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FIRST DESTINY LITTLETON DONNED A MASK, AND THEN SHE TOOK OFF

In espnW on January 21, 2016 at 8:36 am
Destiny1

Courtesy of USA basketball

Destiny Littleton couldn’t breathe. Wearing an elevation mask that restricted her oxygen intake, the 5-foot-9 shooting guard sprinted up and down a steep hill behind The Bishop’s School on Prospect Street near the beach in La Jolla, California.

Up. Down. Up. Down. Littleton put one foot in front of the other and continued to accelerate, even though she would have given anything to rip off the mask. Cars whizzed by. The sea breeze was hardly consolation in the 85-degree heat.

“That mask right there?” Littleton said, shaking her head, pointing to the black and gray elevation mask with a white skull design. “That is probably my enemy.”

Bishop’s coach Marlon Wells — Littleton’s mentor — came up with the idea last April to prepare Littleton for the altitude at the USA Basketball U16 national team trials in Colorado Springs that summer.

The first few days, Littleton could hardly keep on the mask for 10 minutes before gasping for air. But she kept coming back, three to four times a week, around two in the afternoon. Her lungs worked harder. Her mental toughness increased. And once she learned to endure, she increased the altitude on her mask to challenge herself more.

“She took it to another level,” Wells said. “She just started going harder and pushing herself.”

Littleton, who helped U.S. team to a bronze medal at the FIBA Americas U16 Championship in Puebla, Mexico, now shoots thousands of jumpers wearing the mask, preparing to outlast the double and triple teams, and box-and-one defenses that hound her.

Defenses haven’t been able to keep up, and the junior is averaging 36.2 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.4 steals a night for Bishop’s (17-4). She’s the 13th-ranked prospect in the class of 2017 by HoopGurlz.

“I want to become one of the greats,” Littleton said. “I try to be the best. I think that’s what pushes me the most.”

***

Marlon Wells remembers the first time he spotted Littleton. The Bishop’s coach had heard about a seventh-grade girl who was schooling the boys at the local rec center. She could shoot, she could dribble, she could rebound.

She could also have a temper.

“Terrible,” Wells said, laughing. Littleton was fighting for position in the post when a boy fouled her. She pushed him back and received a technical foul. She’d slam the ball and argue with referees so often they came to call her “Miss Attitude.”

“She was just tough,” Wells said. “Anything would set her off.” (READ MORE).

A CAREER BACKUP FOUND HIS PURPOSE WITH THE LEAGUE-BEST WARRIORS

In SB Nation on April 15, 2015 at 11:24 am
Photo courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Photo courtesy of Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Marreese “Mo” Speights wasn’t a star. He wasn’t a starter. He wasn’t mentioned for more than a couple sentences in opponents’ scouting reports, either. For the first month and a half of his freshman season at Florida, Speights served as a punching bag for a bunch of upperclassmen bangers named Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Chris Richard.

The two eventual NBA lottery picks and second-round selection dunked on Speights daily, posting him up and out-hustling him during practice. But Speights didn’t sulk. He sought the trio out for advice and challenged them during drills. “Mo didn’t care who he guarded,” Richard said. “He took on everybody.”

Embracing his backup role for the national-champion Gators, Speights seized the moment no matter how fleeting. He ripped down six boards in five minutes against Arkansas in the title game of the SEC Tournament and poured in 16 points in 10 minutes against Jackson State in the NCAA first round.

“He was always ready,” said Rockets guard Corey Brewer, a former Florida teammate. “He came off the bench and he gave us a spark. He worked his butt off, that was the main thing. He got better and better each day.”

After Horford, Noah and Richard departed for the NBA, Speights was thrust into the spotlight for the Gators the following season. His coaches relished his offensive gifts—the way his soft touch and size could stretch a defense—but they wanted more defensive intensity and competitive drive. Coach Billy Donovan demanded more out of Speights toward the end of the season.

“I think (Donovan) just felt this guy really needs to be pushed to his limit and beyond, more than he even thinks he can give,” said former Florida assistant Larry Shyatt, who is now the head coach at Wyoming. “You’d leave practice and Mo would be laying on the floor exhausted.”

“Mo’s attitude was phenomenal,” Shyatt added. “He kept fighting through it.”

Echoes Donnie Jones, another former assistant, who is the head coach at the University of Central Florida, “He knew everything was about learning. I think that’s the theme of why he’s been able to grow as a player. He’s always about, ‘How can I get better?'” (READ MORE.)

GORDON HAYWARD IS BECOMING A FRANCHISE PLAYER

In SB Nation on January 15, 2015 at 11:42 am
Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Gordon Hayward’s body ached.

There was the smack of Carmelo Anthony’s shoulder on the block, pump-faking him into the air for the and-one. There was the sting of getting popped in the eye by Pablo Prigioni on a drive. There were the elbows that swung at his gut when he darted into the key.

Though an undeterred Hayward responded with a season-high 33 points against the Knicks, these are the nightly hits that come with being Utah’s go-to player. These are also the non-calls that come with being a budding No. 1 option that has yet to garner the respect.

“I’m kind of more of an offensive focus for other teams,” Hayward said prior to Utah’s Dec. 29 game against the Clippers. “It’s been a process learning how to handle that.”

Heavier than the physical contact in the lane, though, is the burden of leading the rebuilding Jazz up the ladder in the stacked West. Hayward is blossoming with career-high averages, but is the fifth-year swingman finally ready to seize the franchise’s reins?

***

Standing 5’11 and 155 pounds of skin and bones, Hayward wasn’t his team’s first option as a freshman at Indiana’s Brownsburg High School. He wasn’t the second, third or fourth option, either.

Instead he zealously played StarCraft video games. He sat with his parents and twin sister rather than his teammates at varsity football games. He smoked his teammates at ping pong, foosball and pool.

But on the court? No one expected much.

“I didn’t even notice him until he started raining threes on us,” said Grantland’s Mark Titus, a former high-school teammate. “Just a tiny, tiny dude who could shoot.”

He was more fit for tennis than hoops. With his slight frame and superb agility, Hayward spent hours training with a private tennis coach in hopes of succeeding long-term in that sport. But a sudden growth spurt altered his plans, skyrocketing him to 6’8 and 185 pounds by his senior year. The combination of Hayward’s ball-handling, outside shooting and athleticism allowed him to dominate along the perimeter and in the post, leading Brownsburg to the state title.

He also morphed into one of the top tennis players in Indiana, reaching the state singles quarterfinals. But as college basketball coaches began to watch him play, it became clear Hayward’s future lied on the hardwood.

“If he played tennis year round, he had a strong chance of probably playing professional tennis,” former Brownsburg tennis coach Eric Esterline said.

Still, Hayward wasn’t a five-star basketball recruit and garnered three scholarship offers before deciding on Butler. Not one to seek attention, he made the right plays at the right times, quietly coming into his own as a lead-by-example kind of player for Brad Stevens’ club.

“Whether it was him getting a big-time block, a steal against Murray State, he wasn’t somebody who needed to say a whole lot,” former Butler teammate Willie Veasley said. “Just somebody who went on the court and did what coach asked for when we needed it.”

He wasn’t the one anyone imagined would lead a Cinderella Butler team all the way to the title game against Duke in 2010. But there Hayward found himself, an unlikely star thrust into the ring with the highest of stakes. A few years before, he almost traded in his high-tops for a racquet. On that night, his half-court hurl at the buzzer almost broke the Blue Devils and almost made him an instant legend. (READ MORE.)

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