When Azzi Fudd catches the ball, she has this look. It starts with her eyebrows. They sink a little lower, point inward to the middle. Her eyes and her lips tighten.
You can tell she's about to attack.
"Azzi's a big con artist," says Amaziah Diggs, her former coach at Arlington Travel Basketball, a boys eighth-grade team. "She has this million-dollar smile. She's a big jokester.
"But when she gets on the court, she's a maniac."
The kind of "maniac" every college coach is after. The kind who dropped 41 points in back-to-back games as a freshman last season. The kind who is big, strong and positionless and can defend.
The 5'11" sophomore guard has led St. John's College High School (Washington, D.C.) to a 13-1 record this season and the No. 3 ranking on USA Today's Super 25, averaging 28.1 points, 6.1 rebounds, two steals and two blocks while shooting a blistering 55 percent from both the field and three-point range.
She has a true jump shot—fluid, textbook, released at its peak—and can score at the rim, from mid-range and outside. Once, against Georgetown Visitation Preparatory School, she rained 10 threes, finishing with 36 points.
And yet, Fudd, the nation's top 2021 prospect, dominates quietly. Surprisingly. She'll take over games without overwhelming them, like she's moving fast and slowly at the same time.
Jonathan Scribner, her coach at St. John's College High, compares her to Maya Moore.
"When Azzi doesn't make shots, you're literally surprised that the ball doesn't go in," Scribner says. "She's smooth, efficient, consistent."
The comparisons to Moore are high praise for a 16-year-old who we haven't even seen play against college competition, much less pro. But she plays like an upperclassman. She won the gold medal with Team USA's U-16 squad in Buenos Aires in 2017 as the only 14-year-old to make the squad and also played for USA's U-17 team in 2018.
"She's so gifted in terms of her strength, especially for someone of her age," says Carla Berube, her coach at USA Basketball and a former UConn player. "Any kind of contact doesn't really faze her."
Neither does playing with the boys. She was one of the first two girls invited to Stephen Curry's fifth annual SC30 Select Camp in August. Clips of Fudd outshooting the top boys in the nation to win the three-point contest went viral. Her Instagram following skyrocketed from 3,000 to over 30,000 within three days.
Fudd doesn't just want to be known as a shooter, though.
"I don't want to be a player that's one-sided, that's only good at offense, that can only do one thing," she says. "I want to guard the best player on the other team and shut them down."
But on this snowy Thursday in mid-November, she is just thankful to have reached her school's gym at all. On the way, she and her mother, Katie, navigated wet, slushy roads, passing a bus that stalled out and a Mercedes that hit a pole.
To make matters worse, Fudd realizes she forgot her ankle braces at home. "Really?" Katie says to her.
Fudd smiles at the intensity of her mom's disbelief. She's used to this. Her parents were the ones who gave her the "maniac." They have it in them, too.
Katie and Tim Fudd had to get married on a basketball court. Just had to. They needed a venue on short notice. Since Katie grew up Catholic, and since they were already renting St. Joseph's Catholic School's gym for training, they thought, Why not have the wedding at the gym?
St. Joseph's charged $35 an hour, but there was one rule: No heels. Heels could scuff up the hardwood. So the invitation read: "To show support of this union, the bride and groom ask that you wear athletic shoes to the wedding."
Katie and Tim's chemistry, developed while coaching on the same staff at The Potomac School, was like a well-executed three-man weave: seamless, timely, beautiful.
Both deeply loved the game. Katie (whose last name was then Smrcka-Duffy) was the ACC Rookie of the Year at N.C. State in 1997 before transferring to Georgetown. After twice leading the Big East in scoring, she was drafted by the WNBA's Sacramento Monarchs. Tim played a focal role for American University, averaging 16.1 points per game as a senior in 1996.
So during their wedding, they walked down the court in white Nike Huaraches. Azzi, almost three at the time, trailed closely behind in her little white Huaraches, flinging flowers into each row.
