'A Steph Curry for girls' - How Azzi Fudd could end up inspiring others in women's hoops
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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The NBA workout guru casts her as a female version of Steph Curry for the next generation. The veteran college coach says if she were a male prospect, her ascendance would be chronicled like LeBron James back in the early 2000s. The seasoned analyst wants to be cautious, but admits matter-of-factly that her ceiling is no less than "the best player ever."
Azzi Fudd is the future of women's basketball, and the 16-year-old sophomore at St. John's College High School is remarkably unaffected by that notion. She's too busy enjoying the present to be distracted or impressed by it. She admits that she gets "a little red" when little girls approach her after games for selfies or signatures. She gets "super nervous" before every high school game, even against an overmatched opponent. And even after the University of Maryland offered her a college scholarship in sixth grade – "they had to explain it to me," she laughs now – she's still enjoying the recruiting process.
"I want to help grow the game of women's basketball," she said in a recent interview at her high school. "Even now, it's growing so much. The spotlight it has is growing."
Fudd experienced the same expanding spotlight in the wake of winning the 3-point contest at Steph Curry's Under Armour SC30 Select Camp last summer. One of just two females invited among the top male prospects, Fudd outdueled them all and watched her Instagram following blossom from 3,000 to 30,000.
When asked her favorite part of interacting with Curry, she ponders for a moment. Fudd adores the Golden State guard so much that the Fudd family dog – Curry – is named after him. And while she was giddy about meeting him, she came away from the camp more appreciative than starstruck.
"I thought it was so cool he was doing this," she said, mentioning his participation in drills and nuanced instruction. "It was all genuine."
What is Fudd’s basketball ceiling?
So how good is Fudd? Prominent workout guru Rob McClanaghan, who has trained four NBA MVPs, saw Fudd getting in extra work by herself after the first day of Curry's camp. He asked her if she wanted to work out, and she eagerly agreed. Right away, McClanaghan noticed a rare level of investment, quizzing him on the nuances of footwork.
"That's like Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose and Steph Curry – that's what the great ones do," he said. "This inch or this inch. She loves details like you see in the great ones."
That notion was echoed by Kara Lawson, the former star player who is a respected local analyst for the Washington Wizards and national analyst for ESPN. Lawson's instinct to be cautious about projecting Fudd too much kept intersecting with her true feelings, as she projects an unlimited ceiling.
"She's as complete as anyone I've seen at this age," she said. "She plays like she's 30."
McClanaghan said she flashed a rare ability to learn things and then immediately incorporate them into her game. He taught her a complicated same-foot step back, a move favored by James Harden, that he said is equal-parts difficult and unorthodox. She adjusted seamlessly after just a few reps.
"She could end up being like a Steph Curry for girls," McClanaghan said. "She shoots and handles it like that, but has a change of pace like James Harden. She can dribble and finish with both hands already, which you don't see in men or women at that age."
That natural flair can be traced to the organic roots of her skill development. Her parents were both college stars with an affinity for individual workouts. Kids of coaches have been described for decades as having grown up in the gym. But her father, Tim Fudd, points out that Azzi often napped in bleachers or dozed off in her baby carrier to the echoes of bouncing balls and her parents screaming individual instruction. She’s even named after Jennifer Azzi, the former Olympian and star player at Stanford.
Azzi Fudd didn't show an immediate basketball obsession, but when she dribbled up the court with her off-hand (left) and flashed perfect shooting form in her first-ever game as a first-grader, Tim could only chuckle.
"The skill development was through osmosis," he said. "After that first game, she didn't want to do anything else but play basketball," he said. "The love happened quickly."
And the love of the game can be traced to a love born of basketball.
Her parents met in the most appropriate venue – a gym. Katie Smrcka-Duffy and Tim Fudd both coached at the Potomac School (Virginia) when introduced by a fellow coach named Matt Carlin. Azzi's parents were married, even more fittingly, on the basketball court at St. Joseph Catholic School in Herndon, Virginia, in a ceremony where the guests were asked to wear sneakers as to not scuff the floors.
The bridal parties took it a step further, wearing customized Nike Huarache basketball sneakers customized with the date – 10-15-05. The groomsmen wore black Nikes and the bridal party white. "It was economically friendly," said Tim Fudd of the venue, noting that Katie ran many of her workouts there.
Tim Fudd isn't Azzi's biological father, but he adopted her at 2 when he married Katie and he's the only father that she's known. Azzi began calling him Dad before they were married. That meant she grew up with a pair of parents married both in a gym and blissfully wed to the monotony and muscle memory that comes with player development.
"Her parents were both great players, but they were also dedicated to the skill development, player development and basketball IQ part of it," said Mike Gillian, the former coach at Division I Longwood, where Tim Fudd served as his assistant.
Katie Smrcka-Duffy Fudd won ACC Rookie of the Year as a freshman at NC State before transferring to Georgetown, where she finished as the school's second all-time leading scorer despite playing just three seasons. She was known for her feathery jumper, which led to a school-record 38.4 percent 3-point percentage. (The Hoyas are not a factor in Azzi's recruitment for multiple reasons, ranging from apathy by the staff to Katie's unfavorable experience there.)
