New Kid On The Block
Jan. 8, 2007
Throughout her 18 years, Allyssa DeHaan has grown used to long, curious stares and silly questions - "How's the weather up there?" - but the Michigan State center, who stands at 6-9, has never lost her sense of humor or her sense of self.
When the highly touted freshman first set foot on campus in July, DeHaan knew the questions were inevitable. Despite being decked out in Spartan's women's basketball gear, many curious onlookers wondered if she played sports.
"A gymnast," she once quipped.
Wait - a 6-9 gymnast?
The tall tale isn't completely misleading.
DeHaan's athletic life actually began with gymnastics in preschool. She also tried ballet, ice skating, swimming, tee ball and volleyball before ever picking up a basketball in fifth grade. When some parents of AAU players walked into the gym and saw her doing gymnastics, they asked her to join their team.
That's all it took.
"She took to basketball like a duck to water," said her mother, Tracie. "She was pretty talented right from the start. Then her coach [at Grandville High School] asked her to join the varsity as a ninth-grader. I think that was probably when we thought, `OK, I think we have something here.'"
DeHaan traded in round-off back handsprings for turnaround jumpers and in-your-face shot swats. She also started playing pick-up games in the driveway with her mom, who also played Big Ten ball at Northwestern.
In middle school, DeHaan reached 6-2 and sprouted six more inches between her sixth- and seventh-grade years. She climbed to 6-7 as a high school sophomore and graduated from Grandville High School at taller than 6-8. She wasn't finished, adding another inch during the summer to become the tallest player in Michigan State history.
"Some people still ask what position I play, so I kind of have to throw out point guard, but they laugh it off," said DeHaan.
But it's not merely her height that has some whispering about DeHaan's potential and ability to change the face of women's basketball. It's her talent. The rookie can control a game with scoring, rebounding, shot blocking. She's even sharpening her technique on a two-handed dunk.
Now the Spartans are looking up to DeHaan as the program's future.
DeHaan's quick rise to success has surprised some Michigan State followers, but Spartan head coach Joan P. McCallie knew her gifted newcomer would make an impact from the start.
"I never really have much feeling about first-year people," said McCallie. "You just don't know; there's such a learning curve. I definitely knew of her abilities and what she could do, and I'm not the least bit surprised at the success that she is having because of the kind of the kind of person she is."
With perennial Big Ten power Michigan State searching for a replacement for last season's dynamic duo of all-time leading scorers Liz Shimek and Lindsay Bowen, DeHaan has given the Spartans' offense a new look.
The squad is averaging 66.8 points per contest - on course with last year's average of 68.5 - and has four players contributing double-figure scoring totals. Only three Spartans accomplished that feat in 2005-06.
"It gives us so many options," said DeHaan. "Offensively, we just want to get the ball inside and out, make sure the post touches the ball and if we get double-teamed, we know our teammates can shoot it or can drive. We have so many offensive weapons and it's great. As long as we keep being patient and execute, our offense will be successful."
Leading the team, senior guard Victoria Lucas-Perry is netting 14.1 points per game, while sophomore forward Aisha Jefferson is scoring 10.2 with almost seven rebounds per contest. Rene Haynes, who became the 17th player in MSU history to reach 1,000 career points in the Spartans' win against Indiana, is averaging 11.6.
Meanwhile DeHaan is posting Freshman of the Year-like numbers. In three of the past five years, a center has claimed the conference's rookie of the year honors, and DeHaan is well on her way to joining an elite group.
Minnesota's Janel McCarville won the award in 2002. The two-time All-American became the first Golden Gopher to play in four NCAA Championships before being picked first overall in the 2005 WNBA Draft by the Charlotte Sting. The 2004 winner, Ohio State center Jessica Davenport, has claimed the past two Big Ten Player of the Year honors, and Iowa's Megan Skouby led all newcomers in 2006.
