In the Cards: Kristine Anigwe is taking the world of basketball by storm

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

Kristine Anigwe sits in a chair. It’s in her head coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s office but Anigwe doesn’t seem out of place as she studies.

It’s right that she’s there. It makes sense. Because Gottlieb has been pushing Anigwe like no one else to be great. And it’s working. Anigwe won National Freshman of the Year this season, the first time that’s happened in Cal history.

But as Anigwe chats about basketball, you get a sense of more than her passion and her know-how. You hear the game’s next big star exude something else. She gives off a sense of insecurity, of a player who’s hard on herself, especially after being the best player on a team that finished below .500.

“If we’re not winning, it’s difficult for me to sleep because I feel like I’m failing,” Anigwe says.

But Anigwe isn’t to blame. This season wasn’t about blame.

As Gottlieb likes to stress, her Bears are talented, but they’re young. They’re growing. This season was about growth, and Anigwe did it better than anyone.

And she’s nowhere near done.

From the moment Anigwe stepped on the court for the first time as a Bear, you got the sense that you were watching a star. In her second game, Anigwe scored 19 points against the nation’s No. 8 team. But that was no fluke. A few games later, she put up 23 points and 12 rebounds in a loss. A few games after that, she scored 43 points, the most in a game to that point of the season.

Simply put, Anigwe is special.

This isn’t exactly a revelation, as she was the number one post player in her recruiting class. But controlling games this early? Even Anigwe was surprised.

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

“I really didn’t think I’d be that dominant on the block,” Anigwe says.

For followers of the Cal women’s basketball team, this would understandably come as a bit of a shock — Anigwe scored 20.5 points per game this season, the third most of any player in the program’s history. She made 57 percent of her shots on the strength of an impressive array of post moves and expert positioning.

The latter is the strength of her game. The landscape of college basketball is dominated by long-range snipers and players who thrive in transition, but the game’s next big star is more concerned with angles.

“When I took geometry, I just liked paying attention to angles of the court,” Anigwe says. “I feel like when I angle myself the right way, I get really good positioning and score.”

“Angling” gives Anigwe the chance to score against all kinds of defenders. This usually means being in the right place to receive the ball and score right away. Anigwe scored 22.2 points per game in nonconference play and led the Bears to a 9-2 record that had some wondering whether they could contend for a Pac-12 crown.

Things didn’t always come naturally to Anigwe. When she started playing basketball in middle school, she did so despite having parents who had never played the sport — her mom, Annette, ran track while her dad, Chris, did karate.

“I remember the first shot I took — it was like underneath the rim and it came right back down,” Anigwe says with a laugh. “I was like ‘Oh, my God, this is so embarrassing. OK, maybe I can just be a really good cheerleader, because I am not going to play this year.’”

Anigwe wasn’t naturally predisposed to basketball, but Annette asked Kenny Drake, then the head coach of the Arizona Elite Girls Basketball Club, to train her daughter. Drake has a history of coaching Division 1 athletes such as Colorado’s Jamee Swan and Stanford’s Kayla Pedersen, who is now in the WNBA.

While he had long worked with talented bigs, Drake’s early experiences with Anigwe were unique.

“She was not very skilled at the time. I tried to put her through a routine and we didn’t really get past the layup part,” Drake says. “She’s come a long, long way.”

It took Anigwe a couple of years to build up a skillset reminiscent of what she has now. She started playing significant minutes on her high school’s varsity team near the end of her sophomore year, but it wasn’t until the end of her junior year that a series of events made people realize just how talented Anigwe is.

Drake arranged for Anigwe to train with Pedersen, who was already in the WNBA at the time. The high schooler impressed even the uber-talented Pedersen.

“After one workout they had together, Kayla told Kristine that she could give some post players on her WNBA team (Connecticut Sun) a run for their money,” Drake said in a text message. “And she wasn’t kidding. Anigwe’s eyes lit up after she heard that.”

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

This helped the young star gain confidence heading into the USA trials that spring. Anigwe was not yet a known entity, so she wasn’t a shoo-in to make the United States Under-17 Team. But within a day of practice, the coaches were impressed and it became clear that Anigwe would make the roster.

Playing with the national team, which won a gold medal at the 2014 FIBA U-17 World Championships, was a constructive moment in Anigwe’s career. She played in every match and scored more than nine points and grabbed more than five rebounds per game.

“I knew she was going to be good before that,” Drake says. “But it took that platform for other people, and herself, to figure out, ‘Man, I might be really good at this.’ ”

Opponents, however, started to take notice once she proved herself in the college game. They were dealing with a potential superstar and they treated her like one. She was the first bullet point on every team’s scouting report.

Soon, when Anigwe caught the ball, there wouldn’t be one defender to beat. There would be two, or three, or even four. This rattled the freshman, who often turned the ball over or forced bad shots in such situations. She struggled to make quick reads and find her open teammates.

