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As women’s basketball goes global, so does Next Generation

At the NBA Academies women’s minicamp this week at the Final Four, players from 16 countries are represented.

CLEARWATER — The girls seamlessly move through basketball workouts, each setting screens and passing the ball as a cohesive unit.

The more challenging task during the NBA Academies women’s minicamp was performing those drills while adapting to different languages. After all, there were 34 high school players from 16 different countries selected to participate.

They spent two days at the Long Center in Clearwater developing skills — on and off the court — to enhance not only their knowledge of the game but also their potential as college recruits.

On Saturday, the three-day camp culminated with a scrimmage at the Tampa Convention Center that included select members of the USA Basketball women’s junior national team. They played in front of fans, as well as big-time college coaches who were here for the Women’s Final Four.

The NBA Academies Women’s program, which started last year, is a part of the NCAA’s Next Generation initiative. This was the first minicamp held at the Women’s Final Four.

“I think these girls have a tremendous opportunity,” said former Stanford standout and Olympian Jennifer Azzi, who is a technical director with the program. “They have never been on this kind of a stage before where college coaches can actually see what they can do. We’ve already been working in regions all across the world to help with player development on an elite level. And so now it’s time for them to be seen and get some exposure.”

The recruiting radar in women’s college basketball now extends globally. Three Oregon starters in Friday’s semifinal were international players, including Sabrina Ionescu, a Romania native who was selected as the national player of the year. USF’s roster this season included eight players from other countries.

Azzi coached at the University of San Francisco for six years, transforming the program into a title contender. She had six international players on her 2015-16 team that won the Western Coast Conference title and earned an automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament.

“College is such a global game now,” Azzi said. “And this is what we wanted to do with the academy, to bridge the gap with the access we have to travel around the world and see a lot of these great players. Colleges want the best talent in the world, whether it’s in the states or elsewhere.”

The success of those players encourages more youths to emulate them, creating more opportunities around the world.

Callie Wright, a junior from Canada, started playing when she was 4. This year, she was selected to the first Women’s BioSteel All-Canadian Game, the country’s version of the McDonald’s High School All-American Game.

“The women’s game is catching up to the men in Canada,” said Wright, who has interest or offers from more than 40 colleges stateside. “This is the first time there was an all-Canadian game for girls. And getting this opportunity to come here is incredible, to learn about different languages and different styles of play from all over the world.”

Nika Muhl, a junior from Croatia, is one of the most coveted prospects in the world. She started playing basketball five years ago for a club team. There are no high school teams in her country. In the past year, Muhl had coaches from UConn, Ohio State, Oregon and USF visit her at home in Croatia to make recruiting pitches.

“It was such a beautiful experience to have them over,” Muhl said. “I was blessed to have (those coaches) over. I mean, they’re like some huge people over here in America.”

Muhl said the dream is not just to play college basketball stateside but also to represent her country in America on a big stage.

“My ultimate dream would be to play in the Olympics,” Muhl said. “Probably second would be the WNBA. So it’s pretty exciting to come over here and be a part of this academy. It’s been the best experience for me.”