Naturally, Katie and Tim wanted their daughter to play—if she wanted to. The problem was, Azzi did not want to. She hated playing.
The first time she caught the ball as a first-grader, playing against third-graders, she held it out, underhanded, like she was handing out a Christmas gift. And sure enough, her defender stole the ball from her and zoomed the other way. Azzi looked up at her parents in the stands, like, What?! How mean of her!
"She was a sweetheart," Tim says.
It wasn't just basketball. During Easter egg hunts, she'd stand by herself nervously clutching her basket, afraid to get in the mix, while the rest of the kids snatched all the eggs. Even in soccer, her coaches had to roll the ball to her to get her to move. To do something.
The physical gifts were there. She'd do things like jumping from the bed to the dresser at age two, or finishing a left-handed layup with perfect timing and footwork the first time she attempted it at age seven. But she didn't have the attitude.
She didn't have the "maniac" yet.
Gradually, though, she began to get more interested. Hungry, even. She started to love basketball.
Even continuing to play two years up, she was bigger and more skilled than most of the kids. She dominated as a sixth-grader playing in eighth-grade AAU tournaments. One day that year, she wound up in the University of Maryland women's basketball office. Brenda Frese, Maryland head coach, sat at her desk across from Azzi and offered her a college scholarship.
Azzi blinked a few times, looked at her parents and then looked down at the salad she brought with her for lunch.
"Um," Azzi said at the time, unsure of what it all meant, "thank you!"
On the ride home, her parents explained. And they told her if she stopped working hard, her scholarship could disappear.
There have been many of those car rides since—where her parents, who have served as her AAU coaches (Tim is also an assistant coach at St. John's), did more than teach her plays and moves and tell her what she was doing wrong and encourage what she was doing right. They instilled a love for the women's game: the pass-pass-pass for the best shot. The drop step and shot off the glass. The simple backdoor cut.
After all, they named her after Jennifer Azzi, a WNBA legend and Olympic gold medalist. Jennifer wasn't the biggest or fastest, but she worked the hardest. Especially when no one was looking.
Katie wanted her daughter to have that work ethic—that character, too. She'd tell her about what it was like being a women's basketball player at the time she and Jennifer played.
"If you weren't a men's basketball player, you literally didn't exist," Katie says, reflecting on her time at Georgetown. She and her teammates weren't allowed to go into the gym when the men's team was there, even just to walk through to get to the weight room. Once, she went to shoot on her own, and a player from the men's team came in. They were shooting and chatting when one of her assistant coaches came to tell her the men's coaches had called and she had to leave, even though she was there first.
They grew accustomed to having less gear, less TV time, less respect.
That's something Azzi thought of as she walked into the nearly all-boys gym in San Francisco for Curry's camp. She was stunned to be handed five pairs of shoes, a sweatshirt, a jacket, a couple pairs of pants, a long-sleeve shirt, a T-shirt, shorts, a backpack and a rolling suitcase. All to keep.
She is accustomed to receiving a pair of shoes, a backpack, a few shirts—maybe—at girls camps, and most have to be returned at the end of camp.
"That's why this is really exciting for me," Azzi says. "I want little girls to play basketball, not just from watching me but from seeing how fun it is. I want them to enjoy the sport as much as I do.
"I also want more people to respect it. A lot of people don't respect it. It's not just a men's sport."
Fudd repeated the acronym to herself over and over before the drills at Curry's camp began.
She'd played on all-boys travel teams before—even on coed flag football teams—but this felt different. She was nervous—legs squiggly, heart jumpy, nervous.
BAF. BAF. BAF.
It's short for "Be Azzi Fudd." Malu Tshitenge-Mutombo, Dikembe's niece and Fudd's close friend and teammate, came up with the acronym last season when Fudd, then a freshman, was nervous before an open gym in preseason.