Azzi's mom got drafted by Sacramento of the WNBA in 2001, but injuries cut short her professional career before it started. She runs Game Time Skills out of Arlington, Virginia, which specializes in individual instruction and essentially means she passed down the family craft to her daughter. "My mom taught me my shot, and my dad refines it," Azzi said.
Tim Fudd was a 6-foot-7 forward at American University who utilized his will, passion and love of the game to evolve into a high-end player who averaged 19.0 points a game as a junior in 1993-94 after averaging 3.7 as a freshman. He carved out a five-year overseas career in four countries – Finland, Holland, Spain, Venezuela – and upon return he never found an adequate replacement for the competition that sustained him. He references "chasing the game," like a basketball junkie searching for the next adrenaline high.
Upon returning from Europe, Azzi's dad got into coaching for an outlet, searching for players who could match his passion. (Tim Fudd tried officiating, but found himself coaching the players instead of policing them.) When Fudd ended up as an assistant at Longwood, he relished individual development right down to having players hold bricks in defensive stances on sidelines in practice.
When his daughter's shot gets funky, Tim Fudd, who moonlights as an assistant for St. John’s, provides the maintenance through games of Swish 15. She describes it as the cruelest game for when her jumper feels wonky, as it requires exactly what the title describes. A swish is worth a point, a non-swish make counts for nothing and a miss is negative one. All the way to 15. By the time the game evolves from out to the 3-point line, it can be borderline tortuous. "It's a lot of shots, especially if you're not shooting well," Azzi said. "But it always helps."
How did she get so good?
Azzi's embrace of the endless rhythms of practice reps helped fuel her trajectory. In first grade, Azzi played with third-graders; in fifth grade, she was the MVP of a local all-star game for seventh and eighth-graders; and she's even been playing up age groups for Team USA. What's struck those who've seen her emerge into a player regarded as the best high school prospect regardless of class – she has two full high school seasons left – is the grace, humility and maturity that have been the hallmark of her ascent.
"Very normal," says Lawson, the former Tennessee and WNBA star. "I've not spent a lot of time around her, maybe a dozen times. She's very normal and easy to have a conversation with. She's a normal teenager, very polite and is a great teammate."
As a sophomore at St. John's, she's dominating her peers. She won the Washington Post All-Met Player of the Year as a freshman and is favored to win it again as a sophomore. Under coach Jonathan Scribner, she averaged 26.3 points, six rebounds and 2.5 steals per game this year. St. John's finished the season 35-1 and is No. 2 in the latest USA Today national poll. The Cadets won both the prestigious WCAC league title and District of Columbia State Athletic Association title. Scribner said there's no worry about her getting bored at this level, as she's preparing to evolve into a leader in next year's team. "She's a savant," he said. "She's just better at basketball than everybody. How do you explain that?"
Since her Maryland offer in sixth grade, Fudd has drawn the attention of all of the nation's top college programs. UConn's Geno Auriemma was at the first workout college coaches could attend during Azzi's freshman year, which set the tone for perhaps the highest-stakes women's basketball recruitment of this decade. Scribner said the best way to sum up her recruitment is to identify the top-10 programs in the country, and that list is her top-10 schools. Tim Fudd jokingly asks for Maryland to be listed first because of geography, and usual suspects like UConn, Notre Dame and South Carolina are on her long list along with a handful of other prominent schools.
Tim and Katie will be co-directors of a program – GTS Fusion, named after Katie's Game Time Skills platform – on the Under Armour grassroots circuit this summer. With Under Armour attempting to shake up Nike's domination of the grassroots women's scene, it's fitting that they have the best player from founder Kevin Plank's high school – he's a 1990 St. John's graduate – as centerpiece.
"She's a huge attribute in this UA circuit," said Tim Fudd. "Because of the type of personality she has, it's really easy for you to start envisioning other things."
Could that lead to Azzi leaning toward an Under Armour school? Could she someday end up becoming the foil to Curry as the face of Plank's brand? That's all far away – close enough to ponder but seemingly miles away as she chats in an office at St. John’s in her gray school uniform.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Fudd's game is that there's nothing freakish about it. She's a shade under 6-foot, can't dunk and is an above-average athlete. She's not a 6-foot-4 dynamo like former UConn star Breanna Stewart or a Zion Williamson-like rare genetic specimen. Instead, her career is shaping up on a rare trajectory because of her dedication to skill development.
It's a little bit like a certain slight shooter's career arc – a player with well-known parents, a refined shooting stroke and decent athleticism who has willed himself through precision and repetition into one of the world's best players. It's not hard to envision Fudd's career arc continuing on the same path, one rep at time.
For now, though, she’s happy inspiring girls in the Washington D.C. area the same way Curry inspires her.
"People say, 'My daughter plays basketball because she loves watching you play,'" Azzi Fudd said. "It's refreshing, almost, and makes me want to keep working and keep getting better."
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