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Arizona commit Maya Nnaji’s aspirations extend far beyond basketball

Maya Nnaji led Hopkins to its eighth Minnesota Class AAAA state title on Monday. (Courtesy of Apham Nnaji)

Maya Nnaji is one of the 10 best high school basketball players in the country, a three-time state champion and a McDonald’s All-American.

But those close to the Arizona commit know basketball doesn’t define her; it’s just a part of who she is.

Nnaji, the Hopkins High School (Minnetonka, Minn.) senior, is an aspiring doctor who provides care packages to homeless people across Minneapolis; an amateur writer whose teacher encouraged her to turn a short story into a novel; and a trustee in the Nnaji Family Foundation, which is building basketball courts and educational centers across Nigeria.

“[Athlete] is what she is now,” said Gillian McNeal, one of Nnaji’s former teachers. “But the skills and things she learned, she’s taking it and branching out in so many ways. She’s going to help the world.”

Nnaji, 18, counts Maya Moore as a role model, and not just because of the WNBA MVP’s on-court accomplishments: Nnaji watched in awe as Moore stepped away from the game at her peak in 2019 to fight for social justice and help free Jonathan Irons, who was serving a 50-year prison sentence for a crime he did not commit.

“She knows she has bigger things to chase and more important things to work on,” Nnaji said of Moore. “People maybe didn’t understand her decision, but it really resonated with me.”

Nnaji’s holistic worldview is by design. Her parents, Apham and Janel, have always made sure their children’s interests stretch beyond sports. Nnaji, her younger sister Josie and her older brother Zeke, who now plays for the Denver Nuggets, join their parents on regular trips to Apham’s native Nigeria. All three children are also musically inclined — Nnaji has sung the national anthem before games, Zeke is a virtuoso piano player and Josie plays the piano and guitar. And then there’s the extra classwork.

“My parents made sure we filled our extra time with doing extra schoolwork,” Maya said. “Doing extra math stuff, doing a lot of reading, doing a lot of writing, practicing spelling and making sure we’re excelling in everything we can do.”

That includes helping others. Nnaji hopes to follow in Moore’s footsteps, whatever direction that might take her in — even if it means stepping away from the game earlier than expected.


The Nnaji Family Foundation (Courtesy of Apham Nnaji)

Nnaji’s desire to be of service to disadvantaged populations stretches back to the beginning of high school.

For a ninth-grade community service project, Nnaji decided to give out care packages around Minneapolis. She, Janel and Josie bought paper bags and blankets from Menards, fruits, vegetables and bread from Sam’s Club and Costco, and toiletries from the Dollar Store. They put together individual packages and drove around the city, offering them to the homeless.

“I didn’t give them a house. I didn’t give them a bunch of money,” Nnaji said. “I could do more to save their lives. But I felt like it was so touching to see the small act of kindness just make their whole day.”

Nnaji and Josie continue to deliver care packages today and have named the informal initiative “Silent Strength.”

That same year, in McNeal’s language arts class, Nnaji penned a powerful story on civil rights and police brutality.

“The kid grew up in a family, and they all did everything right,” Nnaji said, describing the story. “Then his dad was killed from a gang-initiation and his mom was killed being pulled over by a cop. It talks about the system of oppression that Black people are in. No matter how hard you work, you can work twice as hard and still be taken by the system.”

McNeal was so impressed, she told Nnaji to turn the short story into a novel.

“A ninth grader writing like this is uncanny,” McNeal said. “I remember bringing it back and saying, ‘I don’t even know what to say. This was unreal and I think I need you to make this into a book.’

“To get this voice out there, especially in the times we are living in now, this is such a strong voice and it’s actually being written by a teen, which has a whole other level of impact on people.”

The book remains a work in progress, but Apham has promised to get it published if her daughter finishes writing. McNeal said she wants an autographed copy.

Nnaji’s perspective is informed in part by those family trips to Nigeria, where she came across families unable to get necessary medical care because they lacked money for hospital visits.

“You have people dying from simple and curable diseases,” Nnaji said.

Arizona offered Nnaji, a 6-foot-4 forward who averaged 16.5 points and 9.3 rebounds this season, a pathway to pursue basketball and medicine. A Zoom call with Arizona President Dr. Robert Robbins was a major factor in her decision. A cardiac surgeon and former president and CEO of the Texas Medical Center, Riggins promised to write letters of recommendation and mentor Maya.

“The plan has already been set in place for her,” Apham said. “She’ll be doing summer school to catch up. The whole thing is set up for her to be successful.”

And Nnaji is already thinking about how to best maximize her time. She has applied for Arizona’s Accelerated Pathway to Medical Education program, which would allow her to finish undergraduate and medical school in seven years, instead of eight.

“I know I’m doing it for more than just myself,” Nnaji said. “I’m doing it for thousands and thousands of people who will be able to benefit, and thousands of people I can save and help.”

On a recruiting visit to Arizona in October, helping others wasn’t far from Nnaji’s mind. During a meal with coaches, Nnaji noticed some food had been left untouched. Knowing she wasn’t going to eat the leftovers, she boxed it up, and Arizona head coach Adia Barnes drove her around Tucson as they delivered it to the needy.

