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Sports Strength

Hailey Van Lith Isn’t Done

Off the court, Hailey Van Lith is the premier celebrity endorser in college sports. With over 700,000 Instagram followers, Van Lith is estimated to be the most valuable athlete in the NCAA’s new Name, Image, Likeness era; according to Opendorse, Van Lith’s social media clout is worth approximately $1 million. Since NIL restrictions were lifted last summer, she has inked deals with Icy Hot, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Billionaire Girls Club and Twitch. Her Instagrams and TikToks are standard influencer fare: dancing videos, paeans to the grind and sponsored content.

On the court, Van Lith is a fucking maniac. A prominent character in the extended Ball Is Life/SLAM/Overtime cinematic universe, Van Lith is all unrelenting swagger—or, as the titles of her high school mixtapes would say: she is DANGEROUSLY SAUCY, so you should watch your ANKLES, SHEESH [fire emoji]. During Louisville’s run to the Final Four, she became the first player in school history to score more than 20 points in four straight NCAA Tournament games. Although she’s often been compared to James Harden on account of her left-handedness, Van Lith plays with a more direct tempo, eschewing Harden’s winding solos for decisive bursts to the rim. 

Naturally, Van Lith is part of the wave of Kobe Bryant disciples who have recently taken over women’s basketball; Bryant befriended Van Lith when she was in high school precisely because she’s the best kind of competitive psycho. When asked what advice Bryant would give her now, Van Lith responded, on Disney-owned ESPN, “He would say ‘Go fucking win this shit, Hailey, we not done.’” 

Over the last four games, Van Lith has amped up her aggressiveness in the pursuit of winning this shit, unspooling defenses with drives and talking copious amounts of shit while doing so. Nobody is safe—not the University of Albany, not the Tennessee Lady Volunteers, and definitely not Jimmy Fallon.

“We’re kind of like the Bad News Bears. We upset everyone’s bracket, we piss people off that we’re good,” she said after her Sweet 16 win against Tennessee. “We don’t need the people picking the brackets. We don’t need Barack Obama’s bracket, we don’t need Jimmy Fallon. We don’t need none of that, OK?”

This is—and I mean this as a compliment—truly insane stuff, the product of a competitive psycho. Louisville is a one-seed! They’ve been ranked in the top ten the whole season and have been in the top five since Christmas; Van Lith is a former five-star recruit and a finalist for the Nancy Lieberman Award as one of the best point guards in college basketball. It’s hardly unusual for athletes to dip into their nobody believes in us rhetorical bag in the postseason, but that’s patently untrue here: everybody believes in them. Because, at this point, it’s becoming impossible not to believe in Van Lith. 

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Sports Strength

Grace VanSlooten Is One Of The Best Stretch-Fours In The Class Of 2022

As the game of basketball evolves with each passing season players are expanding the range and efficiency at which they can knock down the three ball. If four of the five people you have on the court can knock it down from deep, you have a significant advantage before the game even tips off. Grace VanSlooten from IMG Academy possesses that deep-range deadeye badge all while filling in the forward position. Slated to participate in this year’s McDonald’s All-American game, VanSlooten has been a standout in the class of 2022. Let’s talk about it. 

Grace VanSlooten started her high school hoops career at Notre Dame Academy in Toledo, Ohio. In her junior year, VanSlooten was a walking bucket, putting up 21.8 points to go along with 12.5 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game. Not only does VanSlooten stuf the stat sheet on the offense end, she’s also an elite defender, averaging 1.9 steals and 1.5 blocks per game. It’s common to see VanSlooten tapping offensive rebounds out to her teammates to add extra possessions.

Standing at 6’3”, VanSlooten has an excellent frame that should help her transition to the next level. Most forwards at the high school level operate in the paint, but VanSlooten regularly pulls up from deep in transition, and regularly knocks it down. Pairing with her exceptional three-point shooting is the ability to put the ball on the floor. VanSlooten can slash and attack in the paint from damn near anywhere on the floor and is keen at finishing in traffic. Finishing her senior season of high school basketball as the 4th ranked forward in the country, VanSlooten has cemented herself as a top level talent.

VanSlooten, who left Notre Dame Academy for IMG Academy, has kept the momentum from her junior season rolling. She took home MVP honors at this year’s Classic In The City showcase after dropping 17 points and 14 rebounds. Now that she has committed to play alongside Ohio native Chance Gray at the University of Oregon, it’s safe to say the Ducks will be STACKED for a number of years. I can’t wait to see the evolution of Grace VanSlooten and would not be surprised to see her emerge as one of the top female college hoopers in the near future.

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Sports Strength

Tennessee Standout Recruit Justine Pissott Is A Natural Leader

In the world of modern-day hoops, the importance of the three-point line cannot be overstated. Having key knock-down shooters not only satisfies advanced analytics but also forces the defense to extend out, which in turn leaves the defense out-of-place. Having a player who can stretch the floor while simultaneously being able to put the ball on the floor and drive is every coach’s dream. Justine Pissott, the #2 ranked forward in the class of 2022 does just that and so much more. Committed to playing collegiate ball at the University of Tennessee, Pissott’s hoops legacy is just beginning. 

Pissott finished out her senior year of high school playing for Red Bank Catholic in New Jersey. Standing at 6’4”, Pissott possesses great size and frame to play the forward position at the next level. Because of her height, Pissott does an excellent job backing down defenders and finishing inside. Due to her ability to play with her back to the basket, opposing teams try to throw a bigger defender on Pissott, but her ability to put the ball on the floor and drive to the basket makes her a matchup nightmare. Pissott’s specialty however is her ability to knock down the deep ball. Pissott not only can hit the catch-and-shoot threes but is keen at getting to her spots off the dribble for easy points. Routinely forcing defenders to check her as soon as she gets the ball, Pissott is a constant threat to score. 

