Cats stack top recruiting classes, setting the tone for sustained success

Adia Barnes has noticed the shift. Everybody has, really: Parents, prospects, and other coaches.

After years of climbing, the Arizona Wildcats have broken through — both on the court and in recruiting.

Arizona welcomes the highest-rated freshman class in program history, one that was ranked No. 8 nationally. Maya Nnaji, Paris Clark, Lemyah Hylton and Kailyn Gilbert are all expected to contribute during their first season on campus.

The Wildcats’ 2023 recruiting class is expected to be even better. If signing day was today, Arizona would have the No. 1 recruiting class in the country, according to ESPN’s Hoop Gurlz. Arizona’s class consists of Montaya Dew, Breya Cunningham and Jada Williams, all of whom are ranked in the top 25 players for ’23. Dew is eighth, Cunningham is 14th and Williams is 21st.

The Wildcats remain in the mix for three more top-rated players: Juju Watkins, the top-rated player in the 2023 class; Cassandre Prosper (No. 16); and Chloe Kitts (No. 17). Prosper and Kitts are both 6-foot-2-inch forwards. Kitts played on USA Basketball’s U17 team alongside Gilbert. Watkins played on Team USA alongside Cunningham and Williams, two of the Wildcats’ 2023 recruits.

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Landing one of the three remaining prospects would further boost the Cats’ promising class.

Shane Laflin, who does ESPN’s rankings, said that UA will most likely have a top-5 recruiting class by signing day — possibly as high as No. 2 or No. 3.

“It doesn’t surprise me that they landed the players they’ve landed and that they’re going to be arguably in the consistent top 5 for a while,” Laflin said.

While Barnes doesn’t chase rankings, Arizona’s coach knows what bringing in two consecutive top classes means.

“Everybody knows who we are, they follow our program, our program is recognized and people want to be a part of Arizona women’s basketball,” Barnes said. “They love what we do and want to be apart of it. I think that is special. And just knowing Arizona, being excited about Arizona and they recognize us when we walk in. I think all of that is pretty cool. It makes recruiting a little bit easier.

“People want to come to Arizona. They want us on their list. They want all those things. I get calls now like, ‘One of the schools she wants to go to is Arizona.’ We didn’t have that in the past. I’ve definitely had to fight to get to this point. It took us going to the (2021 national) championship (game), but I think it’s exciting. I think we’ve shown that we’re a program that is not going to be there one year and we’re going to be good for a while.”

Maya Nnaji, the younger sister of Denver Nugget Zeke Nnaji, is the highest-rated player to ever sign with the UA’s women’s basketball program.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

Where it all started

Fittingly, Barnes first puts Bett Shelby on the recruiting trail. Shelby was an assistant at Virginia Tech and then Maryland, while Barnes was at Washington.

Barnes was “a great relationship-builder,” even back then, Shelby said.

“I knew that parents and kids really trusted her at a high level and I knew she was relentless in building relationships. I knew that you really had to put in the work when you were going against her. She had a great reputation, not only in recruiting, but in developing players. I feel like Adia has always had the reputation of being a total coach.”

Barnes helped Washington land Kelsey Plum, who developed into a Huskies superstar before she was taken No. 1 in the 2017 WNBA Draft. She also was one of the first coaches to build a relationship with Aari McDonald, who — after following Barnes from Washington to Arizona — became arguably the best player in Wildcats history.

Barnes and Shelby competed for one high-schooler in particular. The recruit, Destiny Slocum, was named the 2017 WBCA Freshman of the Year at Maryland before transferring to Oregon State and becoming the 14th overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft.

Shelby won out on that one.

“It was a very intense recruiting battle and we joke about it from time to time,” she said.

Shelby and Barnes have time to commiserate now. In June, Barnes hired Shelby—her former recruiting rival—as a special assistant to the head coach.

The story is real

Building relationships is second nature for Barnes, a people-person.

Arkansas coach Mike Neighbors knows this all too well. As a fellow Washington assistant, Neighbors saw Barnes develop into a solid recruiter. Neighbors took over for Kevin McGuff when he left UW for Ohio State, and was Barnes’ boss before she came to Arizona.

To Neighbors, Barnes brings a compelling combination of playing experience — she remains one of the best players in UA history, and was a WNBA mainstay with the Seattle Storm — and coaching acumen.

“There’s a handful of people out there that can tell that story of, ‘I’ve been there as a player. I know what it feels like.’ I think she paints that picture that ‘I’m going to be there for you’ and she can back that up,” Neighbors said.

“It’s not false. It’s real. She did play at a really high level. She did play professionally. She played overseas. She did all the things that a lot of these kids want to do. She’s charming. She’s got a charismatic way about her that people want to be around her. Then the more you’re around her, the more you realize how good of a coach she is, how good of a staff she’s built and how good of a program she’s got. It’s easy for recruits (to pick Arizona). The fact that she (played) as well, that that’s an advantage that not many people have. Think anybody else off the All-Seattle Storm All-Decade team is coaching? Until then she’s got a leg up on a lot of people that can’t tell the story, ‘I’ve been there.’ That’s one piece of the puzzle that is very attractive, to a lot of kids and I think she can tell that story better than anybody.”

In six years as a head coach, Barnes has helped Arizona — once a Pac-12 bottom-feeder — rise to become a national power.

