Two seasons ago, redshirt sophomore forward Janaa Pickard led the team with 45 blocks in 30 games as one of the women’s basketball team’s most consistent defenders off the bench. In preparing for last season, she sustained an injury that is becoming all too common for teams needing to play rougher: She tore her ACL during the preseason.

by John Powell

It was an unfortunate, freak injury.

“The exhibition game last year, most people probably don’t even remember, we’re up in our full-court pressure,” Coach Jeri Porter said. “She’s on the ball. She goes one way, her leg goes the other and [she] didn’t see a minute on the floor for us last year.”

For a team relying on new blood to transform the program from perennial underachievers to competitors — a lofty goal in itself — the loss of Pickard for the 2010-11 season would prove difficult to overcome. The Patriots went 13-17 overall and 7-11 in the conference for an eighth-place finish and a first-round loss in the tournament.

Pickard worked as much as possible during the offseason and at the midway point of the conference schedule, proves she did not miss a beat.

Through 18 games she totaled 33 blocks, good again for the team lead. She became a scoring force, even on a team where Taleia Moton seems to drain every shot she puts up. Her 9.1 points per game is good for third on the team.

“I kind of jokingly told her yesterday after practice that I’m starting to see a little bit of that Philly swag coming back,” Porter said, “because every game she’s getting a little more mobile, and looking a little more like herself.”

That’s not to say the transition was not difficult. Support staffs always help.

“I never had any serious injuries,” Pickard said. “But I had my teammates and my coaches push me through it and tell me to keep working and that I’d get back eventually.”

It may have been her first transition — from playing in high school to playing in college — that led to the injury in the first place. The player and coach each have a different view of that transition.

“Transferring from high school to college was about confidence,” Pickard said. “Once you develop that confidence, it helps the shots go in.”

Porter’s take is more telling; it shows a possible reason that specific injury could have occurred.

“I think the biggest transition for her coming out of high school was the physicality. She was always kind of a finesse jump shooter — long, athletic,” Porter said.

For a finesse player, the transition to a more aggressive defensive and offensive style of play was difficult. Combined with a confidence that she could do more on the team, she played more aggressively. The quicker style of play put her body ahead of her legs for the accident.

But the season off hurt nothing. It gave her a year to develop as a stronger player and gave her time to better understand her coach’s system and become a smarter player.

“For a kid like Janaa, it’s huge,” Porter said of the year off. “She’s super smart, [has a] really high basketball IQ. We’ve even talked about what kind of things she saw sitting last year that she can now use to her advantage.”

The time transformed the player into one of the leaders while still young in her Mason career much like how teammate Taleia Moton’s year off and Sherrod Wright’s year off on the men’s side marked a visible improvement.

“I develop every year as a person, as a player. I don’t know. It just happens,” Pickard said.

She came in with a blocking strength and with more time on the court. Her rebounding and scoring numbers should improve as she becomes more physical and her body catches up to her style of play.

“She’s a kid that we’re really excited about,” Porter said. “With two more years beyond this one and the skill set she’s got, we just think that the sky is the limit for her.”

And Pickard is content where her career stands.

“I’m just happy to contribute to this program as long as I can.”