.’ There’s a really positive vibe flowing around this community about our program.”

Diggins, on the other hand, does not wonder why she gets recognized all over South Bend, Ind. — she was born and grew up there. When she was 10 years old, she saw Ruth Riley, Niele Ivey and the rest of the Fighting Irish win the ’01 NCAA title.

“Watching when they had a big parade when they came home — you dream of being in that position someday,” said Diggins, a 5-9 guard. “I put those girls on a pedestal. And Niele Ivey is my [assistant] coach today, so I still look up to her.

“It was big deal to me when they would sign autographs for me and how polite they were to me. Not saying I’m big at all now, because I haven’t done anything yet. But when kids come up to me now, I remember when I was that little girl who wanted an autograph.”

But as much as her heart had so long been tied to Notre Dame, another distinguished academic institution also tugged at her in recruiting.

Diggins has an interest in orthopedic medicine. And a favorite player she tries to model her game after is Candice Wiggins. Both of those facts helped Stanford draw her, too.

Ultimately, though, Diggins’ strongest bond of all was to her mom, Renee, who loves coming to all her games. That and the relationship she’d formed with Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw kept Diggins at home.

Both Bone and Diggins traveled far, of course, with the under-19 team.

In Bangkok, they marveled at Buddhist statues and the differences in culture. They felt the responsibility of representing the United States.

“You learn a lot of things outside of basketball,” Diggins said of the USA Basketball experience. “You think about the thousands of girls who play the game now who would jump at this opportunity.

“You think of athletes before you who paved the way. And you realize that for some people we met in Thailand, maybe this will be their only perception of Americans. So we definitely tried to conduct ourselves in a way where they would have a sense that Americans are good people.”

The U19 team was made up of sophomores who have a year of college under their belts and incoming freshmen. Both Bone, who averaged 12.3 points and 4.7 rebounds in the nine-game tournament, and Diggins (11.6, 3.0) spent time getting advice from the older players.

Bone spoke a lot with other post players, such as North Carolina’s Chay Shegog and LSU’s LaSondra Barrett. Diggins chatted with Stanford forward Nnemkadi Ogwumike, whom she’d met during the recruiting process, and Ohio State guard Samantha Prahalis.

“Practices are so intense, because you have all these players who’ve already been in college,” Bone said. “So we got to learn a lot of things from those players and the coaches, who were college coaches. To be together and bond on and off the court is a really good experience to have.”

They’ve only just begun

The U16 team didn’t travel as far as the U19 team to play this summer.

But in the case of Elizabeth Williams, she already has come a long way.

Her parents were born in Nigeria, then moved to England, where Elizabeth was born in 1993.

A few years later, her family came across the Atlantic Ocean and settled in Connecticut. Then came a move to Crozet, Va., near Charlottesville. Now, Elizabeth — who has her U.S. citizenship — lives in Virginia Beach and is a junior at Princess Anne High School.

Her father, Dr. Alex Williams, is a specialist in gastroenterology who works in the greater Norfolk area.

Although she lives in Virginia, Elizabeth is a San Antonio Spurs fan because she loves to watch Duncan play. A 6-3 post, Williams also admires UConn’s Tina Charles and the Washington Mystics’ Crystal Langhorne, who played college ball at Maryland.

Williams doesn’t come from a basketball background; her father played soccer and her mother volleyball. Massengale, meanwhile, has hoops in her genetics — her parents and grandparents played basketball.

“It runs in the family,” she said.

Massengale was born in the Downers Grove, Ill., and now is a junior at Bolingbrook High, also located in the western Chicago suburbs. Former Tennessee and current Los Angeles Sparks star Parker went to Naperville Central in that area.

Massengale obviously admires Parker. But as a 5-6 point guard, she closely watched the way Montgomery led UConn to an undefeated record this past season.

“I just think she plays hard all the time, she really gets after it,” Massengale said of the former Huskies player, who’s now with the Minnesota Lynx. “Despite all the attention and hype, I like the way she stayed modest and cool.”

Massengale was one of the captains on the U16 squad, and she averaged a team-high 22.2 minutes in the Americas tournament. She also led the team in assists with 24 and averaged 12.0 points. Like Massengale, Williams started all five games. She averaged 13.4 ppg and 5.2 rpg and was named the tournament’s MVP.

The United States dominated its competition — the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Argentina, Brazil and Canada — so completely that there really was no doubt about the gold medal. The United States outscored its foes 108.6 to 38.6.

But Williams and Massengale said that despite the gargantuan margins of victory, the U.S. players vowed not to lose their concentration or urgency in games. USA head coach Barbara Nelson of Wingate University saw to that.

“Coach was always emphasizing defense and rotations,” Williams said.

“She would tell us to work on our weaknesses on defense. And free throws, stuff that can win tight games in the future.

“And staying focused, even when we had a big lead. A quote that our coach gave us helped: ‘We’re chasing the dream, not the competition.’ So we really wanted to focus on doing what we did best, not on the score.”

Williams and Massengale, along with the rest of their U16 teammates, now must face the excitement and pressure of dealing with recruiting.

Williams sounds certain that medical school will be in her future, so her undergrad college choice is likely to be influenced by that. She also thinks she will prefer to stay on the East Coast.

Massengale says she is “open to going anywhere.” Both still have plenty of time to figure it out. To that end, Bone has some wise words.

“At first, I was infatuated with everyone,” Bone said. “It’s a lovely thing at the beginning. You have all these coaches from teams you’ve watched growing up, and they’re calling you. I was in hog heaven; you get all this attention. But then you realize enough is enough; the love affair wears off.

“And then you know it’s time to decide. It was really hard to tell people ‘No.’ I had to suck it up and say ‘Thank you, but I’ve decided.'”

Part of Team USA

The woman who won the recruiting battle for Bone can speak eloquently about what USA Basketball means. Staley played on the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Olympic teams and was an assistant coach for the 2008 team at the Beijing Games. She also has coached other levels besides the senior team in international competition.

“We had people in front of us who led the way, and we knew about them,” Staley said of her USA Basketball experience. “We didn’t want to let them down or let our country down. I think it’s important that these young players understand that. Not necessarily that they have to know all the names, but know the legacy that those players left.”

Bone, Diggins, Williams and Massengale know there are still many steps for them to take if they are ever to be on the senior national team.

“Most Olympians I know were cut at some point before they made it,” said Staley, who had that experience before the 1992 Olympics when she was fresh out of college. “That’s part of the preparation, too. It doesn’t feel good, but it’s important. To experience the disappointment really fuels us.”

Still, this summer’s young gold medalists for the U19 and U16 teams already have a taste of what it might feel like to play at the highest level.

“When you get that jersey for the first time, you take pictures,” said Diggins, who had played twice previously for USA Basketball. “You just look at it like, ‘Wow, I can’t believe my name is on the back of this jersey, and ‘USA’ is on the front.’

“I think that’s when the reality kicks in and everybody has that sense of patriotism. You’re proud to be representing your country.”