DeHaan is currently tops in the country with 4.8 blocked shots per game, and leads the nation's freshman with almost nine rebounds per outing. With 12.2 points per game, DeHaan also ranks among the Big Ten's top 16 in scoring.
After back-to-back NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearances, as well as a Big Ten championship and spot in the national title game in 2005, the Spartans are eager to get back to among nation's elite. So far, DeHaan has done her part to keep the team on track and played a crucial role in guiding the squad to its first 3-0 mark in conference play since 1991 despite her rookie status.
As intimidating as she is when pummeling opponents' shot attempts, the off-court DeHaan is ever-thoughtful and quick to praise her teammates.
"For our success, I think right now we need to just keep getting on each other, keep motivating each other to improve every day, every practice, every game," DeHaan said. "To demand more of each other - I think that's what we're trying to work on most right now."
DeHaan has never considered being tall a guarantee for success in basketball. Instead, the 2005 Michigan Miss Basketball said she has worked even harder to make the transition to college-level competition and make her role more than just taking up space in front of the rim. McCallie said DeHaan's presence has opened up limitless opportunities for the Spartans.
"She changes the game completely," said McCallie. "Defensively, she changes the game by her stature, as long as she's very aggressive. Offensively, she is just such a target. The thing about her that is truly extraordinary is her ability to pass the basketball. Her passing ability is pretty phenomenal for a young person under so much pressure as people try to double or be physical with her."
She has always stood taller than her peers and learned early on how to deal with being the center of attention. But DeHaan had to leave behind the familiarity of the Grandville auditorium for the Breslin Center, where the Spartans cracked the nation's top 10 in attendance for the first time in program history with an average of 6,700 fans a game last year.
She learned a lot more about playing in the national spotlight when the Spartan's took on defending NCAA champion Maryland in front of 12,295 fans at the Terrapins' Comcast Center and countless others who watched the nationally televised game on CBS.
Maryland standout Crystal Langhorne proved too much for DeHaan and the Spartans, but the freshman still managed five blocked shots against the Terrapins' All-American center.
"It certainly was a great learning experience for Allyssa," said McCallie. "She'll learn about defense and moving her feet and playing with such a great player of Langhorne's ability.
"She has gotten better with every practice, every game. It's just exciting to work with someone who is so focused on her own individual development, and at the same time is also so focused on the team development."
DeHaan is continually learning how to deal with the travails of facing physical, up-tempo Division-I opponents while adjusting to college lifestyle of classes and the stress of time management. With stunning passing skills for a post-player, DeHaan is crafting her inside-out play and learning to pick apart double teams.
Over the summer, she worked on her strength and added 30 pounds to her long and lean frame. DeHaan's greatest task this season is becoming more aggressive, especially playing in the Big Ten trenches with some of the nation's most physical and successful players, such as Davenport and Skouby.
Senior Katrina Grantham, the Spartans' 6-1 forward, got a first-hand display of DeHaan's improved aggressiveness during summer play. DeHaan's elbow met Grantham at face level and left her with a broken nose.
"Overall the aggressiveness is higher and the tempo is faster, but it just makes everything so exciting and brings a greater challenge to the table," DeHaan said. "I'm ready to accept that challenge and as a team we are, too."
Despite being slowed by a third-degree ankle turn that took her out of preseason training for about 10 days, it didn't take long for DeHaan to adjust to collegiate competition.
She showed of her newfound aggressiveness by breaking the school's single-game blocks record in only her second collegiate contest. She whacked away eight shots in the Spartans' win against Texas-Arlington to erase the previous record of seven blocks set by Annette Babers in 1992.
"That was exciting. It was great for the team," said DeHaan. "It gets the team so excited when I block a shot, and it gets the fans excited. Now I can just keep improving and keep breaking my own record."
Sure enough, she did.
In Michigan State's Big Ten opener, the freshman blocked nine shots to readjust the record again, and eclipsed Kristen Rasmussen's season record of 57 by three - in only 12 games. She also faced more big-time competition against LSU All-American Sylvia Fowles in mid-December. Despite the MSU defeat, DeHaan netted 10 points, 11 rebounds and blocked three of Fowles' shots.
