Pima Community College coach Todd Holthaus early Sunday called J.J. Nakai the best player he has coached in his 14 seasons leading the Aztec program.
“And I’ve coached many,” Holthaus mentioned. “That’s not a slight to the others. That’s a testament to J.J.’s work ethic. All the mornings that she would text me and ask me to open the gym at 4:30 a.m. so she could get up shots before our 6 a.m. conditioning, she never went less than 100 percent.”
Later in the day, after Arizona defeated NAU and Nakai 76-63 at McKale Center, Adia Barnes said of the former Pima All-American guard: “I really like her game. She was hard for us to guard a lot of times.”
Southern Arizona is fortunate to have coaches like Barnes and Holthaus as figureheads for women’s college basketball. Their impact on the game extends regionally and nationally with the type of success Holthaus has built at Pima and with Barnes coaching the Wildcats to a preseason No. 7 ranking.
Gaining praise from both of these coaches is no small feat, but then again, that is to be expected for Pima’s career scoring (1,397 points) and assist (442) leader who played for Holthaus in the 2017-18 and 2018-19 seasons after a stellar career at Flagstaff Coconino High School.
Nakai, a 5-foot-7 playmaker, finished with 17 points on 9-of-17 shooting from the field in 38 minutes against the Wildcats only four days after scoring 22 points in a full 40 minutes in the Lumberjacks’ 79-75 win at UNLV in their season opener.
“Playing a Top 10 team in the nation, we can take away a lot from this experience,” Nakai said in a phone interview during NAU’s bus trip back to Flagstaff. “We did a lot of good things. It was good for the first half because I thought we stayed with them (trailing only 30-24 at halftime).
“After playing a team like that, it will help us when we play teams in our conference. It will help us in the future.”
Next up for NAU are two Big Sky games at Eastern Washington on Thursday and Saturday. The Big Sky is scheduling conference games in that manner this season. The Lumberjacks’ next Big Sky games are against Idaho Dec. 31 and Jan. 2 at the Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff.
Barnes said she remembers watching Nakai play in a game at Pima two years ago.
“I think she had 30-some points that game,” Barnes said with her normal exuberance. “She’s a really good player. She’s got floaters. She can score. … She played well. She came in here and had 17. Good player.”
Nakai’s return to Tucson during the COVID-19 pandemic prevented her from catching up with Holthaus and his coaching staff, which includes former longtime Arizona men’s assistant Jim Rosborough.
She also did not have a chance to socialize with former Pima teammate Alyssa Perez when the Lumberjacks played at UNLV. Perez is now a student manager with the Rebels.
Despite the restrictions, Nakai’s journey back to Tucson was a special one for her.
“Right when we came into town I was like, ‘Oh my God, we’re in Tucson,'” Nakai said. “I miss it here. The weather is so nice here. It just brought back so many fond memories that I had during my JUCO years. It felt like I was at home.”
Holthaus shared this text message he sent Nakai: “Love you!! So proud of you! Blessed to have coached you! Go out there today and play your tail off. It’s no different than any other day of your career. You’ve earned all that comes your way!”
“Whether it was a shooting drill or scrimmage, she always went hard,” Holthaus told me of her Pima career. “It’s a trait us coaches still use as the standard in which we tell others to try and emulate.”
Nakai is thankfully back to her roots in Flagstaff, playing for the hometown Lumberjacks, after a tumultuous season at Nevada last year.
Nakai played in just 21 games at Nevada, made only one start and averaged an uncommonly low 14.3 minutes and 3.8 points per game during her lone season with the Wolf Pack.
“I went through a lot of tough breaks last year, and I didn’t end up having a great experience at Nevada. That’s a big reason why I left,” she said.
Now back to playing nearly the entire game for NAU and its coach, Loree Payne, Nakai feels similar to when she was with Holthaus and Pima.
“I’m holding up pretty good,” said Nakai when asked about her 78 minutes through the first two games. “When you think of it, I am pretty used to this especially when I was at Pima because I played a lot of minutes.”
Two positive career developments occurred recently for Nakai.
First, she did not know she would be eligible to play this season because of her transfer until the NCAA granted her a waiver right before the UNLV game. Secondly, an NCAA ruling in October granted all winter athletes an additional year of eligibility, which means Nakai will be able to play for the Lumberjacks this season and retain her eligibility for the 2021-22 season as well.
The NCAA granted seniors of the winter sports an extra year of eligibility because of the uncertainty of games scheduled this season. Potentially cancellations will occur because of COVID-19.
“Oh my God, it was like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders,” Nakai said when she learned she did not have to sit out a season as a transfer. “I just want to play basketball. Being back home and playing in Flagstaff right away makes it even more special.”
Payne, in her fourth season at NAU, has two years of Nakai to help lead her program to success similar to what Holthaus experienced with her at Pima. She led the Aztecs to 47 wins in her two seasons and a trip to the NJCAA National Tournament in 2019.
Pima sophomore forward Sierra Mich’l, from Las Vegas, signed a national letter of intent on Nov. 16 to join NAU. She will be a teammate of Nakai’s next season.
“We couldn’t be happier that J.J. was able to get her waiver approved to compete this season,” Payne said. “She will be a major contributor to our program over the next two years and will have an immediate impact this season. We are so excited that she has found her way back home to Flagstaff to finish her collegiate career.”
— NAU Women’s Basketball (@NAU_WBB) November 25, 2020
Nakai was a three-sport athlete at Coconino, excelling in basketball, cross country and softball. She helped her team win consecutive conference basketball championships in 2016 and 2017.
She was stellar in her senior season, averaging 20.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists and 3.4 steals per game on her way to first team All-State recognition.
“I’m so glad to see the bounce back in her step and loved watching her play Wednesday (against UNLV),” Holthaus mentioned. “I had a front row seat to that for two years and it was incredible. Coach Payne and her staff will do a great job with her and the Lumberjacks. And the best part is she is going to get two years with them, so she’ll get a chance to really leave her mark.”
Although she left Tucson with a loss, Nakai said she is moving forward feeling a charge from her performance and that of her teammates at McKale.
“Honestly, especially having a start like this, I’m excited to see what we have going into the rest of the season and our conference games,” Nakai said. “Even though we lost to the U of A, I think we have some really good takeaways that will help us going into our conference. I’m really excited.”
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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.