My boss told me I was covering the Nike Tournament of Champions in Phoenix, AZ. I thought it would be fun, getting to Phoenix, watching some of the top teams in the country, many of the top players in the country, and he said to me, "James, check out LaJolla Country Day. There's this girl there, Candace Wiggins, and they say she can ball."
I called my boss from Chandler High School in Arizona.
"Hey, you want to hear Candace Wiggins' line?"
"Sure," he said.
"19 points, 10 rebounds, 11 steals and 4 assists."
"Wow, so she can play?" he asked.
"That was the first half." I responded.
To say that Candace Wiggins can play is a dramatic understatement. I asked Candace how often someone tells her she plays like a guy.
"It happens every once in awhile, it is definitely a compliment." She told me, "I played with a boys club team for awhile, and my older brother and I used to play a lot, so I guess I maybe do play like a guy."
Actually, she plays like very few guys. Because very few guys could play with her. In fact I haven't seen a guy under 6'2" who Candace couldn't stay with. Outrageously quick (she'd finish her first round game against Corona del Sol (AZ) with 15 steals) and stronger than her thin build would suggest, Candace might not beat all of them, but I haven't watched a guy that could shut her down, and she could pick a lot of D1 guard's pockets.
LaJolla Country Day's head coach, Terri Bamford didn't even think about it when I asked her what it was like to coach Candace. "She's a dream player. She really is a once in a lifetime opportunity for a coach. She's talented, and she works so hard. I really don't even have to push her, but I guess I probably ride her the hardest because I want her to be ready to be an impact player next year at Stanford."
There is little doubt that Candace will have an impact where ever she goes. Just ask Corona del Sol. They were outscored 19-18 in the first half, by Candace alone. Candace and her strong supporting cast are starting to make blowing out opponents a habit, and I asked if that was boring for the senior. "No, its not boring, in fact, its kind of nice to have a comfortable win, because we play such a tough schedule. It helps the team, because everybody gets involved."
That was certainly the case yesterday, as three other players scored in double digits in the 85-34 win. But even though LaToya Cunningham dropped 22 and Mercedes Fox-Griffin added 14, there was no doubt who the big dog on the court was. Her final line, 31 pts, 16 rebounds, 15 steals, and seven assists. Nearly a quadruple double.
I'll be honest it was fun to watch.
Candace makes it fun the way all great players do, with work, talent, and fun. She's often smiling on the court, always cheering her teammates on, and she is always moving. Closing down passing lanes, making good hard cuts, driving to the basket, running the break, pressuring the ball handler. She's always in motion. To follow her every move would make it impossible to watch the game.
Except that much of the time, the game is her.
She will literally play every position on the court at one time or another during the game. At 5'11" that will probably change next year at Stanford, but I asked if the versatility is something she works at.
"Definitely, I think that's what separates the good players from the great players. There are players that do one or two things very well, and they are good, but when you can do anything, anywhere on the floor, I think that is what makes a great player."
Great is a gross understatement.
On several occasions yesterday Candace brought the ball up the floor, either scored the basket or assisted on the score, and then went down to the other side of the court and played tough aggressive post defense. She rebounds with ferocity, ripping the ball out of the air, and then more often than not she skips the outlet pass and simply leads the break herself.
But she also takes responsibility. Late in the third quarter, as Candace neared 25 points for the game, and had long ago gotten a triple double, she made an average entry pass to a cutting teammate. I say average because there was a high degree of difficulty and she almost got the pass through. Instead a Corona player got a hand on the ball, tapped it away, there was a scramble, and eventually the ball went out of bounds and over to Corona.
It probably doesn't surprise anyone to say that Candace was one of the bodies on the floor, and as she popped up she immediately looked to her teammates.
"My bad," she said as she tapped herself on the chest. She shook her head, ran down court, played tough defense and got the rebound. She then led the break and fed Cunningham in the lane for an easy bucket. She wasn't looking for redemption; she was looking for a high percentage shot.
Later, when Fox-Griffin made a beautiful fake and feed to Cunningham, it was again Wiggins leading the cheers. She's vocal, she teaches on the court, she's always looking to score, but does not always insist on being the one who does the scoring. On Thursday she was simply at a higher level than anyone on the court was.
And Bamford recognizes that. "When we go through hard scrimmages, we bring in some ex-college players to go against her. Guys. Just so she can be tested a little."
It also saves some poor soul on her own team from being beaten up for an entire practice.
There is one thing that Candace hasn't done yet, but it is on her list. "I want the #1 ranking. I want LaJolla to be ranked #1 in the Nation." She almost growls when she says this, it is that intensity that so often gets her compared to the opposite sex on a basketball court. Thing is, Candace Wiggins doesn't just play like a guy. Her whole life, she's played as one of them.