As soon as the ball tipped, right when Azzi Fudd went from standing still to starting toward an opening on the right wing, each of her actions, however big or small, was narrated inside the airy gymnasium.
“See how she created her own shot?” asked Dave Rasdolsky, sitting six rows up as Fudd, a freshman on the St. John’s girls’ basketball team, scored the first two points against rival Paul VI in early January.
“Watch her screen away,” he said a possession later.
“Look, look, look at her defend,” he whispered as play swung to the other end of the floor. “She is so balanced.”
Rasdolsky is not a broadcaster. Or a coach. Or a fan of St. John’s or Paul VI. He is a dad from Reston who wanted his 12-year-old daughter, Brooke, a basketball player herself, to see the 15-year-old Fudd in action.
Fudd, who has played just 13 high school games and is averaging 22 points in them, has already been compared to WNBA stars Maya Moore and Diana Taurasi. “She may already be the best high school player in the country,” one local coach said. “I’m serious.”
Her first scholarship offer came from Maryland when she was in sixth grade, and the 5-foot-11 guard has since been recruited by a large handful of power conference programs, including Stanford, Tennessee and Connecticut, whose legendary Coach Geno Auriemma stopped in to see her work out this past fall on an otherwise normal day at St. John’s in Northwest Washington.
“What do you think it was like?” she asked, smiling at her own sarcasm. “I was so nervous.”
Well, did it show?
“No,” she shot back, smiling even wider. “I crushed it that day.”
Now she was up against Paul VI, a girls’ basketball powerhouse, and as she shook loose on the perimeter and canned an open three, Fudd demonstrated why she is not just a budding star but also a symbol of evolution in girls’ basketball. On the boys’ side, from the NBA on down to high school, blurred positional lines are evident in point guards standing 6-6 or taller, five-guard lineups or big men who launch threes. In girls’ basketball, a more subtle shift toward a positionless game is also reaching across levels.
Just look at Azzi Fudd.
“She does everything,” Rasdolsky said to Brooke, and feeling like he may have gotten his point across, he was quiet for a few possessions.
“When something starts happening at the professional level, like in the WNBA, it is only natural for it to trickle down to college and then eventually high school,” said Kara Lawson, a women’s basketball analyst for ESPN and a television analyst for the Washington Wizards. “It’s never been a bad thing to be able to do everything. But now the women’s game is demanding that of its players more, and that’s when you see a young player like Azzi come along.”
The Fudds lounged around their sunlit living room in Falls Church on a Sunday in late November. Their dog, Curry, named for Golden State Warriors star Stephen, begged for attention as they all pondered the same question: When did Azzi fall in love with basketball?
“Uh . . . I don’t know when it was,” Azzi said, looking at her parents. “I mean, I used to hate practicing.”
“She showed a knack for the game right away,” said Tim Fudd, her father.
“Not in her first game,” interjected Katie Smrcka-Duffy Fudd, her mother. Azzi, sunk into a brown leather couch, let out a short giggle. “She was horrible.”
“Okay,” Tim insisted. “But after that . . . ”
“She was a freak of nature from a very young age,” Katie said, finishing Tim’s sentence. “That helped her fall in love with it.”
Katie starred at Georgetown, twice leading the Big East in scoring, before she was drafted into the WNBA by the Sacramento Monarchs. Tim played at American in the mid-1990s, has coached men’s college basketball and boys’ high school basketball, and now is an assistant for the girls’ team at St. John’s. They are both basketball trainers and coaches for the Fairfax Stars, an AAU program that Azzi plays for based in Northern Virginia.
When Azzi was 7, she took two basketballs and told Katie to “Watch this.” She dribbled them at the same time, and Katie told her at least to do it right and pick her head up. But then Azzi crossed the balls over, switching hands while keeping her dribble, and Katie, wide-eyed, was fine with her daughter looking at the floor.
Katie and Tim mixed everything into Azzi’s workouts: spot-up shooting, off-the-dribble jumpers, ballhandling, post moves. Azzi, named for former Stanford star Jen Azzi, picked it all up so fast. She played with the boys in seventh and eighth grade. She zoomed into high school with limitless potential.
