Women’s Basketball’s freshmen class focused, sees big things in ‘17-18
By Jon Cooper
The Good Word
October is the time of big dreams for college basketball teams -- it dreams of conference championships and Final Fours.
No one dreams bigger than incoming freshmen, with their wide eyes, wild, limitless imaginations and seemingly just as limitless energy to make those dreams come true. But for many freshmen, dreaming is as far as making an impact on their team goes.
That doesn’t appear to be the case at Georgia Tech and its incoming class of four -- guards Taja Cummings and Kierra Fletcher and forwards Lorela Cubaj and Daijah Jefferson -- the 12th-ranked recruiting class in the nation according to ProspectsNation.com.
“I am very impressed with the play of our freshmen class,” said head coach MaChelle Joseph. “They have been difference-makers from day one.”
The foursome is already feeling right at home with the team and is geared up to make some big things happen.
“We’re all hungry,” said Fletcher. “It’s competitive but it’s a good competitiveness to where we’re pushing (the upperclassmen) and they’re pushing us just so we can be the best players that we can be. With us being so young I think that’s always a factor in us always constantly trying to bring energy to the team and helping any way that we can.”
Fletcher, a 5-9 guard, who averaged 23.5 points, 12.8 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 5.2 steals and 2.1 blocks as a senior in being named Class A Player of the Year by the Associated Press and led Warren Cousino High School in Warren, Mich., to three district championships (2014, ‘16 and ‘17) and its first state championship in ‘16.
She can play either guard position, and is seeing a lot of time at the point, where the Jackets will seek a suitor next year for senior Imani Tilford.
“Kierra Fletcher has made an impact at the point position from day one,” said Joseph.
Cummings also is seeking to earn time at the point.
“Taja Cummings gives us depth at the point position and she is a winner,” said Joseph. “She has a high basketball IQ and is a great teammate.”
The 5-6 guard quarterbacked St. Francis High School in Alpharetta to back-to-back Georgia High School Association (GHSA) Class A private state championships. She believes that she can carry over that winning mentality into Georgia Tech.
“It’s much different from high school. It’s much faster, you have to have a higher IQ and pay attention to detail,” said Cummings, a three-sport star (basketball, softball, track and field) for the Knights. “I basically just have to be a team player even when I’m not on the court. Being successful throughout high school I plan to help my team out even more this year starting off in college. I want to start off with defense. I plan on working hard on defense and offense.”
When it comes to versatility, 6-2 Jefferson may be the best of the group.
The Hopewell, Va., native, who led Hopewell High School to conference, district and region championships as a senior and earned Conference and Regional Player of the Year, ranked eighth among post players by ProspectsNation and 43rd overall.
“Daijah Jefferson is a 6-2 guard with elite-level athletic ability,” said Joseph. “She can play all five positions on the floor. She will be a key part of our defensive schemes.”
It’s a learning process but Jefferson, a four-year Honor Roll student at Hopewell, has found there already is a comfort level for herself and her fellow freshmen within the team, especially from the upperclassmen.
“Even though we make mistakes they compliment us,” she said. “It’s a confidence booster. We bring energy because we know we have to. Coach Jo demands it so that’s what we try to do.”
Cubaj is the final member of the recruiting class and brings extensive international playing experience. The 6’4 center from Terni, Italy, who played over the summer with the Italian National Team in the FIBA U19 World Championships and FIBA U18 European Championships and helped Italy to a silver medal at the FIBA U17 World Championship in 2016, comes with very high expectations.
Joseph likes what she’s seen thus far from Cubaj, the 14th-ranked player in Italy and the No. 2 international prospect by ProspectsNation.com.
“Lorela Cubaj is the most talented freshman post player I have ever coached,” she said. “I see her as an impact player from day one in the ACC.”
Cubaj believes her experience will pay off for Georgia Tech.
“I would like to bring my international experience and to loop that with (my teammates’) experience in high school or college,” she said. “I like the energy everybody is putting on the court and I appreciate that my teammates are helping me because I’m foreign and I need that. I’m so happy to be here.”
“That's helped me so much,” Cubaj said. “I was a little bit confused at the beginning because I came here a little bit late and they helped me with the normal stuff like what you need to do, what you have to do with the language sometimes. They helped me a lot.”
Peresson and Pan had already helped bring the rest of the team together during the August trip to Italy. The trip really helped the freshmen bond with the team.
“I got to know my teammates better off the court and got to learn them on the court as well,” said Fletcher. “I think it brought us closer as a team. We did a lot of team bonding because we were with each other 24/7 and that was a really fun trip.”
“I think we built a great chemistry over the summer and it made us closer as a team going into the regular season,” said Cummings. “The games we played in Italy helped us out a lot to where we’re a lot stronger and ahead of other teams that haven’t played games together. I think this year should be really good.”
As good as they were going 4-0 on the trip.
“For the freshmen, we had been here maybe a month or two but we were together with the team for two weeks straight and we weren’t separated at all. That helped to get to know each other more,” said Jefferson. “That last game was really great because they were a professional team,” she added. “It showed how we can come together and play as one. That was really great. To hear that they beat UConn was even better because we beat them by 20, then they beat UConn by 20.”
That optimism comes as the freshmen not only learn about college life but also Joseph’s system. While it’s not easy, they’re on-board and appreciate their coach and her mission.
“I like the way she coaches,” said Cubaj. “She is really hard but she is a really good coach. I like how she puts energy in everything.”
“She’s a demanding coach but she doesn’t demand anything that you aren’t capable of giving,” Jefferson said. “I think playing for her is going to be a wonderful experience to learn the game of basketball. Personally, I feel like I’m learning a new game the way she wants everything done and I think it will be worth it in the long run.”
That long run includes the immediate goal for this year of another long run in postseason play, but unlike last year, this one will come in the NCAA Tournament. This senior class has never been to the Dance and it’s the kind of parting gift the freshmen would love to give them.
“That’s VERY important to me,” said Fletcher. “I like challenges and knowing that this is their last ride and how close we’ve become, I wouldn’t have it any other way than get them to the tournament and get to the Final Four.”