After failing to make the U16 squad at last year's trials, motivation wasn't going to be a problem when UConn recruiting target Haley Jones returned to the U.S. Olympic Training Center for the U17 trials. However, the moment she caught a glimpse of her basketball idol who happens to be on the selection committee, there was even more reason for Jones to put on a show.
"My favorite player since I was little was Tamika Catchings so it is pretty cool that she is in the same gym as me," Jones said. "I like how she always worked so hard and is always the best teammate out there and I like players who work hard and are good teammates and the ones who have the balance of making the extra pass but also knowing how not to overpass, take their shot when it is their time.
"She is my idol, I don't even know her but at the same time I want to do so well."
Jones stands 6-1, the same height as Catchings. She also has the versatility that marked Catchings' time at Tennessee, with the WNBA's Indiana Fever and as a member of the U.S. national team. As a junior at national powerhouse Archbishop Mitty in San Jose, Calif. Jones led her team in scoring (21.9), rebounding (10.0) and blocked shots (2.5) while ranking second in assists (4.1) and steals (2.0). She had 19 double-doubles in 30 games including a triple-double against Saint Francis on Feb. 14. Her remarkable junior season saw her team ranked first in the national high school polls for stretches but it ended with a disappointing state tournament loss to Pinewood. Jones fouled out in regulation as her team lost in triple overtime. Still, it was a season she will never forget.
"We had such a great bond this year and team chemistry really helped us," Jones said. "It is just the heart that we play with and we do so much conditioning so that has a huge impact on our game. Coach (Sue) Phillips is an amazing coach so we wouldn't be where we are without her."
Phillips is no stranger to how things work at U.S. junior national team trials. Phillips was the head coach of the gold-medal winning U.S. team at the 2014 FIBA U17 World Championships. The leading scorer on that squad was UConn All-American Katie Lou Samuelson. Phillips, who also coached the U16 team featuring Samuelson and Crystal Dangerfield in 2013, gave her star player some words of advice before Jones left for Colorado.
"She coached the U16 team with Katie Lou, Sabrina (Ionescu) and all of those guys so she has definitely given me pointers on what to work on," Jones said. "I know Sabrina through the Cal Stars (AAU program) so she is giving me tips on what to look for and she said what was important was all the little intangible things, hustle play as well, doing everything to stand out."
Intangibles figure to play a role in Jones' college decision.
She has taken home visits to Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Texas, South Carolina, Louisville, UConn, Notre Dame and Cal. She will be cutting the list down sooner rather than later before taking campus visits in September and October.
Although she was given the nickname "Baby UConn" by her club teammates, she didn't want to speak in specifics about the 11-time national champions or any of the programs she is considering.
"I try not to single out any programs like that. I guess, I've tried to deal with every program the same so I am looking for the same things," Jones said. "I have developed a relationship with the UConn coaches as well as a lot of different coaching staffs."
I've made more than a few trips to Colorado for junior national team camps in the past but unfortunately I am not out there this time. However, based on the social media posts by those who on site who cover girls basketball recruiting, it certainly sounds like Jones is one of the top players out there. With the list of participants being cut from 156 to 102 to 70 and then to 45 less than an hour ago, Jones is alive and well in her quest to be on the team playing in the FIBA U17 World Cup in Belarus from July 21-29.
"I think personally I am doing pretty well out here," Jones said. "You always want every single shot to go in. What I've improved a lot is my ball handling and my shooting so I want them to see that as well as my capability to drive to the rim and get inside."
The 12-player team will be announced tomorrow.