By Walter Villa | Jul 19, 2018
Special to espnW
Courtesy USA Basketball
Maori Davenport will represent Team USA at the upcoming FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Mexico City.
Dyneshia Jones remembers pulling into her driveway one day a decade ago and greeting the family that had just moved into the house next door.
The couple, Mario and Tara, had three children, including a first-grade girl named Maori, who filled her days by taking piano and ballet lessons.
"She was so tall for her age," Jones said. "All I was thinking was, 'She's going to play basketball one day.' "
More like dominate basketball.
Now 17 years old and 6-foot-4, Maori Davenport helped lead Charles Henderson (Troy, Alabama) to its first girls' basketball state title in school history this past season as a junior. It also was the first state title for Dyneshia Jones, who had been coach of the program since 1998.
Davenport averaged 18.2 points, 12.0 rebounds, 5.1 blocks and 1.7 assists last season. She was huge down the stretch. In the regional semifinals, she had 30 points, 25 rebounds and four steals. In the state final in Birmingham, the Trojans (32-4) beat Central-Tuscaloosa 55-37. Davenport had 17 points, 13 rebounds, nine blocks and four steals, coming up just short of a triple-double but still winning honors as tournament MVP.
Now, Davenport, the No. 13 prospect in the espnW HoopGurlz Super 60 for the 2019 class, will represent Team USA in Mexico City at the FIBA Americas U18 Championship Aug. 1-7.
Ballet to basketball
Beverly Kirk, who coaches Davenport on the AAU circuit with the All-Alabama Roadrunners, started working with Davenport when she was in seventh grade. She said the best part of Davenport's game is her versatility.
"When I first started coaching her, I told her father that she would be an All-American if she continued to progress," Kirk said. "She was a great shot-blocker at that time, but I encouraged her to be an all-around player.
"Now she can face the basket, she can post, and she can hit the midrange shot."
Davenport traces much of her success to those days in elementary school when she used to fake headaches to get out of ballet classes. "It was boring," she said.
Tara Davenport eventually got the message and enrolled her daughter in sports activities. She was a gymnast, a soccer goalie, a volleyball player ...
"She was real timid," Tara said. "The only time she would get excited was when she would play basketball."
Davenport's first bit of basketball training was at a church league at age 8, but that created its own headaches.
The parents of the other children started asking to see Davenport's birth certificate because she was so tall and because, well, she was blocking almost every shot.
"She didn't mean any harm," said Tara, who is 5-11, 3 inches shorter than her ex-husband and 5 inches smaller than her daughter. "She was just tall with long arms."
Davenport wasn't clumsy like other tall girls -- Tara attributes that to all those ballet lessons.
Davenport started spending more and more time at her neighbor's house, hanging with Coach Jones and her daughter, Niaira Jones, who also is on the Henderson team as a 5-7 guard and part of the 2020 class.
Davenport and Niaira, along with their brothers, spent a lot of time shooting baskets on the Jones' concrete court.
Courtesy Dyneshia Jones
Neighbors Niaira Jones, left, and Maori Davenport helped lead Henderson to its first state title in school history.
"Maori would walk through the fence and come in and eat with us without even asking -- just like family," Coach Jones said. "I can still be sleeping on a Sunday morning, and she will come over and play basketball.
"I hear them in the backyard, and I know who it is right away. ... It gets competitive. I hear them pushing and getting physical. If someone gets hurt, that's fine. Come in, and we'll put some ice on it."
As the kids grew, Coach Jones raised the height of their backyard rim three times until settling on 10 feet. One time, after dunking on a lower height, Davenport bent the rim. She got a ladder to try to fix it, but she slipped and fell, cracking her right wrist.
Davenport missed the AAU season that summer, just before her sophomore year. It only hardened her resolve, and Davenport has taken things to the next level with her approach. She lifts weights, drinks a gallon of water per day and watches her diet.
A good student (3.1 GPA) with an interest in history, Davenport has numerous college offers -- from LSU, Alabama and Mississippi State, among others. She hopes to narrow her list to five by the end of the summer.
"There are so many of them," Davenport said when asked about her choices. "They are all selling me their programs, and I don't know if everything is the truth or not.
"I just know that when I pick a school, I don't want to transfer. I want to stay there the whole four years."
Davenport can still improve by getting stronger and communicating better on the court. But her timing while blocking shots is tremendous, and there is nothing wrong with her confidence.
"She loves competition," Jones said. "When players tell her that they are going to shut her down, she says, 'They don't know what they're talking about.' She won't back down."