And as Anigwe’s scoring slowed, the offense began stagnating and the Bears started to falter. Anigwe blamed herself for their struggles, despite continuing to be the team’s best and most consistent scorer. Anigwe gets down on herself when she and her team are struggling. Gottlieb serves as a superstar whisperer, telling her exactly what she needs to keep her head up while continuing to strive for excellency.

“It’s more trying to continue to hold her to high standards — I like the standards that she sets for herself — but also allowing her to understand it’s a growing process and not be too hard on herself when new things are thrown at her that she has to learn to deal with,” Gottlieb says. “It’s just trying to get her to see where she can be better and get her to understand what she’s doing and how remarkable it is.”

As the team tumbled down the conference’s standings, it became tougher to keep morale and motivation high. But Anigwe remembers Gottlieb helping to do just that.

“Before the Stanford game, she said, ‘There’s two treadmills and the first one to get off the treadmill will lose. You don’t want to be the first one to get off the treadmill,’” Anigwe remembers. “That quote really got to me because when I see someone tired I feel like I can keep going at them and going at them.”

Anigwe’s natural gifts help make her special, but what makes her realize those skills is that will to keep going and going.

“She’s such an elite talent. Probably more than any player that I’ve had, she loves basketball and wants to be great,” Gottlieb says. “She’s receptive to being compared to people who are the best in the world because that’s what she wants to be.”

Her desire to be the best shone through as the season went on. When it became clear that one way to beat double and triple teams was to outrun them down the court, Anigwe was more than happy to do just that if it meant chances to score and help her team.

She excelled, beating her opponents back to the other basket and establishing a deep seal. She was in the perfect position to receive a pass and lay the ball in before another defender could arrive. Deep seals and layins alone were a primary contributor to Anigwe’s offensive output this season, something that proved to be even more true in the postseason.

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Phillip Downey/Senior Staff

The Bears went into the Pac-12 Tournament needing a miracle if they hoped to keep their season alive, and they embarked on a magical run, winning their first two games, including against then-No. 10 Arizona State. The offense was largely fueled by Anigwe’s positioning in the paint. Her guards could lob her the ball in a place where only she could catch it and, of course, put it in the basket.

Although Cal came up short eventually, it was a scary sign for the college basketball world. Anigwe was figuring it out. She scored 68 points in three tournament games while grabbing 40 rebounds. All this, far before she’s tapped into her full potential.

The jump shot. The foundation of the game of basketball. Usually reserved for guards and wings, it’s more and more becoming expected that bigs will add a jumper to their repertoire. Many aren’t well-equipped to do so, but for Anigwe, it seems to come naturally.

She made 75.4 percent of her free throws, revealing a shooting touch that should be indicative of her future jump shooting performance. Anigwe didn’t take many jumpers but flashed an ability to hit the shots when she did, including a top of the key jumper reminiscent of Kevin Garnett against Colorado.

Despite being able to hit those shots, Anigwe was often hesitant to take them. Instead, she’d pass the ball and barrel toward the rim, her comfort zone, to post up. Even as this became predictable, Anigwe still excelled, growing more proficient even against intense defensive pressure.

“She’s a kid that’s so athletic that she could play everywhere on the court,” Drake says. “She could be a Breanna Stewart type of player.”

But to be like Stewart, UConn’s three-time national Player of the Year winner, Anigwe needs to combine her potential to hit those shots with what she already has in her game. These skills make Anigwe not only the best player in her class, but likely the best pro prospect as well. And Anigwe has the ability to add even more to her game than a jumper.

As a senior in high school, she did, well, in short, everything for the team. This included essentially functioning as a guard at times. With her ability to handle the ball, something she’s working on with Drake, it’s not a stretch to imagine Anigwe facing up and driving past her opponents, something she already started trying this season. Doing that, along with the improved jumper and further improved post play would make Anigwe, who’s already polished far beyond her years at finishing at the rim, truly unstoppable.

“Adding a couple of tools to the tool belt will make her really, really tough to guard,” Gottlieb says. “I think she wants to add some guard-like skills and still be a post player. Those are the best players in the world.”

Kristine Anigwe sits on the bench. She just blew a defensive assignment so her head coach, Lindsay Gottlieb, puts Anigwe in the seat right next to her.

This isn’t common for the Cal women’s basketball team. The Bears ended a tumultuous season with only seven players getting consistent playing time, leaving Anigwe to play an average of 30 minutes per game.

But in this game, Gottlieb pulled her young star out early in the first quarter after Anigwe had struggled defensively for a few consecutive plays. Gottlieb turns and faces Anigwe to give her a short talk. Anigwe checks right back into the game and, on the next play, shuts down her opponent in the post.

As Gottlieb frantically waves her arm for the team to push the ball, Anigwe sprints up the court, gets a deep seal and scores before her second defender can arrive. As she heads back on defense, she looks over at Gottlieb, who smiles.

Her young star has come a long way.

Hooman Yazdanian covers women’s basketball. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @hoomanyazdanian