Only three short years ago, as a freshman, Nikya Orange was not close to being ripe when it came to basketball — “I could not even dribble,” she says — and now the Tanque Verde High School senior has grown into one of Tucson’s top college hoops prospects.
The impetus for her interest in basketball occurred in middle school when she was told by a coach that she has potential if she worked hard toward that goal. The most significant decision in her development took place when she joined the Tucson Rattlers’ youth basketball program while a freshman at Sabino.
“Considering I could not even dribble when I was a freshman, going from that to averaging 19 points a game, it’s pretty big that I joined the Rattlers,” said Orange, who actually averaged 19.9 points and 12.3 rebounds per game last season for Tanque Verde after transferring from Sabino before the school year.
The 5-foot-9 forward is a completely different player from when she showed up to her first practice with the Rattlers three years ago.
“She was athletic, big and strong, but she had no basketball IQ, no skill set, really,” Rattlers coach Chris Klassen said. “Just like two-line layup stuff she would struggle just to come in and drive in straight for a layup. It would go off her knee, she would travel. …
“Now, she is easily one of the best forwards in all of Southern Arizona. She is a monster around the rim. She can rebound, she can jump. She can take contact. She can finish through contact. She can switch defensively on the guards which is a huge asset. The big thing now is she has evolved so much that she can get a rebound and start the break herself, start dribbling up the floor and kick ahead when it’s there and finish running her lane.”
Orange prides herself mostly on her footwork around the basket and her agility that allows her to create her own shot.
“I’m a more powerful and faster player for my height,” she said. “I like doing post moves, they’re pretty amazing. I like to rip and go (receive a pass and swiftly move past the defender on the wing to the hoop). That’s fun. It takes a lot of balance. I’m getting the basics down how to draw the defender to fall for the move.
“I’ve had to work on my balance a lot and my strength to get better with that.”
Orange participates in a weight training program that is conducted by Klassen’s wife Katie during the high school basketball season. Orange’s dedication is opening avenues for her, literally on the court to the basket, and with potential colleges.
Orange showcased her skills in front of college coaches at last week’s Nike Tournament of Champions in Chicago, a three-day tournament in which the Tucson Rattlers went 5-1 and lost by one point in their division title game.
Orange was one of the leading forces behind the Rattlers’ impressive showing, averaging 11.8 points and 8.7 rebounds a game. She shot close to 52 percent from the floor, which is her percentage through 14 games this spring and summer with the Rattlers.
Klassen described Orange and teammate Bella Hamel, a junior forward at Ironwood Ridge, as “monsters around the rim” in Chicago. “They were both double-double machines,” he said.
It was a productive way to start Orange’s recruiting process this school year after receiving e-mail inquiries from NCAA Division II and III coaches after last season, one in which she played only half the season because she had to sit the first half per transfer rules.
Orange has also attended camps at Arizona, ASU and San Diego as a way to improve and get noticed by coaches who work at those camps.
She looks back at joining the Rattlers as the turning point toward the probability of being able to attend college on a scholarship.
“If I didn’t join the Rattlers, I would not have the opportunities I have today,” she said. “I definitely would not have the skills I do today. My whole mind changed when I joined the Rattlers’ team. Playing basketball 24-7 changes you instead of when I thought going to practice at school was everything.”
At first, it was not easy for her to join a club team, but Klassen said Orange’s family found a way to make it happen and now it is paying off.
“Her mom and her family is supportive and they find a way, financially and with rides,” Klassen said. “They fund-raised. They did everything they could do to get her to our stuff. She wants to improve. Her mom Sabrina wants the best for her. She does a great job for her.”
Klassen takes pride in the fruit of Orange’s labor, no pun intended, in the last three years that has helped her develop versatility with her skills.
“We play her at the 4 (power forward position) but we play a lot of 4-out stuff,” Klassen said. “She’ll come out and set on-ball screens, pick and roll, pick and pop. If she gets it anywhere, she can rip and drive. She’s worked on her mid-range shot. It’s really good.
“She really doesn’t shoot that many 3’s. I am encouraging her to start looking for that more. She’s a nightmare defensively because she’s strong enough to take weaker people into the post and quick enough to drag bigger, slower people away from the hoop and either shoot over them or drive by them. The way she is now to when she started is like night and day. It’s amazing.”
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ALLSPORTSTUCSON.com publisher, writer and editor Javier Morales is a former Arizona Press Club award winner. He is a former Arizona Daily Star beat reporter for the Arizona basketball team, including when the Wildcats won the 1996-97 NCAA title. He has also written articles for CollegeAD.com, Bleacher Report, Lindy’s Sports, TucsonCitizen.com, The Arizona Republic, Sporting News and Baseball America, among many other publications. He has also authored the book “The Highest Form of Living”, which is available at Amazon.