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Nolan Richardson is Mining for Diamonds; Juanita Ward's Journey to Brilliance

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Juanita Ward is vying for a Tulsa Shock roster spot. Again. (photo via AP)
Juanita Ward is vying for a Tulsa Shock roster spot. Again. (photo via AP)

As the Tulsa Shock opened training camp this week, one gemstone on the 15-player roster came from an open tryout opportunity. But not the tryout held in April to decide on 2011 invitees - one that drove for days from the cold tundra of Syracuse, New York to take part in the 2010 open camp. Juanita Ward.

Diamonds, coming from a Greek word with such definitions as "unalterable" and "unbreakable" might be just the perfect way to characterize Ward's journey to her second training camp.

Last season, Juanita became one of the last casualties in the cut process as Nolan Richardson weaned his training camp roster to a slim 11-player combination to compete throughout the 2010 season. But that didn't break her. It perhaps even strengthened her.

 

Diamonds grow deep in the Earth's mantle, for one to three billion years before being pushed to the surface and into brilliance. Basketball players don't get molded in eons of time, but the do get molded by continued experience on the court. For Ward, her growth took place in Bulgaria.

"The thing about Juanita, she was one of the last to be cut after coming to just an open camp," Richardson said. "Which nine out of 10 times, you don't make it even to the second much less the third camp. But she made it all the way through.

"And what we did is send her overseas to get more seasoned. She went over there and led the league in all kinds of categories. Next thing you know, we're signing her to a contract when all the process started right here. Trying to find that diamond in the rough."

Rather than shattering, she shined. Cultivated qualities related to what is regarded as one of the finest gems in the world - brilliance, hardness, toughness, stability, insulation.

She played hard. And tough. And consistent. And with a stifling defensive presence that insulated the opponent from knocking down shots.

Ward brought her talents to the surface, and got rewarded with recognition as one of the best. She averaged 24.4 points, 9.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists in Bulgaria. She left the country as not only Defensive Player of the Year, but also Most Valuable Player. And here she sits, back on a 15-person roster hoping to make the cut.

Just like with diamonds, cutting a roster requires precision, skill, knowledge, tools and experience. Juanita's fate from being turned from a diamond in the rough to a brilliant, sparkling, coveted gem is in the hands of Nolan Richardson.

"This year, I know what I need," Richardson remarked. "There's a big difference between trying to figure out what you need as opposed to knowing what you need. Coming into this year, I'm better equipped to what's going on. It's a process of elimination. It's a tough process, but a lot of times you can find a diamond in the rough."