JJ Nakai didn't think she'd score 1,000 points in her two years with the Pima Community College women's hoops team. And she couldn't imagine taking over the record in career points at the school.
Maybe it's been hard for the sophomore to keep track of all the milestones and first-evers she's been piling up while playing for the Aztecs.
The former Coconino Panthers girls basketball star has had another stellar season for the Aztecs, who are getting ready to play in the NJCAA Division II Women's National Championship tournament that starts Tuesday in Harrison, Arkansas. Nakai recorded 31 points to go with four steals and six assists in the Region One finals, helping Pima rout Mesa Community College 80-58 for the title and a trip to the national stage.
Nakai enters nationals with 1,307 career points scored and is averaging 24.3 per game on 47 percent shooting from the field this season.
“First, it started off as, ‘Hey, you are going to hit your one thousandth point,’" Nakai said of taking over the scoring record. "So I was like, ‘Oh, wow, awesome,’ because not a lot of people get to that number in two years, especially at the college level. So that was crazy. And then people started talking about the record. I didn’t even know, I was just playing ball, doing what I love to do, but then sure enough I was passing these records.”
When Nakai was a freshman, she became the first-ever Pima player to be named to a Women's Basketball Coaches Association list, receiving honorable mentions. She was also recognized as a First-Team NJCAA All-American and ACCAC D-II Player of the Year in 2018.
With a new season came new milestones.
Nakai set a new program record in assists at Pima. Her career nine ACCAC D-II Player of the Week awards broke former Aztec Sydni Stallworth's record of eight. This year, the star guard became the first Pima women's player to be recognized as ACCAC Player of the Year for both D-I and D-II, and she was also selected first team All-ACCAC and first team All-Region.
Her stats weren't the only thing reaching new heights. Nakai said her coaches praised her growth as a person, and as a leader, during her Pima stint.
“Getting to learn more about myself," Nakai said of her development as a player while playing college hoops, "knowing what I am able to do, what I can push myself to do and just kind of challenge myself. I’ve definitely grown so much, even just in basketball.”
On the court, her ability to get to the free-throw line become a stronger part of her game this season. In 2018, she finished 117 of 149 (78.5 percent) at the foul line, whereas so far in 2019 she has gone 156 for 183 (85.2).
Nakai's shooting from beyond the arc also developed into a better weapon. She attempted 158 3-pointers in 2018 and hit them at a rate of 39.9 percent. This season, she is shooting 43.2 percent from the perimeter on 183 attempts.
“I mean, my shooting has always been there, but I think the range has gotten better. I don’t have to be right at the line, I can take shots three, four steps off the line and be confident in my shot," Nakai said.
She said running the court with other Native Americans who were on the Aztec roster helped her game flourish.
"There is a certain type of way, you could say, that Natives play. We run, it’s a fast pace, and I feel like we were more smart while being fast-paced," Nakai said. "Once we all came together, we meshed well and it had benefits in that we could depend on each other in tough times, and if one person isn’t doing much, another will step up, and then finally we’ll come together and start hitting everything.”
Now Nakai has a chance to make even more of a dent in Pima's program, as the guard wants to add a national title to her list of achievements.
Pima's last trip to the national tournament was in 2016 when the team finished third.
No. 6-seeded Pima plays No. 11 seed Lake Michigan College (27-5) at 9 a.m.
Nakai said she has a feeling her appearance at the nationals will draw even more D-I colleges her direction. Having more decisions about her future is a problem she likes to have.
"I’ve got to narrow it down even more than," Nakai said of her list of D-I programs. "It’s good because I’ll have options, I don’t have to be just stuck in Arizona."