Fans (and recruits) witnessed Arizona’s run to the 2021 national championship game. They saw a passionate coach who allowed her players — particularly McDonald — the freedom to play. The images of Barnes during the 2021 run, from flipping the bird after beating UConn to hugging McDonald after the UA star’s last-second shot fell short in a title-game loss to Stanford, remain etched in people’s memories.

Shelby has seen up close the lengths Barnes goes to making sure each Wildcat is having the best experience possible in Tucson. Recruits hear the stories on their visits and on calls with current players.

“I knew she was good; I probably didn’t know she was this good,” Shelby said. “She goes far and beyond for each kid. She just really, really, really cares. They are sick in the middle of the night. They call our trainer, but they call Adia, too. She’s their mom away from home. … What you see is what you get here. It’s all about family and she really loves it. She does a great job of making sure what she said to these kids and their families during the recruiting processes is lived out here.”

Barnes can also share stories about how she and assistant Salvo Coppa developed players like McDonald, who ended up as the No. 3 draftee in the 2021 WNBA Draft; or Sam Thomas, who went undrafted and stuck with the Phoenix Mercury.

“When you have the ability to show there are different paths to get there through your program, to me, that’s what (player) development is,” Laflin said. “Player development isn’t, ‘I tried to turn you into this cookie-cutter player.’ It’s developing that person, that player to their role, to their value. … That’s going to matter more. … (Barnes can say) ‘There’s different ways to get there. Our stars make it, our role players make it. This is how we did that.’”

Arizona’s Lemyah Hylton drives into the arms of West Texas A&M’s Sienna Lenz, left, and Karley Motschenbacher during Thursday’s exhibition win in McKale Center.

Kelly Presnell, Arizona Daily Star

The climb

Barnes described her first offseason as Arizona’s coach as a sprint. She spent her first few months on the recruiting trail, trying to catch up after her predecessor, Niya Butts, left without signing a single player.

That fall, Barnes signed her first top-100 player. Thomas ended up being the glue of Barnes’ program during his time in Tucson.

The following year, Barnes signed Semaj Smith and Cate Reese, a pair of five-star post players. At the time, Reese rated the nation’s No. 14 recruit and No. 4 post player by ESPN. She was also UA’s first McDonald’s All-American. Last year, Reese was named an AP honorable mention All-American.

Two years later, Arizona landed another five-star post player, Lauren Ware.

Now comes the 2022 freshman class. Nnaji arrives as the highest-rated player — ESPN ranked her No. 9 in the country — to ever sign with Arizona. Nnaji and Clark are both five-star prospects and McDonald’s All-Americans. Gilbert was a member of USA Basketball’s U18 team, while Hylton is a member of Team Canada’s U18 squad and ranked No. 2 among international recruits.

The four fit together well, on and off the court.

“They’re complementary. That’s what makes the class dangerous, and they can fill roles,” Laflin said. “In this class, you have a combo scorer in Gilbert. She can put the ball in the basket, that is undeniable. A little bit to learn in terms of effort, consistency to defend. … She does things that you can’t teach because she can put the round thing in the round thing.

“Paris Clark is tough as hell — (she) played for a demanding high school and club coach. (She) is going to guard; she finds ways to get to the rim. She’s physical, despite not (having an) overbearing stature, and then is good enough in all other areas in terms of shooting and things. She’s going to get in the passing lane; she’s going to harass the ball-handler.

“Lemyah Hylton is long. She’s going to play in the wing and is another one who is going to get in the passing lanes. I would say she has the most to get better at in terms of getting to her ceiling. She played for great, great thinking coach in Canada, where they play systematically, so (she) fits (Arizona).

“And then Maya Nnaji played on a successful club team, a successful high school team. … Obviously, (with) her brother (Zeke, a former Wildcat now in the NBA) and the experience that they’ve got — just a really mature foundation. (Nnaji is) the forward-post that can stretch you, face you up and play in space. You’ve got players around you that can space the floor and all get to the rim and do their thing. And you’ve got to forward who can put it on the deck.”

Arizona’s 2023 recruiting class should just add to the collection of talent.

While Nnaji and Cunningham are both posts, they bring different strengths. Cunningham plays a more traditional post game. Williams is a point guard who can score with a personality to match. (She has already appeared in a Spaulding TV commercial with NBA star Damian Lillard).

Laflin said that Dew is “like a unicorn.”

“As a point guard/forward who makes really good decisions, is good in the ball screen, very bouncy (and) can be a defensive stopper,” Laflin said. “She’s one that will set the table for other people. The day she decides to just eliminate the opponent in front of her, she’s the one to me of all of these (players) that could be the best one. The other ones are good. She does things that you can’t teach. And there’s just something about being that 6-2 forward that could be a three, a four, point-forward that allows Kailyn Gilbert to be aggressive on the catch versus having to set the table or allows Paris Clark to get out in the passing lane because you’ve got some length and size inside. It all works together.”

Shelby likes the recruiting cycle to planting a tree. “You don’t get the fruit of that harvest right away. It’s got to grow,” she said. “I think (Barnes) is seeing the fruits of our labor.”

“I think it does take time to build those types of classes. And it doesn’t happen overnight,” Shelby said. “I think the sky’s the limit for Adia and what she’ll be able to accomplish here. I think she’s going to have a long coaching career. I think she’ll eventually be a legend in women’s basketball.”

Contact sports reporter PJ Brown at [email protected] On Twitter: @PJBrown09