“Coach Adia was saying it’s awesome you care so much for so many people,” Nnaji recalled. “She was saying, ‘When you get here, we can do it more often, anytime we’re on road trips or we can have the fans come and do a food donation, do a food drive and deliver it to people around the city as well.’”


The Nnaji Family Foundation, founded shortly after Zeke was drafted into the NBA in 2020, plans to build five basketball courts and educational centers across Nigeria and hold basketball camps across the U.S., including in Fort Collins, Colo.

As a trustee in the foundation, Nnaji is working with Josie to design jerseys kids will wear at those camps.

“In terms of overall vision, they are intimately involved,” said Apham, who co-founded the foundation with Zeke. “They are kids. They know what other kids want.”

The foundation wants to help 300 Nigerian children learn the game of basketball and get hands-on technological training, an experience most college graduates in Nigeria don’t receive, Apham said.

Feeding the hungry is also a priority, with the foundation recently providing 26 meals to families in Nigeria.

“My family, we’ve always vowed that if we’re ever successful, we’re going to make sure to give back first,” Nnaji said. “That’s what we’re doing.”

Much like UConn star Paige Bueckers, her former Hopkins teammate, Nnaji wants to be an inspiration for thousands of girls. But her dreams don’t end there.

Moore gave up basketball for a higher cause. Nnaji’s professional career is still years away, but she’s already prepared to make a similar sacrifice.

“It might be something I have to do,” Nnaji said, her voice taking on a solemn tone, “step away from a game I love to be able to help people that I love.”

Phillip Suitts is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports. He has worked at a variety of outlets, including The Palm Beach Post and Southeast Missourian, and done a little bit of everything from reporting to editing to running social media accounts. He was born in Atlanta but currently lives in wintry Philadelphia. Follow Phillip on Twitter @PhillipSuitts.

The Women’s Cup Finalizes 2024 Tournament With Chile’s Colo Colo

Patricia Padium (L) of Brazils Audax/Corinthians, vies for the ball with Claudia Soto of Chile's Colo Colo during the Women Copa Libertadores final match
The addition of the Chilean side rounds out the Cup's four-team field. (FAVIO FALCON/AFP via Getty Images)

The Women’s Cup field has been finalized, with Chilean club Colo Colo joining the four-team field. 

Colo Colo will join Racing Louisville of the NWSL along with Italy's Juventus and Brazil's Palmeiras at Lynn Family Stadium in Louisville from August 9th through 13th. 

The tournament will have a $100,000 prize pool.

"We are honored to have Colo-Colo as the first Chilean Team to play in The Women’s Cup," said J.P. Reynal, CEO of The Women’s Cup, in yesterday's press release. "Women’s soccer has seen exponential growth in South America and having two of the best teams in the region participating in this year’s tournament is proof they can compete with the top teams from Europe and the United States."

"We are pleased to be considered in this important championship for women’s soccer and very proud that Colo-Colo is one of the most important exponents of this discipline in Chile," echoed Enzo Caszely, president of women’s football at Colo-Colo. "As a club, we have been pioneers in its professionalization at a national level, and this instance is proof of it."

Juventus and Colo-Colo will square off on Friday, August 9th at 5 PM ET followed by Racing Louisville and Palmeiras at 8 PM ET. Tickets can be purchased now via both The Women's Cup's and Racing Lousiville's websites.

This is Racing Louisville's third time featuring in the competition. The team won The Women's Cup's first iteration in 2021, beating German side FC Bayern in penalty kicks at Lynn Family Stadium. The Seattle Reign claimed The Women's Cup in 2022.

The Kansas City Current will also host a Women’s Cup tournament from August 14th through the 17th. The winners of each 2024 tournament will then face each other in the Global Series Finals, scheduled for February 2025.

PWHL Draft Spurs Controversy for League Champs Minnesota

pwhl draft first pick Sarah Fillier
PWHL New York kicked off the 2024 PWHL Draft by selecting Princeton's Sarah Fillier No. 1 overall. (PWHL)

The 2024 PWHL Draft took place on Tuesday, with Princeton and Canadian national team forward Sarah Fillier going first overall to PWHL New York. 

New York also added two defenders and a goaltender, as well as three forwards to make seven solid additions to next season's roster. 

But it was first-ever PWHL champions Minnesota that created the most buzz, with the draft happening just three days after they announced the abrupt departure of general manager Natalie Darwitz following a league review. 

With the 10th overall pick, PWHL Minnesota took Team USA forward Britta Curl. Fans immediately took to the internet to voice their concerns, citing Curl's social media activity. In the past, Curl had "liked" posts on X that targeted the LGBTQIA+ community, particularly transgender individuals. Her activity also showed support for Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old Wisconsin man who fatally shot three unarmed people, two fatally, during a 2020 Black Lives Matter protest.

When asked about the pick — and whether or not he had consulted with any members of the LGBTQIA+ community prior to making the pick — PWHL Minnesota coach Ken Klee opted to defend Curl.

