As we wrap up our unprecedented countdown of the Top 50 area girls basketball players heading into the 2019-2020 season (RELATED: See the complete Top 50 girls basketball player countdown), we have reached our second annual girls basketball ‘First Five’ honorees.
The ‘First Five’ was started last season, following in the 35-plus year tradition of naming the top five area basketball players, started by a now defunct prep sports department in Fort Wayne. It is our honor to pick up and carry on that tradition with the ‘First Five,’ including our second group of honorees coming this season at the top of our Top 50 countdown.
TOP 50 GIRLS HOOPS: #5 Olivia Smith, South Side
If it wasn’t for one other player in our ‘First Five,’ it wouldn’t be hard at all to declare Olivia Smith the best player in the class of 2022 in Fort Wayne and the surrounding area because of the ways she has developed her game to be so much more than just a shooter.
Smith is a gym rat and a basketball purist who takes the time to better her game just about any way that she can. She studies film and her early A.M. workout sessions with Always 100’s Vernard Hollins show a higher level of dedication to her craft that is getting better every day. The Olivia Smith that ended the 2018-2019 season was pretty good; the Olivia Smith that will start the 2019-2020 season is way better. But not to lose track of her ability to shoot the ball, something that her hype initially was built on. Smith came into her freshman season as one of the best are shooters and will continue that this season. Smith hit 42 triples at a 36.5 percent success rate a year ago, going 5-of-6 in a 21 point effort against Northrop in the SAC Holiday Tournament.
During the course of her first season and over this past summer, Smith has absolutely developed as a playing that score on all three levels. One of the most impressive areas is for Smith to get out on the break with the ball in her hands, break down a defender and finish at the rim be it with a strong jab step or Euro. If Smith can continue to read defensive posture and break down defenders moves on the fly, there won’t be many answers for her as she gets to the rim. Smith averaged 11 points per game last season.
“We are excited about the return of a more experienced and hungry sophomore, Olivia Smith. She has an energy that changes the game. She has learned so much about her game and how she can contribute as a scorer and a distributor,” says South Side coach Juanita Goodwill.
TOP 50 GIRLS HOOPS: #4 Jaci Jones, South Side
Slowly but surely over the years, Jaci Jones has gone from being a probably underrated guard on a loaded South Side team to being the face of a program that is now well established as a Fort Wayne area juggernaut. That makes Jones one of the most interesting players to follow entering her senior season.
The University of Detroit Mercy commit, Jones’ motor is unquestionably one of the best in the area on both ends of the court. Defensively, she has always shined even since her varsity minutes started escalating during her freshman season. She averaged 1.9 steals per game last season, but finished the regular season with eight and seven swipes respectively against Huntington North and Bishop Dwenger. Those kind of unbalanced numbers show what kind of defender that Jones is, able to take the ball almost any time she wants but focused and balanced enough to know when she can effect the game just as well without making that reach.
Each year, she has improved on the offensive end of the court. Last season, she averaged 12.7 points per game while shooting 46 percent inside the arc and 37 percent outside of it, hitting 65 three pointers in 2018-2019. While Jones’ tenacious approach helps her push the pace and get to the basket, she can score on multiple levels from the three point line. Spotting up, coming off screens or even pulling up on the break are all in Jones’ wheelhouse. She hit four or more threes on six different occasions last season, including an absolute clinic against Bishop Dwenger late in the year where she hit 9-of-11 threes on her way to 34 points and proclaiming her spot as area elite.
“This year we are looking for strong leadership from Jaci Jones. [She has] been a part of the varsity experience since freshman year and have fought hard to keep our program competitive,” says South Side coach Juanita Goodwill.
TOP 50 GIRLS HOOPS: #3 Sydney Graber, Homestead
Since she took the court for Homestead in the Class 4A state title game as a freshman, Sydney Graber has been at the forefront of the top program in the area. In her third straight year as one of the preseason top five players in the area, an a second straight ‘First Five’ honoree, Graber is back for her senior season at Homestead.
