There’s a list a certain pupule writer is composing that, in terms of importance, breaks apart like this — if was a pie chart: 60 percent, All-Defensive Team; 39 percent, most improved player; and 1 percent, roughly 200 girls basketball players rated in my latest sumo-rankings style groupings.
So the order of priority is simple enough. By vote via coaches and media, here’s the 2017 All-Defensive team in girls basketball, in ranked order:
1. Celena Jane Molina, Konawaena
2. Cherilyn Molina, Konawaena
3. (tie) Kamalu Kamakawiwo‘ole, Maryknoll
3. (tie) Mikayla Tablit, Konawaena
5. Isabella Cravens, Maryknoll
6. Kiana Vierra, Kamehameha
7. Chayse Milne, Maryknoll
8. Lisa Hafoka, Lahainaluna
9. (tie) Rachael Balagso, Lahainaluna
9. (tie) Saydee Aganus, Kamehameha-Hawaii
I’ll say this about these defensive selections: it is almost certainly without doubt that there are 20-25 elite-level defenders statewide. Sure, it may not seem like we have that many great defensive players, but through sheer volume, that’s how it often works out. So if there’s a very good defender in your league who isn’t among the 10 mentioned above, it’s not a deliberate omission. I’d love to see more voters participate, both among media and coaches. Many opt to abstain from voting.
Another response from this pupule: though the second five is stellar — would anyone really get more than a couple of open looks from the wing with Vierra and Milne guarding them? — this first five is really, really interesting. I may harp about the lack of quality depth in this era compared to 10-15 years ago, but defensively, I don’t have any questions about this quartet.
Celena Jane Molina
I look at the Konawaena roster and the vital numbers on this senior, and it seems impossible that she’s still 5-foot-8. I’ve stood next to her more than a few times, and I’d be shocked if she isn’t really 5-9. Then there’s the wingspan. Her length makes it tough on posts and wings looking for a quick release because her reaction time is very quick. But, beyond the length and agility, she is stronger than she looks. When she and former teammate Ihi Victor went up against Punahou’s powerful posts, Vae Malufau and Tyra Moe, in the 2016 state tourney, their lower-body strength and leverage were stunning. They were clearly outsized, but their actual balance and defensive effectiveness is something rarely seen.
With Konawaena constantly in man defense, rarely switching, it wouldn’t have mattered a lot. In the few possessions when they did switch, Molina was more than capable of covering much smaller guards on the 3-point arc. Also, though most voters may not consider it, transition offense after a rebound does matter in the full scope, and Molina’s speed from point A to point B has always been superior. But my point is this: she is a condor on the perimeter and a wall in the post. A wall made maybe not of steel, but more like bamboo — flexible and pliant, impossible to break by human hands.
Cherilyn Molina, Tablit
It was sometime in the 2015-16 season when I really started to understand how impossible Cherilyn Molina was making things for opposing point guards. After five, 10, 15 possessions, her quick feet and impeccable footwork, taking away angles and basically suffocating the other team’s floor director, she could go scoreless and still control more than 50 percent of a game.
We don’t have defensive efficiency statistics available at this point for high school girls basketball, but my guesstimate is that an average-to-slightly above average defender filling in for Cherilyn Molina would present a negative difference of about 10 to 15 points per game. There have been games when she deflects double-digit passes or dribbles, and roughly half of those end up in Konawaena’s hands. The other half make a difference, creating pressure, stress, doubt in the opponent. But there’s also this: her endurance, able to play from start to finish if necessary, simply takes a toll on any ballhandler. Her ability to score, to run an offense, pass, even crash the offensive boards — that’s what makes her much more visible to voters. However, as a defensive force, it’s her ability to crowd a point guard’s normal comfort zone, creeping into that personal space (18 inches) that changes everything for a normal team’s offensive flow, and the spots on the court that it likes to run its offense.
Pair Molina with Tablit, and Konawaena has enjoyed the best defensive backcourt in the state, arguably, for the past two seasons.
