UConn women land No. 1 prospect Azzi Fudd

    Katie Barnes is a writer/reporter for espnW. Follow them on Twitter at Katie_Barnes3.

Azzi Fudd, the consensus top women’s basketball prospect in the Class of 2021, ended years of speculation on Wednesday, announcing that she will attend UConn in the fall, joining one of the most dynastic programs in the history of sports.

Fudd, who was 12 when she received her first scholarship offer, has been compared to WNBA superstar and likely Hall of Famer Maya Moore. At 15, she outshot the best boys’ prospects in the country at Stephen Curry’s SC30 Select Camp. At 16, she became the first sophomore in history to win the Gatorade National Girls’ Basketball Player of the Year award. She turned 18 on Wednesday and marked the occasion by signing her national letter of intent on the first day of the NCAA’s early signing period.

“I think her coaches and everyone that she’s come in contact with have done a phenomenal job of getting her so fundamentally sound and so ready for college basketball,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. “We’re just absolutely thrilled to have the opportunity to coach Azzi for the next four years.”

The 5-foot-11 guard/forward from Washington, D.C.’s St. John’s College High School announced her decision after spending much of the past 18 months recovering from a devastating April 2019 knee injury — a torn ACL and MCL suffered at USA Basketball’s U18 3×3 tournament — and most of the past eight months separated from competitive basketball because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I know that UConn will be able to push me to be the best player I can be,” said Fudd, who averaged 19.2 PPG and 3.5 RPG after returning from her injury for the last 19 games of her junior season.

Fudd, named after Hall of Fame player Jennifer Azzi, becomes the fourth No. 1 prospect in the past five years to commit to UConn, and she could be the best yet. Her jump shot is already considered a work of art by one of the game’s connoisseurs.

“She can be going full speed, and stop on a dime and have, like, a feathery release,” said two-time NBA MVP Stephen Curry. “I think she has more of a textbook jumper than anyone I’ve seen. Maybe Klay Thompson and Azzi Fudd. … You go Ray Allen, Klay Thompson, and Azzi Fudd, textbook. You would teach somebody how to shoot with their form.”

Azzi Fudd’s journey to a college decision didn’t come easily — or quickly. This is the story of the six-year-long recruitment that led Fudd — a player widely predicted by scouts, trainers and basketball insiders alike to change the landscape of college basketball and eventually the WNBA — to choose Auriemma’s legendary program.

A few weeks after Fudd finished sixth grade, her mother, Katie, got a phone call from her husband, Tim, who summoned her to Maryland’s campus, 25 miles from the Fudds’ home in northern Virginia. Tim had driven Azzi to campus earlier in the day so she could attend Maryland’s Elite Camp, a summer skills camp geared toward competitive players ages 12-18. Against juniors and seniors — kids four, five, and six years older than 12-year-old Azzi — she held her own.

“I think you’re going to need to come over here,” Tim said, watching his daughter. “Coach [Brenda] Frese wants to have a meeting.”

Katie, who played at NC State and Georgetown, met Tim and Azzi in Frese’s office. Azzi, five months before her 13th birthday, munched on a salad, oblivious of the enormous moment that was to come. And it was then, in that June 2015 meeting, that Frese offered Azzi her first scholarship — to play at the University of Maryland 6½ years from then, beginning in the 2021-22 season.

“Do you have anything to say?” Katie asked her daughter.

Azzi looked up from her salad, gave a little shrug and a bright smile. “Thank you!”

After the meeting, Azzi went back to camp and continued playing.

Katie, stunned, looked at Tim. “Wow.”

That meeting, and the summer of 2015, launched the Fudds on a recruiting journey to every corner of the country. In September, they stopped at Notre Dame on the way to Minnesota, then visited UCLA while spending Christmas in California with Katie’s family. Azzi was in the stands on Feb. 8, 2016, when UConn played South Carolina at Colonial Life Arena, and that summer the family added Michigan and Michigan State to their road-trip tradition.

A year later, the summer after Fudd’s eighth-grade year, the Fudds took a southern swing to visit Louisville and Vanderbilt, then on the way home pulled off in Knoxville to see the legendary University of Tennessee. Fudd’s first trip to Storrs wouldn’t come until a few months later, during the fall of her freshman year.