Graber’s bread and butter starts with her post play, something she was used for as a freshman and developed facets of during her high school career. But as the years have gone on, Graber has drifted out towards the perimeter, showcasing an advanced level of ball handling skills, ability to drive and make plays on the wing. She actually hit a team third best 31 three pointers last season and picked up 37 assists and a team best 52 steals. That skill makes her one of the city’s most dangerous offensive players. She will demand attention on the perimeter, which means teams will shy away from playing a true post on her. And while she can break down guards just as well, it also means she can go to the rim and score with her back to the basket against less strong defenders.
While our countdown focuses on varsity experience more than anything, to ignore Graber’s junior-to-senior year summer would be a mistake. With her commitment to Central Michigan out of the way, Graber is playing the best basketball of her career and her demeanor shows that even with more pressure, she has alleviated the stress from her game. She averaged 10.1 points per game last season.
“Sydney Graber is one of the best inside-out players in northern Indiana,” says Homestead coach Rod Parker. “Sydney is a very good perimeter shooter and is very efficient in the paint. Along with her ability to score anywhere on the court she is a great rebounder and post defender.”
TOP 50 GIRLS HOOPS: #2 Hanna Knoll, Angola
After leading Angola to a Sectional title and then playing the game of her high school career in a Regional final loss, the Hornets’ Hanna Knoll returns for her junior season and the secret is out: she is very, very good.
Knoll averaged 14 points per game last season, but declared herself as more then capable of putting up gaudy numbers and putting her team on her back offensively when need be. If she was just a stand alone shooter, Knoll would be up at the top of players in the area because of how well she gets off her shot whether standing alone or smothered by a defender. She buried 40 three pointers, hitting six in that Regional championship game and converting at a 30 percent success rate over the season.
But Knoll is also a lock down defenders and a player that causes havoc defensively, especially if given room in the open court through Angola’s pressing defense. She averaged four steals per game last season with four games where she tallied seven or eight steals. If a player didn’t take care of the ball, Knoll was going to swipe it. It is a tough argument to make that any player in the area is more skilled or even determined on the offensive end than Knoll. And the fact that her style and that of Angola allows for defense to create instant offense makes her weaponry top notch.
“She is one of the more talented players in the area, who has a tireless work ethic to go with her extremely high motor when she plays. I am excited for her to get out here and show her growth,” says Angola coach Brandon Appleton. “The attention she has received from recruiters does not surprise me, she has earned all that recognition by the time she puts in the gym.”
TOP 50 GIRLS HOOPS: #1 Ayanna Patterson, Homestead
Before she ever took a high school court, Ayanna Patterson was declared the next big thing in Fort Wayne and area girls basketball. She was that good on the middle school level and with more than a few handfuls of Division 1 offers already, Patterson’s second act as a high school sophomore is something the entire city is waiting for.
As a freshman, she just averaged team highs in points (12.9), rebounds (7.6) and blocks (1.7) per game for the SAC, Holiday Tournament and Sectional champion Spartans. But she also brought an added excitement as fans from around the area helped pack gyms to see if Patterson was in fact the real deal. They got their answer boldly as Patterson started the year as a very good high school player and then went ahead and made herself better every time that she took the court.
Over the summer, Patterson was invited to the Team USA U16 Women’s National team trials and is ranked #4 in the class of 2022 according to ESPN. Her credibility on a national stage is high and despite missing a lot of action this summer with an injury, the expectations remain high that she will be the best player in Northeast Indiana and one of the very best in the state as just a sophomore. She was a monster rebounding the ball last season and because of that, she offers herself and teammates almost as many shots at the rim they need. To have a player like Patterson that can guarantee a score as well as anyone is a unique luxury. Her ball handling skills also have developed and her long, galloping frame make her a nightmare to try and stop if she grabs a defensive rebound and takes off on the break.
“One of the most dynamic and versatile players in the state. Ayanna is tremendous in the open court, attacks the rim from all of the locations on the court, is a top level rebounder, and can score in a variety of ways,” says Homestead coach Rod Parker. “Ayanna has a high motor and has worked hard to develop her guard play.”