It didn't take long for Gracelyn Nez to get familiarized with playing organized basketball at the varsity level.
The freshman played AAU basketball, where Flagstaff Eagles head coach Tyrone Johnson first got a chance to see her in action when he picked her up for a game. Johnson had heard rumors about the standout talent's abilities and realized just how good she really was once she hit the floor.
“She came out there with a plan and I was like, 'whoa,'” Johnson said of the time he saw her play in the offseason with one of his club teams.
She decided to come out for the Eagles girls hoops team. For Johnson, it was about getting her up to speed in playing in his system and letting her know that she can be a force on offense.
“Just getting her to be aggressive scoring was the first thing that we really focused on, because you could see that she could see the floor well and she could do things that even players who have been playing for a while weren’t doing," Johnson said. "Some of that you don’t have to coach, that’s her natural instinct, but we wanted to make sure that she was comfortable to score.”
By the end of the season, Nez was the team's leading scorer, averaging nearly 12 points per game. Flagstaff finished up its regular-season record at 16-3 and reached the quarterfinals of the 4A Conference state championship tournament. When including tourney games played outside the power-points slate, the Eagles were 22-6.
For her ability to adjust quickly to the varsity level, her natural talents and competitive drive, Nez has been named the 2018-19 Arizona Daily Sun Girls Basketball Athlete of the Year.
Nez's all-around game shined from the start of the season to the finish. She dominated the glass, facilitated the offense and played scrappy defense. She led the Eagles in rebounding and assists at about eight boards and 2.5 assists per game, was the team's top pickpocket at just shy of three steals per outing and was second on Flagstaff's roster in blocked shots per game.
“Being a taller-sized guard, pretty strong kid, and on the perimeter she could hit the paint and make a decision for herself or find a teammate whether it was inside or kicking it back outside," Johnson said. "But if she had a bigger person guarding her, she could go by them pretty easily and get to the basket. If she had a small person on her, we had the luxury of putting it down in the post, having her post up.”
Nez was a great fit for an Eagles team that liked to push the pace. Because she was surrounded by other shooters such as junior Emma Doskicz and seniors Sheridan Edgewater and Hailey Armus, she excelled in fast-break opportunities and half-court situations.
"One of the places I think she really made a huge impact was on the boards. She could go up with good timing, get the rebound and get the ball out, and rebound and begin pushing it, and see people on the floor as we were advancing it," Johnson said.
Nez flirted with a triple-double against crosstown rival Coconino in the team's first meeting of the regular season, registering 10 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Moreover, she tallied her career-high score of 21 points three times and tallied seven double-doubles in her freshman year. Her impressive numbers led to her claiming the Grand Canyon Region's offensive player of the year award in addition to making the All-Region first team.
Nez also didn't flinch in big moments such as in crosstown games and playoff games, partly because she's been there before. She stood out as one of the best players on the Eagles volleyball team, which had its share of success in the regular and postseasons.
Johnson, crediting his young player's upbringing as part of her success, said Nez is a rare talent, one that should be appreciated, saying the city should come out and watch and embrace her talents.
“She is definitely talented at what she does, volleyball or basketball,” Johnson said.