Six years of calls and letters and emails and spontaneous road trips, each school with its pros and each with its cons. Each with a slightly different pitch — adding more swirls to the decision tornado inside this teenager’s mind.

“I hate making decisions,” said Fudd, who was the last uncommitted top-35 prospect at the start of the NCAA early signing period. “Every time I would sit down and think about it, I would end up in tears. I wouldn’t like talking to my parents because they’re not big emotional people.”

Said Tim, who played collegiately at American: “She got really quiet over the last year.”

On Aug. 27, Fudd sat at the head of her grandmother’s dining room table in her Shoreview, Minnesota, home, clutching two pieces of paper. Tim sat on her right, Grandma Karen on her left. Karen, Katie’s stepmother, appointed herself to facilitate a conversation between Azzi and Tim. Katie was supposed to join, but she’d already returned home to Virginia because her mother had fallen ill.

It’d been six years since Fudd sat in Coach Frese’s office. Since then, she had become the youngest member of the U16 and U17 gold-medal-winning national teams. She had averaged 26.3 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists during her national-award-winning sophomore campaign.

She’d considered offers from UConn, Louisville, Oregon, UCLA, Kentucky, Texas, Notre Dame and Maryland. But as she sat with her dad and Grandma Karen, 76 days until signing day, she was down to her final two: UConn and UCLA.

The need for Grandma Karen had become clear a few weeks earlier, when a family conversation about Azzi’s college decision, one of hundreds the family had had over the years, devolved into an argument.

“I made it about me,” Tim says now. He wanted Azzi to understand that he couldn’t just hop on a plane and go to games if she was far away. Say, at UCLA. When he went to American, his parents were there. “I could hear my mom calling my name in the middle of a 20,000-person arena. Those are cherished memories for me now.”

“Honestly, my dad is a little dramatic,” Fudd said. “When I heard him say that, I just rolled my eyes.”

Back in Shoreview, after dinner, Grandma Karen began her mediation. That morning, she’d asked Tim and Azzi to compile lists of pros and cons for each school. She asked her son-in-law and granddaughter to share with each other without judgment or interruption.

As Azzi read her list, Tim found himself taken aback by the depth in her thinking. “We knew who the [programs] were, but I didn’t know why she liked them,” he said, reflecting on the conversation.

The next morning, Azzi wandered down to Grandma Karen’s office from her bedroom upstairs. She found her grandmother seated behind her desk. Azzi took a seat on the floor and played with her dog, Curry. Karen asked Azzi what she’d thought about the previous night’s conversation. Azzi said she’d thought about everything Tim had said and the arguments that had forced the mediation. She thought about what she wanted out of her basketball career and the importance of having her parents, who’d always been her coaches, in the stands. She began to home in on a decision, but she still needed more time.

Sitting in the back seat of the family minivan as her father drove along I-84, a few miles from the exit to UConn, some six hours from home, Fudd decided the time was right. It was Oct. 22, and they were en route to Storrs to surprise Paige Bueckers, now a UConn freshman and Fudd’s best friend, for her birthday.

In the months since sitting in Grandma Karen’s dining room, Azzi’s decision had crystallized.

With just the three of them, there was nothing that could derail the discussion. No last-minute training sessions or evening naps. No distractions at all, just the three of them in the tight quarters of their beige Chrysler Pacifica.

“You should do your homework,” Katie said from the front of the van.

“Ugh,” Azzi scoffed. She countered: “Don’t you want to talk about schools?”

“OK,” Katie said.

Azzi paused.

“I’m going to UConn,” she said.

As the words left her mouth, Azzi saw Tim’s shoulders, which had risen in anticipation from the driver’s seat, fall in relaxation. He blew out a sigh of relief. It was over.

Katie turned from the passenger seat and smiled: “I’m so proud of you.”

Fudd’s commitment could give the Huskies the No. 1-ranked recruiting class for the first time since 2012.

In Storrs, she will join a deep backcourt, which is expected to feature 2018 No. 1 top prospect Christyn Williams and Bueckers, the top recruit in the 2020 class. UConn hasn’t won a championship since 2016 — a brief drop in dominance that seems ridiculous to even consider. But UConn has gone more than four years without a championship twice since winning its first in 1995.

So how many championships does Fudd want?

“Well, obviously four,” she said.

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