Back on Her Feet

For fans of Stanford Women's Basketball, there has been a little something missing this summer. For the first time in several years, there has been no Candice Wiggins playing with USA Basketball. The Stanford superstar was instead off the court all spring and summer... until the last couple weeks. Why was Wiggins away from the game, and what lies ahead for her junior season at Stanford? Read on.

During these summer doldrums, dead to all practices and much news in women's college basketball, we chew on a few Cardinal questions for the coming year.  What will Stanford do at the point guard position?  Is this the breakout year for 6'5" senior Kristen Newlin?  How much and how soon will the freshmen make an impact?

One of the places on the Stanford roster where you don't immediately conjure questions is Candice Wiggins.  Halfway through her college career, the 5'11.5" guard is already rewriting the Cardinal record book - twice a Kodak All-American and the school's career points-per-game scoring leader.  She is already one of the all-time greats in one of the most elite programs in the nation, and she will be one of a few favorites for national Player of the Year honors this winter.  Already Wiggins has been named a preseason candidate for the Wade Trophy, part of the 25-player watch list with Cardinal teammate Brooke Smith.

But we can fairly ask this question of Candice Wiggins: How will she be better in 2006-07 than what we have already seen the past two seasons?

After a blockbuster breakout freshman campaign, we marveled at this bright new athletic sensation, with quickness on both ends of the floor and a bounty of playmaking ability.  It was a great surprise that Wiggins propelled her three-point shooting forward as a sophomore, adding a full 10% to her percentage.  She also raised her scoring average (+4.3 ppg) and consistency, played more minutes (+4.7 mpg), and started to turn around her turnover proclivity (1.35 A/TO from 0.96 A/TO).  At the end of the 2005-06 season, we could see where Wiggins improved, though prior to November we would have been hard-pressed to predict or even conceive of the advances.

Similarly, we stand too amazed at the wondrous Wiggins during this off-season to ably assess her areas of likely improvement as a junior.  Which skill is so obviously imperfect that this marvelous megastar should be expected to make a leap forward in the months ahead?

We do not aim to answer that question because instead we believe that there is a different dynamic that is changed for Wiggins heading into her junior year.  The transformation for her is not that of a particular honed skill, but rather her entire self.  You see, the explosive Stanford superstar has played with pain each of her two collegiate seasons.  Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the plantar fascia, the tough tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes and supports the arch of your foot.  Wiggins has endured plantar fasciitis in both of her feet both of her seasons at Stanford, due in large part to the non-stop year-round regimen of basketball she has played.

From the fall preseason to the season to spring workouts to summer international play with USA Basketball - there has been no rest for Wiggins for a long time.  The only true treatment for plantar fasciitis is rest, which is what Wiggins has given herself this off-season.  From April through August, she has not picked up a basketball or even run.  Though it may have driven her stir crazy, the four-plus months of respite worked.  Earlier this month, she found herself pain-free.

Only after that point, has she just in the past couple weeks started working out again on her feet.  On August 9, Wiggins began running some sprints for the first time since the early spring.  Then on August 15, she picked up a basketball for the first time in more than four months and played some pick-up games with Stanford teammates.

"It was a little rusty," Wiggins laughs.  "It was hard, but it's the same game I've been playing.  It's nice to be doing the same things but not having pain."

"It's great," she adds.  "I'm just so excited because the season is coming up.  This is going to be just such a great season.  I'm just happy to be back playing and playing pain-free."

Her jumper was errant, her timing was off and her handle was a little errant, but all in all it was a splendid showing for somebody out of basketball for a full third of a calendar year.  Though the rust was evident, that will have shaken loose in the three months before she has to tip off the first game of her junior season.  The stagnation of skill development is a reality for somebody who takes off almost the entire off-season, but the trade-off of playing without pain is a bargain.

Wiggins played in excess of 35 minutes in almost all competitive games last year.  In seven games she played all 40 minutes, including one 45-minute affair in the Pac-10 Tournament title game that went into overtime.  The effect of her pain was felt in her explosiveness, her defensive footwork and in her jumpshot.  Every thing that Wiggins managed last year was pushed through pain.  Now, every piece of her game can flourish as she focuses on the basketball, her teammates and her opponents on the court - not on her feet.

"I think when you play pain-free, you play a whole different level.  I think she could really take off," says Stanford head coach Tara VanDerveer.  "We're ecstatic.  I know that she is a gamer.  But can you imagine a healthy Candice?  I bet that she's just so excited to play with the new kids."

That is our outlook for Candice Wiggins in the approaching season.  Expect all areas of her game to grow now that she has rid herself of the pain in her feet.  It is hard to project the results statistic-by-statistic.  Rather, this will be a holistic improvement for the electric performer.

Critics might charge that those benefits will be off-set by a spring and summer spent away from basketball, but Wiggins is unlikely to disappoint.

"When basketball is taken away from you for four months, you really appreciate the opportunity to play," VanDerveer says.  "I wouldn't want to guard her."

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