I’m grouping these two together because in just about every game I covered involving the Lady Spartans, they were hugely effective at multiple things defensively. After while it was like watching a pair of tall cornerbacks taking away a ton of opportunities for opposing teams.
With Kamakawiwo‘ole, we really haven’t seen exactly how good the 5-10 sophomore can and will be defensively. There were splashes of fullcourt pressure with this Spartan’s wingspan creating major headaches for opposing players and coaches. Most of the time, Maryknoll operated out of man defense, where Kamakawiwo‘ole was outstanding at blanketing her man, challenging any less-than perfect pass in the lane, all while remaining in good position to recover most of the time.
Milne is a bit more of a gambler, which is something the Spartans could survive thanks to the presence and skill of Cravens (more on her later). Milne’s long arms and explosiveness are really difficult to ignore. Even on the rare occasion when Coach Chico Furtado had his team play a 2-3 matchup zone, Milne was all over the wing, using her persistence and tenaciousness so well on her side (with Kamakawiwo‘ole on the other side). It was enough to imagine that yes, Maryknoll could do this full-time, going Syracuse on the rest of the ILH and state, denying open looks from 3 out a 2-3 (woh!) simply because of Milne and Kamakawiwo‘ole. Milne is a junior, which means she will be back with Kamakawiwo‘ole (and Cravens) to form the finest front court in the state next season. Probably.
There were times when the 6-1 junior was a block party unto herself. Anyone driving into the paint without the sense to have a Plan B and Plan C was promptly rejected again and again. Cravens isn’t quite there yet, however, as a completely elite defender. Foul trouble mounted later in the season when her team needed her on the floor. Oh, the Spartans could get by thanks to a strong reserve crew, as well as Milne and Kamakawiwo‘ole. But Cravens will continue to get wiser and pick her spots more carefully. Most of the time, bigs mature later than guards, and she’s already got athleticism and aggressiveness.
Fairly similar to Maryknoll’s long wing stoppers, Vierra could easily be pegged as a post player, racking up 8-10 rebounds and 2-4 blocks per game. But her agility and footwork, and the added bonus of her length, make her a prime defender from the arc. Like many of the players on this list, she is an underclassman.
At 5-9, the senior was tough in the paint, versatile defensively and clever enough to battle bigger foes effectively. She was the lone senior on a talented, tough team.
Very quick defensively and similar in a lot of was on that side of the court to Tablit and Cherilyn Molina. Another of the underclassmen on this All-Defensive Team.
The 5-7 junior was the only Division II player among the Top 10 here.
1. Kaelyn Espinda, Kaimuki
2. Braeanne Estabillo, Lahainaluna
3. Molimau Heimuli, Farrington
Espinda didn’t just improve since last year, but over the course of the Bulldogs’ season, it became very apparent that she not only could shoot the open 3, but she was a true point guard. That helped immensely because Coach Mona Fa‘asoa needed her versatile senior, Victoria Kintz, to play center and forward on defense, and with Kintz responsible for rebounding and attacking the rim, Espinda’s ability to protect the ball and start the offense were huge assets. By season’s end, Espinda was able to finish games by attacking the rim at the right time, controlling the ball and the clock. That’s a lot of responsibility for a senior, let alone a sophomore.
Estabillo came on strong this season. She is one of the more recent in a line of strong players developed in the Menehune program at Lahaina. Her shooting skills are the real deal. She had 11 points in 13 minutes before an injury forced her out of the state semifinal game against Maryknoll.
Heimuli put it together as a senior. She indicated that conditioning made all the difference, and once she was in top shape, she became a point forward of sorts, helping against the press, running the fastbreak, running the floor for layups and putbacks, and her range was reliable to 15, 17 feet. She can bang the 3, too, but her priority was to stay active at the rim, and that was a major reason why the Lady Governors won the OIA D-I title.
Espinda and Estabillo are juniors. Heimuli is a senior who will play at the next level via the junior college route. She has all the skills and potential to play at the college D-I level.