LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – For Louisville women's basketball standout Hailey Van Lith, the summer was perpetual motion. She was in California working out with private trainers, G-League players and even some in the NBA. She was in France and Montreal representing Team USA in 3-on-3 basketball. She took part in the AmeriCup team trials in Colorado Springs.
"It went by super fast," Van Lith said Tuesday during Louisville's annual media day. "It was super busy. I had a ton of great experiences. But I'm a routine girl. It was good to get back on campus, get with my team, get my routine and just start the great year that I know we're going to have."
The 5'-7" sophomore from Wenatchee, Wash., is a study in self-awareness. Listen to her for any length of time and she'll break down her own game, strengths and weakness, as if she's someone else, as if she's a coach giving you her scouting report.
As much as she is a product of work ethic and routine, her decision for such a frenetic offseason was by design. She wanted to break out of the routine because she wanted to challenge herself to deliver in a variety of settings and a variety of challenges.
The reason? She felt like she was inconsistent as a freshman. She might have a good night followed by an off night. A good week followed by a so-so week.
Van Lith averaged 11.2 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, playing 30.2 minutes per contest as a freshman. But she judged her freshman year as uneven.
"For me, consistency was my issue, which may or may not have been impacted by the COVID we had," she said. "I couldn't find a flow. I was inconsistent. I feel like my team couldn't really rely on me to produce every, single game. So I wanted to put myself in different situations in the offseason, whether it was changing up the gym, or who was training me that day, just to create an unfamiliar routine so I could work on producing in a different arena or different style. Just letting my mechanics take over during fatigue, things like that."
Van Lith trained much of the summer with Jordan Lawley, an NBA skills trainer based in Irvine, Calif., who has worked with numerous NBA and WNBA players. She worked out with Te-Hina Paopao of Oregon and Brooke Dimitri of Stanford. She played against men from the G-League and was worked out by Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy, a renowned NBA skills coach.
Much of it is right there on YouTube. Van Lith on the court with 9 professional and college men's players, digging out steals, pulling up for threes, blowing by for layups.
"It was," Van Lith said, "a lot of learning."
But she had a purpose. She wanted to improve her physical conditioning, and did. While she said she dropped only 6 pounds over the summer, she reduced her body fat by 7 percent.
As a result, she said she has gotten quicker. But it wasn't just foot-speed she was after. Van Lith has worked to cut down her release time, and to shorten-up her game to be able to get shots off faster. Louisville coach Jeff Walz asked her to improve her ability to score in tight spaces, and to work on shooting the ball quickly off of a catch.
"I shot a pretty good percentage from the 3-point line and the field, but it was too slow," she said. "I couldn't get more shots up because I couldn't get it up in time. And I knew this year with some teams' defensive schemes with us that I was going to have even less time. So I've sped up my game, and my release, I have a higher arch. I got my fadeaway more consistent, for when I have longer defenders on me, so overall speeding up my shot."
She has fine-tuned her offensive game. It was a lot of detail work.
"Scoring in small spaces was one goal, and not always needing a dribble to get my shot, was another thing," she said. "Just catch-and-shoot first. They call me a bulldog, in that I always want to go hard to the basket, go right at someone, but they want me to play in that space more and look for my shot first, use a jab step and pump-fake to a one-dribble pull up. Just keep my spaces smaller to give people less time to help.
"I mean, for me personally, I think I'm pretty skilled offensively. It wasn't like I had to put in a lot of new moves. I had to decide what moves I like the most and really nail them down. Three moves, the jab step, the pump fake, the hezzy that I like the most, and get the quickest shot out of it. Even finishing around the rim, I needed to get more arch on my short-distance shots. So it was really not always pounding workouts, where I was sweating my butt off or running more, but it was, 'OK you have to make 10 shots standing right here and they have to be perfect swishes."
Van Lith is a preseason All-ACC selection and is expected to be a leader on this Louisville team, but Walz is quick to point out that she is merely one important part of a talented cast on a team ranked No. 6 nationally in the preseason. While the natural question for Louisville is "Who's next?" after the departure of two-time ACC Player of the Year Dana Evans, Van Lith's assignment isn't to fill the role that Evans filled.
"She's done a great job," Walz said. "No one is going to question her work ethic. She's the hardest worker I've got on the team, and nobody would sit here if you asked them and say, 'Oh, that's not true.' She is. And now it's a matter of performing. She had a great freshman year. Now there's going to be more expectations. Just more put on her plate. I've been very impressed with what I've seen so far. . . . She's really enjoyed the process of studying the game, understanding angles, understanding opportunities."
There are opportunities on and off the court. A high-profile player since high school, she is expected to be a top earner in the age of name, image and likeness. But she has proceeded in a cautious, determined way. In August, she signed with the Octagon agency, an international group that represents Giannis Antetokounmpo, Simone Biles, Steph Curry, Michael Phelps and others.
In the meantime, she is more focused on her game. One part of that process has been playing 3-on-3 basketball for Team USA in a couple of U23 settings. Van Lith has played 3-on-3 throughout her young career, and she said the experience has helped her develop her overall game.
"I love it. It's refreshing," she said. "It's totally different from 5-on-5. It allows me to work on every part of my game. You can't hide in 3-on-3. If you can't guard someone, you're going to get exposed. If you can't shoot the three, you're going to get exposed, or if you can't finish around the rim. It just makes you be a well-rounded player, and it got me in shape, honestly. I'll do it anytime I get the chance."
While working to condition herself physically, Van Lith has also employed a new set of tools to improve her overall wellness on the court. She said that her left leg is a half-inch shorter than her right, and her left foot a half-size smaller.
This has caused her problems in the past, and even last season resulted in soreness in her knees and back. As she has worked with trainers at U of L, she said, she has learned to compensate for that situation.
"I actually have a leg-length discrepancy. The right side of my body is naturally stronger and thicker than my left," she said. "So I worked really hard on my left side, because last year it was causing me a lot of nagging injuries – my back was always hurting, my left knee was always hurting. My right leg was more sore than my left because I was not using my left. A lot of nagging things that could be fixed if I just put an emphasis on equalizing both sides of my body."
Trainers now do soft-tissue stretching before every practice, and she wears a quarter-inch orthotic in one shoe. That, along with focusing on her left leg in the weight room, has made a difference.
"I feel great," she said. "My conditioning is the best it's been, my physical strength is the best it's been. I carried over what I learned last year and what my body responds to best in the treatment room, so hopefully it will last all year."
She's hoping it all adds up to consistency, and a breakout sophomore season.
"I do understand that my teammates may need more from me," she said. "I wanted to be in the best shape of my life this year, knowing that I had to step up offensively and defensively. . . . I want to make that jump where I'm not every other game, I'm not one out of three games. Every game my teammates can trust me to come out and play hard. I hope that's where I see my biggest improvement."
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