Other than being able to score from any spot on the floor, Pissott plays with an extremely high level of basketball IQ on the defensive side. Her size and length gives her the ability to help on opposing players driving to the hoop to finish off a block. Pissott was able to average over one block and steal per game in her senior season because of her defensive prowess. Although her average of 3.5 assists per game may look low, Red Bank plays a fast-flowing offense that regularly sees teammates swinging the ball. Pissott is a key contributor to that offensive style as a mediator at the top of the key. 

Slated to participate in this year’s McDonald’s All-American game at the end of March, Justine Pissott will get the opportunity to showcase her skills and leadership at the national level. Possessing the outside shot and high-iq that Pissott has, I have no doubt in my mind she will flow free and easy during the high school all-star game. The Tennessee Volunteers didn’t just get an elite hooper in Pissott, they also get an elite leader.

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Sports Strength

Flau’jae Johnson Is Redefining What It Means To Be A Hooper And Musician

Basketball and Hip-Hop have an intimate relationship. The legend himself Lil Wayne once said “Athletes wanna be rappers, and rappers wanna be athletes”. Yes, we have seen the likes of J.Cole attempt a pro-basketball career and, similarly, we’ve seen guys like Lonzo Ball attempt to garner a rap career. More times than not these athletes’ rap careers fizzle out because the music isn’t good enough, or it’s too much of a commitment. Flau’jae Johnson however, has been surrounded by the rap game from an early age and is also a top-ranked women’s high-school recruit in the class of 2022 committed to attend LSU this upcoming fall. Johnson is just getting started breaking through the barriers of the basketball and music world. 

Currently playing out her senior year of high school hoops in Georgia, Johnson has shot up the class of 2022 high school basketball rankings this season. Slotted as the 22nd ranked player in her class and recently named to this year’s McDonald’s All-American game, Johnson has been a walking bucket for Sprayberry high school. Earlier this season Johnson knocked down twelve threes in a single game to break the school’s record. Similarly, Johnson has the capability and will to take any defender in the paint for a quick layup. On the defensive side Johnson shows no fear and plays with a level of intensity parallel to Russel Westbrook as she constantly tracks offensive players driving into the paint for chase-down blocks. 

Johnson is also slated to be the only female hooper selected for the Allen Iverson 24k Showcase, “a full-length game featuring more top talent from across the country” as stated on the Iverson Classic website. It’s one honor to be selected for an all-star event, but to be the only female player in a game against some of the top-ranked high school male hoopers in the country puts Johnson in a league of her own. However, Johnson is no stranger to being on the big stage. 

Flau’jae Johnson was introduced to the national audience when she was a standout on the third season of “The Rap Game” at only twelve years old. Music was always something deeply connected to Johnson, as her late-father Jason who went by the name “Camoflauge” was a well-known rapper in the Georgia area. Following her father’s legacy, Flau’jae has built out an extremely impressive music career which includes appearances on XXL and America’s Got Talent. Garnering a following of nearly 700k on Instagram and over 100k on youtube, Flau’jae has built a legitimate fanbase around her music. 

Committed to playing basketball at LSU next season, Johnson is still looking to pursue her passion of music and hoops. There is no question that Johnson stands out as a top high school player in the country. Damian Lillard better watch out, because Flau’jae Johnson is coming for his spot as the best current hooper/rapper in the country.

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Sports Strength

Caitlin Clark is More Than Just a Bucket

There’s never been a women’s college basketball player like Caitlin Clark. Actually, no: there’s never been any college basketball player like Caitlin Clark, Iowa’s history-making sophomore point guard. Her statistical achievements are exotic and sundry: she’s scored 1000 career points in just 40 games, making her the fastest player in Big Ten history to reach the millennium mark; she’s the only NCAA athlete ever to record back-to-back 30-point triple doubles; she’s the first woman this century to lead the nation in both scoring and assists, averaging 25.5 points and 8.1 helpers per game.

Clark’s prolificness is dazzling and nonpareil, but the bedrock of her game is easily identifiable: she’s a fearless shooter and a sensational passer. Just as Damian Lillard and Stephen Curry yank defenses apart with their respective shooting gravity, Clark fundamentally rearranges the other team’s defensive architecture. Although her raw three-point percentage is fairly low (she’s shooting 28.9 percent this year, down from 40.6 percent last season), make no mistake: she’s a sniper. Of her 8.3 attempted threes per game, nearly all of them are vertiginously difficult—she regularly fires from the logo with negative momentum after eluding defenders with sidesteps and stepbacks. 

Even more important than whether she actually makes any given shot, though, is the way that she leverages her shooting. Despite not being an overly propulsive athlete, Clark is an elite finisher at the rim, shooting nearly 60 percent on two-pointers. Similarly, she’s able to pick out open teammates who slip free behind the defense while opponents double-team and aggressively hedge at Clark. At 6’0, Clark is the archetypal big guard and makes clever use of the passing windows that her size grants her access to; she’s a sound yet TikTok-able passer, alloying fundamental outlets and hit-aheads with snappy hook passes and behind-the-back dimes. 

Entering the back-nine of her sophomore season, Clark has already accomplished nearly everything possible on an individual level—the only thing holding Clark back from unanimous National Player of the Year-dom is that her team hangs towards the bottom of the Top 25 rather than at the top. Accordingly, there are questions about whether Clark’s usage is congruent with actually winning at the highest level; Clark’s dominance of the ball and of the competition inherently means that her teammates are relegated to auxiliary roles. But that’s besides the point. This Hawkeyes team is heliocentrism pushed to its furthest logical extreme, but that’s welcomed when you have a star as bright as Clark.