(Christian Jenkins/Just Women's Sports)

The next queen of women’s basketball has yet to be crowned.

Whoever inherits the throne will lay claim to unprecedented riches — and responsibility. Between name, image and likeness (NIL) deals infusing cash into the college game and a $75 million investment from backers into the WNBA, the sport is closer to reaching mainstream popularity than ever before.

“Women’s basketball, in a good way, is going to probably go through some growing pains,” legendary Seattle Storm point guard Sue Bird said. “We’re going to start getting attention that we’re not used to getting. You’re going to probably have more cameras in your face.”

The queen will need to be someone who plays at a high level, but who also stays cool under pressure. Someone who understands the history and the potential of the game. Someone who will not be made by the crown, but who will make the crown themselves.

Someone like Kiki Rice.

Rice, the incoming UCLA point guard, is our inaugural JWS high school basketball Player of the Year, and not just because of her superlative on court-abilities — she’s averaging more than 15 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game entering the State Champions Invitational national tournament next month. The Sidwell Friends (Washington, D.C.) senior, many believe, has the tools and the makeup to help shepherd the sport to the next level.

Central to her appeal is her deferential demeanor. Rice’s family moved from the Bay Area when she was young, and even today she’s more California chill than D.C. domineering.

“From day to day, what’s on my mind is not necessarily, oh, a ton of people are watching me, and I have high expectations,” Rice said. “It’s just about having fun and helping those around me have the same opportunities that I did.”

***

(Christian Jenkins/Just Women's Sports)

It’s a little after 10 a.m. on March 12, and more than a foot of snow is decorating the Sidwell Friends campus. Rice is at the school for the JWS photoshoot, and though she’s the star of the show, she also assumes the role of photographer’s assistant, moving the light stand from station to station. Then she hurries back into position, waits for the flash, and smiles.

In between pictures, she hoists shots on the court where she’s become a local icon.

The basketball gym, which Rice will leave behind this year when she enrolls at UCLA, functions as something of a paean to her basketball power.

Pinned to the balcony overlooking the court is a white banner recognizing her gold medal with Team USA at the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 Championship. Another white banner, hanging against the baseline where Rice has swooshed so many jumpers, commemorates the Quakers’ 2022 D.C. State Athletic Association Championship. And in the locker room, printed on the whiteboard in red lettering, is an axiom that’s helped Rice guide Sidwell to heights few thought were possible: #SUCCESSNEVERRESTS.

(Christian Jenkins/Just Women's Sports)

Before Rice, Sidwell was known more for the presence of Secret Service agents than Division I basketball scouts. Graduates include Barack Obama’s children, Sasha and Malia, Chelsea Clinton, Al Gore III and several of President Joe Biden’s grandchildren.

Rice’s family runs in similar circles; her aunt Susan was Obama’s national security adviser. So when it came to decide on her high school path, Rice felt most comfortable remaining at Sidwell, where she’d become a basketball sensation as a middle schooler, instead of running off to the more competitive Washington Catholic Athletic Conference.

She lifted the Quakers program up with her.

“She laid the foundation for the quality of the kids and people we want in our program,” said Sidwell Friends coach Tamika Dudley, who took over the program ahead of Rice’s sophomore season. “We coach her hard, and she’s OK with that. And I think that sets the example for others.”

It was that work ethic that drew Alex McLean to Rice. McLean, the director of player development for the Washington Wizards, has also worked with UConn stars Paige Bueckers and Azzi Fudd. Rice, he said, has the ability to reach those same heights.

Over the past year, McLean has worked with Rice to improve her jumper from a bio-mechanical standpoint. Using the Noah shooting system, a machine that tracks shots from anywhere on the court and provides verbal feedback for shot arc and depth, McLean helped Rice become a dead-eye shooter.

“She’s always been known for her ball-handling. She’s super fast, super strong. The knock on her was her shooting,” McLean said. “Now she’s knocking stuff down left and right.”

Sidwell opponents, both local and national, witnessed that transformation firsthand. With Rice leading the way, the Quakers enter the State Champions Invitational, beginning April 8 in Tampa, with a 28-0 record.

What was once referred to by locals as the “Obama school” is now the “Kiki Rice school.” But Rice is looking to expand her reach even farther.

“I think if she can convey to the world who she truly is, which I think she will,” Dudley said, “she’s going to be a complete rock star.”

***

Every few nights, when she’s laying in bed with the lights off, Rice flicks her phone to “Do Not Disturb” mode and takes a few moments to reflect.

“It’s just me … thinking back on what’s happened to me, just how fortunate I am to be in the situation I am,” Rice said.

And then she’ll fall asleep, but not for too long. Rice often rises at 5 a.m. for workouts, whether with McLean, Wes Dunning, her strength and conditioning coach who’s helped her become a more physical player (Rice can deadlift almost 300 pounds), or her father John, who played basketball at Yale.

Back in the gym on March 12, right after the JWS shoot, it’s John’s turn for some face-time with the royalty-in-waiting. Rice ties up her hair and trades her Quakers jersey for some workout clothes.

The previous week, Rice had been named Naismith National Player of the Year. The following week, Bird would personally honor her as the Gatorade National Player of the Year. The awards, though, come secondary to the work. Now, it’s time to get up some shots.

The cameras have been stowed away, but Rice’s day is just beginning. Her hair bounces atop her head as she shuffles across the court. Her curls are dyed blond, but from a distance they almost look gold, a custom crown for the next queen of women’s basketball.

Josh Needelman is the High School Sports Editor at Just Women’s Sports. Follow him on Twitter @JoshNeedelman.