For all the illustrious history of the UConn women’s basketball program, there’s very little that has yet to be accomplished. One of those things is the fact that no player has ever dunked the ball in a live game. Breanna Stewart did so in the McDonalds All-American Dunk Contest and came close a few times in games, but never recorded the feat. Gabby Williams, for all her athletic prowess, couldn’t do it.
Incoming freshman Olivia Nelson-Ododa is looking to become the first.
Like Stewart, Nelson-Ododa threw down a dunk at the McDonalds’ All-American Game with ease. But unlike her predecessor, the Winder, Georgia native doesn’t plan to stop meeting the rim once she gets to Storrs.
“I do believe [I’ll dunk in a game], I have confidence in that,” Nelson-Ododa said. “That would be really exciting to be able to do it in a game.”
Head coach Geno Auriemma certainly doesn’t ban any players from dunking, he just wants them to make sure they make the basket and don’t go out of their way to do so.
“We wouldn’t go out of our way to create it but we wouldn’t go out of our way to stop it,” he said back in 2016.
Although Nelson-Ododa said she hasn’t spoken with Auriemma about it yet, they’re already on the same page.
“If the moment happens, it happens,” she said. “It’s not something I want to do every single time but if the moment comes up, I’ll definitely try and do it.”
Growing up, Nelson-Ododa was always playing basketball with her two brothers and father. They could dunk and with her height at 6-foot-4, they encouraged her to try it as well. Her first dunk came nearly two years ago and she’s worked to improve it ever since.
“They really helped me with that and ever since then have helped me kind of expand and work on that,” she said.
However, her dunking — and her basketball career — screeched to a halt in January of 2017 when Nelson-Ododa went down with a major knee injury. She tore her Medial Patellofemoral Ligament (MPFL) along with dislocating and fracturing her kneecap. She underwent surgery to remove a piece of the kneecap and repair the ligament a month later..
The injury has since healed but Nelson-Ododa still needs to build the strength back to where it was.
“She’s nowhere near where she needs to be strength wise in order to be a good player,” Auriemma said. “She’s going to be by the time the season starts.”
There’s no rush on part of the team or Nelson-Ododa to get back with the season still a ways off. Auriemma doesn’t want her to re-aggravate it because when she’s at full-strength, there’s few high school post players that can compare with her.
“I’ve seen her at her best and that kid is as good as any post player coming out of high school,” he said.
As stressful as it can be for a player to begin their college career, Nelson-Ododa isn’t the first one in her family to do so. Her sister-in-law is Dearica Hamby, a forward on the Las Vegas Aces and Wake Forest’s all-time leading scorer and rebounder. So far, the former first round pick has been a great resource for Nelson-Ododa.
“She’s given me a lot of help, a lot of tips on that,” Nelson-Ododa said of Hamby. “In college she remembered how coming in she was a little timid and nervous but once she turned on that attack mentality everything changed for her.”
Hamby, meanwhile, didn’t hold back in her praise or her comparisons to players in the WNBA.
“She can handle the ball, she can post up. She is super athletic, she can jump obviously, she can defend, she can run, she can shoot and do just about everything,” she told the New Haven Register. “The players who do that at this level are superstars — (Elena) Delle Donne, Candace (Parker) ... I think I would compare her to those types of players.”
However, Auriemma wasn’t buying it. He’d rather have Nelson-Ododa become her own, unique player.
“Let’s just try to make her the best version of Olivia that we can,” he said. “That’s good enough for me.”
And for now, the best version of Nelson-Ododa needs to be one that contributes in the frontcourt early on after UConn lost Gabby Williams and Azura Stevens this past season. Once that happens, the dunking will (hopefully) follow suit along with the rest of her game.