College Sports

‘It’s ridiculous’: USC’s 2019 class is one of the best ever, recruiting expert says

Under Dawn Staley, South Carolina women’s basketball has had some seminal moments in its recruiting history. There was Kelsey Bone in 2009, the nation’s No. 2 recruit, picking the then-lowly Gamecocks. There was A’ja Wilson in 2014, shocking observers and staying home to help build a powerhouse program.

And now, there’s the class of 2019.

Staley has secured the first No. 1-ranked class of her coaching career, pulling in four of ESPN’s top 13 recruits, all five-star talents with WNBA potential. It’s not just the best class in the country at the moment — it ranks up there as one of the best ever assembled in modern women’s college basketball.

So says Dan Olson, and he should know. He is ESPN’s recruiting specialist and runs the Collegiate Girls Basketball Report, which ESPN uses for its recruiting rankings.

South Carolina’s blockbuster class comes one year after another super-group — Baylor had 2018’s top-ranked class with five five-stars all in ESPN’s top 30. But Olson said he sees this Gamecock group as better than the 2018 Lady Bears’ haul.

“From a rankings standpoint, they’re better than Baylor,” Olson said. “Baylor’s class, you had some weakness there on the backend. ... Who’s to know how that projects out over the long haul. This group is unproven yet, but I would put that Baylor class behind this class of (2019).”

In fact, Olson said only one class in the past decade compares to South Carolina’s incoming group — the legendary 2012 UConn group, which featured Breanna Stewart, Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck, ranked No. 1, 2 and 6, respectively. That group won four consecutive national titles and swept the top three picks in the 2016 WNBA draft, so it would be hard for any recruiting class to surpass them.

But Olson still raved about the quintet of Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Laeticia Amihere, Brea Beal and Olivia Thompson.

“First of all, they virtually addressed every position that they wanted, that there could be,” Olson said.

What excited Olson the most was the combination of the forwards Boston and Amihere. Boston is the higher-rated of the two, at No. 3 overall in the country, but Olson said Amihere, who was one of the very highest-ranked players in the class before tearing her ACL, may be just as good, if not better.

“Boston is in a league of her own in respect to being a low post player. She’s a consistent finisher and she combines a degree of finesse with just plain old nastiness in the block. You’re gonna know that you have guarded her playing her in the block, because she’s not gonna shy away from contact. But she’s just very skilled. She’s a double-double machine in respect to that,” Olson said.

“But the other kid, (Amihere) ... prior to her knee injury, I had her at No. 2. Now she’s back off the injury, she’s stronger and more athletic. This kid, combined with Boston, they’re the two best frontcourt players in the class. Amihere has so much potential, it’s ridiculous. ... Everyone wants a coveted post player — they got two of them, they got the two best that they could get.”

The rough comparison, Olson said, is South Carolina’s old combination of Alaina Coates and A’ja Wilson, with Boston pounding down low as the 5 in a lineup like Coates and Amihere extending to the high post like Wilson. And while Olson stressed that Amihere has a long way to go before she could approach Wilson’s level, he still praised her raw talent and physical tools.

“She’s chiseled, she’s built like a (6-foot-4) dude that can jump and jack that thing through the rim,” Olson said. “She can defend away from the basket. She could play the top of the press and she’s cat-quick enough to deflect balls and intercept balls, which leads to transition layups. She plays at the rim and the only thing this kid doesn’t have yet is a perimeter jump shot that extends to the 3-point arc. She doesn’t have that yet. Her best work is inside, about 10 or 12 feet. That’s where she’s money in the bank. But her potential is so high. You don’t see a lot of these kids where you can really say wow, this kid’s potentially a superstar. Well that’s what this kid is.”

Beyond those two, Olson said Cooke, the second-rated point guard in the class, will give Staley “tremendous speed, athleticism, depth at the backcourt” alongside Tyasha Harris and Destanni Henderson next year. Meanwhile, Thompson, a local preferred walk-on, will add a needed 3-point threat, and Beal will be the perfect wing player to tie the whole group together.

“The Beal kid’s one of the better small forwards that’s got a certain degree of versatility. ... From a one-on-one, isolation, small forward, weakside rebounding, this kid’s as good as they come in that class, and she can knock down the 3. She can stretch you out,” Olson said.

Greg Hadley is the beat writer for South Carolina women’s basketball and baseball for GoGamecocks and The State. He also covers football and recruiting.