The only thing harder than defending Kayla Pedersen may be defining her. The 6'4" 190-pound forward from Mesa (Ariz.) Red Mountain High School literally plays every position on the floor. The has the size, skills and physical strength to play with the best in the land in the paint, but she also possesses the skills and athleticism to handle and shoot the ball on the perimeter.
"I play mainly every position," Pedersen says. "I even break the press when we need to. We have a lot of guards on our team, so I take the role of the big person."
A big figure in Arizona basketball the last three years, Pedersen has taken the Grand Canyon State by storm. She started at Red Mountain as a freshman while still attending ninth grade classes in junior high, averaged a double-double and earned First Team All-Region and Second Team All-State (Class 5A) honors. As a sophomore she came into her own, leading her team to the quarterfinals of the 5A State Tournament while averaging 22 points and 12 boards per game - in addition to be named First Team All-State in Class 5A and the elite five-woman All-Arizona team across all classes.
She repeated those top honors this past winter as a junior, plus Arizona Republic and Gatorade Arizona Player of the Year, while also adding Parade Third Team, EA Sports Second Team and MaxPreps Third Team All-America recognition. In her 2005-06 season, Pederson scored 47 points in one game and took the Mountain Lions (27-5) to their first ever state finals, where they ended their season losing to St. Mary's for the second straight year.
"We just made too many turnovers," she laments of the 69-57 loss. "We panicked and were nervous in the big arena. I had to step up my game and take it to them."
All Pedersen did in the Class 5A state championship game was score 24 points and grab 14 rebounds at Glendale Arena.
Though the premier post with guard skills is best appreciated in person, beyond what any box score can describe, perhaps the most telling statistic for Pedersen from her junior season of high school basketball was her 54% field goal shooting. Not necessarily an awe-striking percentage for a 6'4" post, that clip is impressive once you consider the offensive range from which Pedersen shoots the basketball. Red Mountain plays a four-out offense that routinely positions Pedersen on the perimeter. While she can dominate opponents near the basket, she creates mismatches on the perimeter as well, where she can shoot or take big defenders off the dribble. All by herself, Pedersen has the inside-outside scoring one-two punch that most high school rosters can never attain.
"I improved my ballhandling a ton this year," she describes. "I owe a lot of that to bringing the ball up against the press for our team. That was great for my development."
Pedersen lists her leadership skills and her perimeter play as her two great strengths that most lifted the Mountain Lions to new heights this past winter. A work still very much in progress, however, this queen of cactus country is improving every day. Since the end of her high school junior season, Pedersen has been tireless on the court and in the weight room. She has added skill, explosiveness and 10 pounds of muscle. In a given week, Pedersen works with a physical trainer twice for two-hour sessions of strength and conditioning, twice with her AAU coach on the court, and three times practicing with her AAU team.
"I can constantly work to improve," Pedersen proclaims. "When I train, I'm very intense."
"I drive to the hole and can take my defender off the dribble. I also have a nice little hook shot," she describes. "I'm working on perfecting my shot, my ballhandling and my range. I just want to work on everything, but I need to work on my pull-up jumper. I want to be able to play both [forward] positions."
"I can be a mismatch against whoever defends me," Pedersen continues. "I can post up if they're smaller than me. Against a bigger player, I can shoot or take them off the dribble."
That mismatch is becoming more accentuated as Pedersen has made great strides in her perimeter jumper this off-season.
"I can shoot it now," she proudly reports. "It's a lot more improved. My shot is getting consistent, now a little beyond the three. It's less mechanical, whether I'm shooting a pull-up or off the dribble."
While her size may label her as a "big post" on the court, Pedersen's skills excel when she faces the basket. A self-described 'three'/'four' when projecting her role on the floor in college, she will flourish when she has the chance to play alongside true centers. You can see a taste of that when Pedersen plays for her AAU team, the Arizona Elite. Teaming with fellow 2007 Arizona standout Kari LaPlante, a 6'5" center from Glendale (Ariz.) Mountain Ridge, Pedersen brings the ball up the floor for her squad. This is not an ordinary athlete.
Thus it came as no surprise when Pedersen on Monday was selected by USA Basketball to the U18 National Team to compete starting in eight days in the 2006 FIBA Americas U18 Championship For Women. Pedersen is listed on the 12-woman roster as a "guard/forward," echoing her versatile abilities. Prior to the trials, which brought 32 of the nation's top high school players born on or after June 1, 1988 to Colorado Springs, Pedersen expressed her eager anticipation of the opportunity to The Bootleg.
"I'm really excited," she allowed. "I think it's going to be great to play against that competition. My number one goal is to make the team. I also don't think that a lot of people have seen me, and I can prove something."
Upon her selection to the U18 National Team on Monday, Pedersen was giddy once again.
"I'm really excited about this," she reported. "The anticipation is over finally. I just feel really excited - really blessed right now to represent the USA."
If there is one small unsavory side effect to making the National Team, with competition in the U18 Championship running through July 2, it is the overlap with the Nike Skills Academy which Pedersen planned to attend. She still hopes to fly from Colorado Springs immediately following the international tournament to take part in the instructional opportunity in Beaverton (Ore.).
Where else can you find the Stanford commit and Scout.com #4 player in the 2007 class? Pedersen has no need to leave the Beaver State with the famed End of Oregon Trail Tournament in Oregon City (Ore.) July 6-9. July 13-15 will bring the West Coast standout across the country to Suwanee (Ga.) for the adidas Tournament of Champions. She can enjoy a few days at home July 24-26 for the Arizona Elite Summer Classic played in Wells Fargo Arena in Tempe. Finally, Pedersen will play with her high school team in Denver (Colo.) at the Converse Elite Prep Classic July 29-31.
Busy enough? The load on the fab forward's shoulders would have been twice as heavy this summer had she still a college decision to make. Recruiting wrapped up, however, at the end of May with her commitment to the Cardinal. In our next story, we will take you through Pedersen's path that navigated a national offer list before finishing on The Farm...
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