Along with figuring out how to handle the physical demands of double- and triple-teams, DeHaan is also learning to deal with the mental pressure.
After Conference USA foe Houston nearly silenced DeHaan in a Spartan win, the freshman rallied with a vengeance to claim Big Ten Player of the Week honors the week of Dec. 3 after a career-best night against Rhode Island. She posted one of the best single-game performances by a rookie in the program's history with 28 points and 10 rebounds. She followed that with a 20-point, nine-rebound, eight-block performance against South Florida to help seal Michigan State's 79-71 win.
"For me it goes back to being aggressive," DeHaan explained. "The more aggressive I am, the more blocks I'll get, the more rebounds I'll pull down. The more aggressive I am, the better I will be able to help the team.
"I just came out prepared and ready, but there was no way I could be so successful offensively if they didn't get me the ball, and they did that great."
Next on her list of achievements? Perhaps, she will be showing off that dunk.
"That would bring total excitement to everyone - it gets the team all crazed up and the fans go wild," DeHaan said. "It would be a really great thing for this program, and it would be an accomplishment for me."
For DeHaan, the decision to join Michigan State wasn't about the chance to rewrite the Spartan record books or become the face of women's college basketball. It was about a different dream.
When colleges started taking note of her basketball prowess, DeHaan realized the game she loved could be the best way to achieve her biggest off-court ambition: becoming a doctor. With countless suitors taking note, narrowing down all of her college options was quite a task for the whole family. To visit all of those colleges would have been impossible, so DeHaan started visiting places in ninth grade.
When she narrowed her choices, she didn't narrow them down according to the level of play. It was more about where she felt comfortable academically. She looked closely at Division II Grand Valley State and NAIA Cornerstone College, both of which are within 20 miles from her home.
When she chose the pre-med field, the choice just became obvious.
"Obviously the basketball program is top-notch," DeHaan said. "And the two big factors were a successful basketball program and wherever I could be successful academically."
The support of her family was also an important factor. The DeHaans are cheering for her at almost every game, only missing out on trips to California and Texas.
Michigan State is a little over an hour's drive from DeHaan's home in Grandville, Mich., where it's easy to see how she got all that height. Her father, Brandon, is 6-6, and her younger brother, Collin, is 6-5, though DeHaan said is expected to reach over 7-0.
Tracie is 6-4 and played basketball at Northwestern in the early 1980s, not long before McCallie spent her undergraduate days as a Wildcat.
"Playing college ball was quite an adjustment for me," said Tracie DeHaan. "It was really a challenge, but I was up for it and when I played ball, I gave my best and I did my best. It opened a lot of doors for me, and I've got a lot of good experiences that I remember from that."
Tracie played against some of the game's biggest legends, including Cheryl Miller and twins Pam and Paula McGee from USC, and Old Dominion's Anne Donovan, the 1983 Naismith Player of the Year. At the Spartans' media day, McCallie didn't shy away from likening the younger DeHaan to Donovan, a 6-8 center who went on to win two Olympic gold medals for the United States.
Brandon and Tracie DeHaan keep tabs on a lot of players across the country, so they can help prepare DeHaan for her competition. Tracie has been able to do her share of reminiscing with her daughter on the court and some of her former opponents on the sidelines as coaches. But much like her daughter, Tracie takes the most pride in the game's success as a whole.
"It's very exciting to see how well women's basketball is doing overall and celebrate with all the great players," she said. "It's great to see the Big Ten players and all the players nationwide doing so well in women's basketball, to see these girls not only play ball, but also graduate, especially with meaningful degrees.
"I get especially excited when I see girls with dreams. When I see my daughter with the dream of becoming a doctor, I can't help but want to support her and hope that she achieves that dream. I know she's going to accomplish that at Michigan State, and I see that happening around the country. They're not just playing sports; they're helping them achieve their dreams."
One inch at a time.