Freshman phenom: Jayda Curry conquers CA

as a senior in high school, Jayda Curry made her home into an empire — her empire.

"Freshman

Corona, California, was her first and only home prior to joining the Cal women’s basketball team in Berkeley. The Southern California hooper, who says the hardest part about college so far has been being away from home, had truly taken over the basketball scene in the region and certainly deserved the crown.

The lead point guard at Corona Centennial High School, Curry led her school to its first-ever Southern California regional championship, beating high school sports giant Mater Dei in the final. She scored 27 points and grabbed 10 rebounds to cap off one of the best ever individual seasons in state history.

By the time she left Corona to begin summer workouts in Berkeley, the phenom had been named state player of the year by several organizations — awards that have previously been won by WNBA all-time greats Diana Taurasi and Cheryl Miller. And when it was time to move homes, she didn’t slow down.

Halfway through this past season, Curry was named one of the top five freshman players in the country by ESPN after posting an average of 19.5 points per game at the collegiate level.

It would be an understatement to say that Curry was impressive in her freshman year campaign. How many Division I basketball programs can say that their best player is a freshman? How many freshman players can honestly say that they are not only one of the best young players in the country, but one of the best players in the country, full stop?

Once the queen of Corona, Curry has quickly become the cornerstone of Cal women’s basketball in just one year in Berkeley. If she continues to improve, #30 will almost certainly find herself in the WNBA some day.

What makes it all possible, however, is not merely raw athleticism or talent. She does not command attention; she prefers listening over speaking. Instead of Jay-Z or heavy metal before games, she prefers gospel music to calm her nerves.

She does not rule with an iron fist or feign unrelenting courage.

Under the surface, one will find a wise and thoughtful learner whose introspection is key in her ability to build an empire, no matter where she is.

For the greater part of her life, Curry has been in love with basketball.

Like many future Division I players, she first picked up a basketball at 5 years old. By the time she had finished elementary school, she knew she wanted to pursue basketball for as long as she possibly could.

Unlike many of her current peers, however, Curry’s focus wasn’t solely on hoops from the very beginning. While she was first learning to dribble and shoot, the acrobatic point guard was also learning gymnastics. Even though she only took lessons for a few years in elementary school, the coordination and grace of Curry’s game can, in part, be attributed to those two short but valuable years learning cartwheels and needle kicks.

Once she had to choose one sport, Curry had no qualms about ditching gymnastics for basketball.

“(My parents) wanted to put us in sports and the first one was basketball, as it just so happened,” Curry said. “We (Curry and her younger sister, Layla) just grew to really love it and just want to always be in the gym … I don’t think that there was a specific reason, but they definitely chose the right sport, for sure.”

Much like the Lopez twins and the Gasols, Jayda and Layla are quite the sibling basketball duo. Layla Curry, who played with Jayda in high school, is now an incoming freshman at Loyola Marymount and will continue her basketball career with the Lions.

Curry’s older sister, Kayla, has also made a name for herself, albeit in a different sphere. She is better known as Kayla Nicole, or perhaps by her Instagram @iamkaylanicole, which has 637,000 followers.

Jayda herself has 25,000 Instagram followers, and that number will only continue to grow. She also just recently met her basketball name-alike, fellow #30 point guard Stephen Curry, who gave her a signed jersey at the Chase Center in late January.

When asked what it was like to lead a power five conference team at the age of 18 — an impact that would lead to a flurry of name, image and likeness deal offers, public recognition and a meeting with one of the most famous athletes in the world — Curry began to speak, but then paused for a moment. She then offered a response indicative of wisdom beyond her years.

“I will start by saying this: I’m definitely not doing it alone. A lot of the older girls especially do a good job of helping me understand the system, the plays, or just helping me as the freshman coming into college,” Curry said. “Also leadership comes with listening. Listening to whether it be the coach staff, whether it’s one of the girls, so that I can better not only myself but the team.”

Her efforts as a leader by example were key to Cal’s historically successful 9-2 start to the season and the program’s huge leap forward from finishing 1-16 the year before. Beyond her success with the team, Curry has reaped the individual benefits of being the star. She has secured three NIL deals, her latest deal being with Wingstop.

Curry’s most recent Instagram post features her walking out of a Wingstop with enough chicken wings to treat her whole team to lunch (which she did).

The freshman did all of the work to earn the attention of companies seeking deals with the best young athletes in the country. At the same time, she recognized the efforts of her father and her older sister in getting her NIL deals across the line so she could focus her energies on basketball and school.

“I don’t have an agent or anybody. My sister’s really savvy when it comes to brand partnerships and Instagram and things like that,” Curry said. “So (my dad and sister) together helped me out with all of that.”

Between being a top five freshman player in the country, studying business administration with the hopes of earning a Haas School of Business degree and securing a score of brand deals, it’s safe to say that Curry has built a new empire in Berkeley.

But how exactly does she do it? She didn’t do it by sheer force, confidence or talent alone.

To understand how Curry has managed to make such an impact at both the high school and college levels, it is important to understand what she does outside of basketball — especially what she does for her own mental health.