“She’s like Kawhi Leonard. It’s hard to say what position she is. She’s just Azzi and does everything, you know?” St. John’s Coach Jonathan Scribner said before the season. “You just don’t see it very often. She is something that’s different. You’re seeing a unicorn.”
Unicorn is the term used for NBA players bucking traditional conceptions of basketball positions. That includes New York Knicks forward Kristaps Porzingis, who is 7-foot-3 with a jump shot and ballhandling ability; Milwaukee Bucks superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, a 6-foot-11 point guard and a front-runner for the MVP award; and New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis, who is 6-foot-10 with a full arsenal of guard skills on offense. Leonard, the San Antonio Spurs star, represents this positionless trend as a 6-foot-7 wing who can defend any player on the court.
Azzi is technically a combo guard capable of running an offense and thriving as an off-ball scorer. But as Scribner pointed out, it is hard to define her as just that. She is a high-percentage three-point shooter and has the upper-body strength to score inside. She is a strong perimeter defender and can protect the paint. She played point guard for Team USA’s gold medal-winning 16-and-under team this past summer — as a 14-year-old — but Coach Carla Berube said, “We could also rely on her to guard all five positions.”
Tim sees the WNBA functioning much like the NBA in terms of positionality. He points to Moore’s Minnesota Lynx, who have won four of the past seven league titles, and how their offense allows each player to fluidly move around the court. Then there is Los Angeles Sparks star Candace Parker, one of the sport’s premier players, who is 6-foot-4 but plays on the perimeter, setting up the offense and shooting as much as she is in the paint. His daughter wants to get to that level, and Tim has identified the blueprint.
De-emphasizing the five traditional positions — point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward and center — allows teams to maximize versatility and vary their approaches on the offensive and defensive end. On offense, the popular, modern analytics-based approach is to take the most efficient shots on the court: from behind the three-point line and at the rim. Having tall players who can shoot and surrounding them with long-armed, multifaceted guards is the best way to carry out that formula, which sits at the center of basketball’s movement away from set positions and is being showcased by the reigning champions in the both the NBA (Warriors) and the WNBA (Lynx).
“It’s trending to where the players are more positionless,” Tim said. “Girls are that much more effective if they can play multiple positions because then it’s just playing basketball.”
Does Azzi prefer one spot over another?
“Um. . .” she started, and again looked at her parents for help. Both of them smirked and stayed silent. “I like scoring. I also like playing the point guard now. I probably like being a guard better. I don’t know. I like them all. I just like being on the court.”
“Move! Move, Azzi!” Tim yelled from the bench inside Paul VI’s gym in early January, with the score now knotted at 45 and the defense tracking Azzi all over the court.
“Come on Azz, move somewhere,” Katie muttered from across the court, holding an iPad that helps her track stats, from made shots to deflections, for the entire St. John’s team. All eyes were on Azzi as the game clock dipped below one minute, and Tim and Katie already tell their daughter to get used to it. The comparisons to some of the game’s best players, the college offers, the relentless double-teams — it is only just beginning.
Some day, some day soon, they say to their daughter, people will be calling a little girl the next Azzi Fudd.
“I don’t feel like there is pressure from that,” Azzi said. “It feels like an honor for people to say those things. And I know it comes with some responsibility, but I’m still just 15.”
Off a steal, Azzi drove to the basket and nudged St. John’s ahead by two. Then she hit two free throws, then two more and ended up scoring the final six points in a six-point St. John’s victory. Katie said Azzi “didn’t seem like herself” before snapping an iPhone photo of her daughter’s final stat line: 27 points, eight rebounds, 8 for 16 from the field, 4 for 5 from three, 7 for 7 from the free throw line. Tim, tie loosened by a stressful ending, walked across the floor to have a long conversation with Maryland women’s basketball Coach Brenda Frese.
Fans slowly filtered out of the gym and into a cold night, tugging on beanies and wrapping scarves around their necks. Paul VI flickered the lights a few times to let the stragglers know it was time to go home. But two young kids hung by the door leading to the locker rooms. They refused to leave before getting a picture with their favorite player.
They wanted one more glimpse of Azzi Fudd.