"Did I speak to anyone from the community? I talk with players, with coaches. That’s tough to answer for me," Klee said. "I spoke with a lot of different people. I mean, at the end of the day, I was told she’s a great teammate, a great person. She’s obviously a great player."

The team also had PWHL Minnesota assistant coach Mira Jalosuo, who is married to a woman, announce the pick.

"We have people in that community and obviously Mira making that selection for us, I think that speaks volumes for us," Klee added. "We were just trying to pick the best players available. I wouldn’t want anything to take away from any of those players' experience. It’s unfortunate a little bit at the beginning, but again, it’s okay. People are entitled to their opinion."

Washington Mystics Snap 12-Game Losing Streak

Brittney Sykes #20 of the Washington Mystics shoots the ball during the game against the Atlanta Dream during the 2024 WNBA Commissioner's Cup game on June 11, 2024
Washington guard Brittney Sykes returned from injury Tuesday night to post a game-high 18 points. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The Washington Mystics snapped a team-record 12-game losing streak on Tuesday, taking home their first win of the season over the Atlanta Dream. 

Brittney Sykes returned from injury and made an immediate impact with game-high 18 points, four assists, and three rebounds. As a team, Washington shot over 50% from behind the arc.

"The feel is it's been coming," coach Eric Thibault said after the game. "I said the other night that we're turning into a good basketball team and we just haven't had the wins to show for it yet. We've been playing better basketball now for a while.

"We're obviously shooting well, but I think the quality of the shots we're getting is really good."

Still, the team’s slow start isn't exactly in the rearview mirror. With star forward Elena Delle Donne sitting this season out, the Mystics were always predicted to face an uphill climb in what has been described as a rebuilding year. 

But with a franchise-worst 0-12 record to kick off the 2024 season, the Mystics are likely on track for a lottery pick. However, Washington can point to positive performances from star draft pick Aaliyah Edwards and league newcomer Julie Vanloo.

Elsewhere in the WNBA, the Las Vegas Aces continued their skid with a surprising 100-86 upset courtesy of the Minnesota Lynx. The reigning WNBA champions were shorthanded this week, falling to 5-5 on the season despite MVP-level play from A'ja Wilson, who scored 28 points in Tuesday's loss.

Minnesota shot over 55% as a team, with Alanna Smith leading the team with 18 points. The game marked the Aces' first three-game losing streak since 2019.

"This is a long, long, long season," Wilson said in her postgame remarks. "I'm not going to press the panic button. I'm still going to bet on us. I know exactly what's in that locker room."

Aces stalwart Chelsea Gray has been out with injury since last year's WNBA Finals run. And while she told reporters on Tuesday that she's set to return before the Olympic break, the team can’t get her back soon enough as they continue to struggle with depth. 

"I don't want them thinking too much; then you get paralysis [by] analysis," coach Becky Hammon said. "We're just not being solid in our base. Just be solid defensively. We're not a very good team right now, that's just reality. But we know we can get better. I still have a lot of belief in this ball club."

USA Women’s Basketball Releases Olympic Roster, Explains Clark’s Omission

USA Women's Basketball's Diana Taurasi #12, Brittney Griner #15 and Sabrina Ionescu #6 at April's National Team Training Camp
All the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

USA Women's Basketball announced its official Olympic roster on Tuesday, with officials noting that Caitlin Clark’s lack of national team experience played a key role in her omission.

Selection committee chair Jen Rizzotti said that the committee evaluated players according to a set of on-court criteria they were given.

"When you base your decision on criteria, there were other players that were harder to cut because they checked a lot more boxes," she told reporters on Tuesday. "Then sometimes it comes down to position, style of play for [coach Cheryl Reeve] and then sometimes a vote."

Three first-time Olympians made the squad: Alyssa Thomas, Sabrina Ionescu, and Kahleah Copper. Additionally, Jackie Young and Kelsey Plum will make the switch to the national 5-on-5 team after winning gold in the inaugural 3×3 competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. 

Age, Rizzotti said, was "never brought up" in player selection discussions. It’s the first time in Olympic history that a USA Women’s Basketball 5-on-5 team will travel to the Games without a single player under 26 years old.

Rizzotti commented that all the players tapped for this year's Olympic roster have senior national team experience, something that Clark does not have.

"She's certainly going to continue to get better and better," USA Basketball CEO Jim Tooley added. "Really hope that she's a big part of our future going forward."

Rizzotti said it would have been "irresponsible" to base roster decisions on anything outside of a basketball context. Marketing and popularity were not on the selection committee’s list of criteria. 

"It would be irresponsible for us to talk about her in a way other than how she would impact the play of the team," Rizzotti said. "Because it wasn't the purview of our committee to decide how many people would watch or how many people would root for the US. It was our purview to create the best team we could for Cheryl."

Clark expressed that she'll be using what some consider a snub as fuel for a run at the 2028 Olympic team. 

"I think it just gives you something to work for," Clark told media after practice Sunday. "It's a dream. Hopefully one day I can be there. I think it's just a little more motivation. You remember that. Hopefully when four years comes back around, I can be there."

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" on Expert Adjacent

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