She describes herself as an “extroverted introvert.” As someone who loves to join in on the fun on the team bus, she also values her alone time, which is mostly spent reading and writing.

“If it catches my eye, I’ll read it,” Curry said. “But writing is something that recently, maybe in the past year and a half, two years that I’ve really gotten into. My best friend actually introduced affirmations and things of that nature to me and just journaling.”

Curry finds that writing affirmations — short “I am” statements — repeatedly in a journal helps her deal with the stresses that come with being a college student-athlete.

“Sometimes they’re random. Or sometimes they’re about things that I might be feeling,” Curry said. “And then it’s things you can remember, like off the top of your head. Like ‘Oh, I wrote this yesterday. I can remember this.’ Things having to deal with confidence and just staying strong. Especially as a college athlete, you go through a lot.”

The world of college basketball knows what to expect from the incoming sophomore now, and the pressure will inevitably mount. One might expect a freshman player of Curry’s caliber and sudden prominence to consistently ooze bravado and deal with the pressure as it comes.

But she is human after all, and recognizes that she cannot feign confidence or do everything she does without leaning on her support system and faith.

“I can be pretty honest about it. There’s been times where confidence has been really low. At the end of the day, it’s who you surround yourself with, because you’re not always going to be able to do it alone,” Curry said. “That’s where I really am very adamant when I talk about God because I really believe prayer works and, if you don’t have anybody else you have Him.”

Curry still has three years of eligibility remaining: three years that should be full of excitement for Cal basketball fans who have not seen a Bear drafted to either the NBA or WNBA since 2019.

She’s really only just begun to conquer Berkeley. If she isn’t the Bay Area’s sports queen just yet, she will be in due course. And Cal fans should count themselves lucky to have another basketball star with such a wise mind under that crown.

2022 Pac-12 tournament recap: Cal women’s basketball exits in 1st round
In a season defined by what could have been after a 9-2 start, it was only fitting that Cal came within 7 points of securing at least a .500 record.

Instead, head coach Charmin Smith’s team finished the season 12-13, its third losing season in a row, after a 60-66 loss to sixth-seed Utah in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament Wednesday. The defeat marked Cal’s second consecutive first-round exit in the conference tournament.

In a prior matchup with the Utes on Feb. 13 in Berkeley, the Bears forced overtime but ultimately came up 5 points short. With about three and a half minutes remaining Wednesday, it seemed as though 11th-seed Cal might do the same again after junior guard Leilani McIntosh’s floated pass found sophomore forward Dalayah Daniels in the low post for an easy layup to tie the game at 56.

But two tough finishes by Utah’s Jenna Johnson in the paint, one before and one after a turnover by freshman guard Jayda Curry, gave the Utes a 6-point lead heading into the final minute of the fourth quarter. Freshman guard Gianna Kneepkens, the Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, later gave the Utes a 4-point lead with a tough drive from the left corner in which she got both McIntosh and Michelle Onyiah to bite on consecutive pump fakes.

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Kneepkens finished with 20 points to lead Utah in scoring, while Curry’s 16 points led the Bears.

After the loss, Smith praised Curry for handling the pressure of being Cal’s best player all season, especially given the fact that she’s a freshman.

“I just want to say, she’s just a joy to coach. And her teammates love her,” Smith said of Curry. “There’s been a lot on her shoulders, and I’m proud of how she’s performed. And I think it bodes well for us that our best player is also a phenomenal person with an amazing attitude.”

Onyiah finished second in scoring for the Bears with 14 points to go along with eight rebounds. She had an almost perfect shooting night, going 6-7 from the field.

Ultimately, costly errors made the difference for a Cal team that just couldn’t seem to put it all together on any given day this season. The Utes finished with 20 second-chance points, as well as 15 points off of turnovers.

Smith sounded like a broken record in the postgame press conference, citing a few mistakes that came back to haunt the Bears in the close matchup.

“Obviously very disappointed. Utah is a really good team. I give them a lot of credit,” Smith said. “Unfortunately we weren’t able to do enough to get the win. I’m proud of our team and our fight. And we just gotta eliminate some mistakes and just continue to work to get better so that we can have some postseason play and move further along in March and in the future.”

Now three seasons into her tenure as Cal’s head coach, Smith must already start to feel the pressure to finally earn an NCAA tournament bid. A Smith-led Cal women’s basketball team has never advanced past the second round of the Pac-12 tournament (see 2019, in which the Bears upset fifth-seed Arizona State before being stomped out by Arizona in the second round) and Cal hasn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2019, when former head coach Lindsay Gottlieb’s Bears made the second round of the big dance.

For Cal fans, “almost” won’t cut it for much longer. That said, they have reason to believe Smith’s program is in good shape to finally make a breakthrough. This year’s record, 12-13, is a huge improvement on last year’s abysmal one (1-16). And with elite freshman Jayda Curry presumably returning for another year, the Bears already have a solid cornerstone.

Higher expectations, however, mean that there will be no such thing as “pleasant surprises.” This offseason, Cal fans will wait with bated breath to see whether or not Smith’s team will finally make that breakthrough they have been waiting for.

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