CHANDLER, Ariz. - Anytime you have a tournament field with the depth of talent that the Nike Tournament of Champions provides each year you’re going to find some special athletes who come up short of the event’s championship games. The parade of college recruiters through all of the venues throughout the past three days is evidence that no matter what division or which side of the bracket you follow you’re going to see some athletes with bright futures the rest of the season and beyond. Two of the players on hand who caught the attention of everyone in the gym were Mater Dei’s (Calif.) Nirra Fields and Cicero-North Syracuse’s (N.Y.) Breanna Stewart.
Neither senior is unknown to college coaches, evaluators, media entities and certainly not to their opponents. However, for those who hadn’t yet seen the 5-9 Fields create with the ball in her hands or the 6-4 Stewart change games at both ends of the floor with her high altitude play, the TOC has provided an early Christmas gift for the appreciative fan.
Fields is in her first season as a part of Kevin Kiernan’s renowned program after moving in with her guardian’s, Los Angeles Lakers Coach Mike Brown and his wife. While the dynamic combo guard might not be ready to suit up alongside Kobe, she will be trading her Monarch uniform for UCLA blue next season as she joins first year Bruin head coach Cori Close’s initial recruiting class to Westwood. With the ball in her hands, Fields can be a one man offensive juggernaut. The ability is there to score the ball both from the perimeter and off penetration into the paint. Her instinctual navigation of traffic leads to both mid range pull ups as well as some creative looks closer to the rim. An eye catching trait that reveals itself as she attacks is the capacity to change her shot in the air. The combination of impressive body control and some serious elevation often negates even the best defensive rotations. Opponents who give her too big of a cushion find out the hard way that she has the stroke and touch to connect from the 15 foot range all the way out beyond the arch. There are occasions that shot selection seems to be a bit of a challenge but at the same time she’s delivered plenty of sharp interior passes that have led to easy looks for teammates. Fields has extensive experience beyond scholastic play suiting up for her native Canada the past three summers in international competition.
Easily one of the biggest upsets in the Joe Smith bracket this year would be Cicero-North Syracuse’s first round win over highly regarded and defending three-time Illinois State Champs Bolingbrook. Of course their 20 point win in round two over Dr. Phillips (Fla.) might have offered up some evidence that their initial victory wasn’t quite the spoiler everyone thought that initially it was.
Leading the way for the Northstars has been the versatile and multi-talented Stewart. Ranked number one in the 2012 class by Blue Star Basketball, the nation’s longest running and most respected evaluation service in women’s basketball, the 6-4 forward provided plenty of evidence that any thoughts to the contrary may well be grounds for some quality time with a therapist. Her size alone is an imposing presence on the floor but it’s the added combination of an off the charts vertical and a wingspan Boeing would be proud of that puts her in a position to make an impact at both ends of the court. While she can be dominant down low and work effectively at rim level, there are plenty of tools that make her equally a threat in the high post and on the perimeter in a four out or open post set. Her jumper is enough of a weapon to force defenders to close out tight and the ballhandling is there to get her to the rim when they overplay or come out of their stance. Point guard is most likely not on Geno Auriemma’s agenda for the UConn signee but she offered up a few glimpses of her backcourt efforts versus some challenging pressure situations with mixed results. Stewart’s impact defensively may only be rivaled by Britteny Griner’s presence in the college game. Altering both opponent’s shots and shot selection pays dividends time and again while the potential to actually rack up double figure blocks is very much a reality. Like her west coast and Canadian counterpart Fields, Stewart has suited up internationally representing USA Basketball as a member of four different teams.
Mark Lewis is a national evaluator and photographer for Blue Star Basketball as well as the lead columnist for Blue Star Media. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 Division I assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association (WBCA), he logged 25 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and Washington State. Lewis also serves as a member of the prestigious McDonald’s All-American selection committee. He resides with his wife Carol near Houston, Texas.