It wasn't just any open gym. It was an open gym with Connecticut head coach Geno Auriemma in the stands. He came to see her play. But as soon as Tshitenge-Mutombo told her "BAF," Fudd began to calm down, began to trust her shot again and drain them all. She didn't miss.
"In her mind, when she touches the ball, she's in power," says Tshitenge-Mutombo, who will play for North Carolina next year. "Any shot Azzi takes, I'm like, 'That's going in.' I don't even have to look."
As Fudd repeated BAF, her nerves began to dissipate at Curry's camp and her shot began to fall, too. After winning the three-point contest, she faced Curry and his father, Dell, in a shoot-off. She didn't win, but afterward, Curry came up to her and handed her a trophy.
"Congrats, you won!" Curry said.
"No. I didn't beat you."
"Next year, we'll shoot again," Curry said.
Azzi's goal is to beat him in 2019, but she did beat plenty of others at the camp.
Jalen Green, the top 2020 prospect and one of the group of elite recruits known as Unicorn Fam, was guarding Fudd when he made the mistake of going under a screen rather than fighting over the top of it. She came off of the screen, crossed him, and hit the mid-range jumper.
"I was like, 'She is real.' She's a hooper," says Green. "She does not miss."
Fudd enjoyed making friends, competing at the Curry camp and becoming the first girl inducted into the Unicorn Fam, but it also all pushed her into a spotlight she isn't used to. It can be strange and uncomfortable. It's not just the overwhelming number of followers she has. She rarely posts and hates when players boast about their offers. "That's not something I want to brag about," she says. It's the adult men that leave heart-eye emojis and creepy comments who really bother her.
There's Azzi Fudd, then there's God. You can guess who's first.
She's low-key cute.
What are you going to do for your birthday?
Beautiful girl that can ball, I'm falling in love with you.
She doesn't respond. She is too busy in the gym, wearing her elevation mask that severely limits her oxygen, draining jumper after jumper.
Sweating through her jersey, Fudd works out by herself for an hour on the snowy November day, before joining her St. John's teammates for practice. Players run up and down the court and receive passes from teammates on the sideline for shots.
The goal is to make 60. They fall short just as Tim walks in. The first thing Katie says to him is, "They made 58." They both give disappointed looks. True disappointment. But it doesn't last long. Soon they're cracking up at how devoted they are to the game, as Katie realizes she has about 20 whistles stored in her backpack from a recent clinic. And then their eyes lock on Azzi.
"She wants to be more shifty with her moves," says Katie, who mentions that Azzi has worked out with Brandon Payne, Curry's trainer, twice. "She wants to get you to bite more, not just do an in-and-out move and get by you because she's faster."
Azzi is in no rush to make a decision about college. She's focused on helping St. John's repeat as District of Columbia State Athletic Association champion. She earned 2018 D.C. Gatorade Player of the Year honors last season, helping her team to a 32-2 mark.
"She's really humble about it," says Carly Rivera, a teammate and close friend who will play for Columbia University next year. "If you saw her walking down the street, you wouldn't know because she doesn't act like it."
Fudd is constantly asked about what's next, though—about what college she'll choose.
"People always ask me if the college recruiting process is overwhelming, but it isn't really. Everybody thinks I talk to a million people, but I really don't," Fudd says. "I talk to a few coaches a week. [My parents] keep it to where the process is still fun."
She still wants to be a normal girl. A girl who loves pink (her blankets, pillows, rug and reusable water bottle are pink), her dad's chicken parmesan, Nutella, any vegetable you can find...and getting buckets.
She has to, now, in her team's practice, as Scribner chews out the group for not being aggressive enough, not attacking the basket enough, in a five-player shell drill.
But Azzi is in pain. She injured her hip in June at a basketball camp and has snapping hip syndrome. Sometimes it still nags her, like today. She retreats to the sideline, twisting her hip from side to side, as if she's hula-hooping.
A minute later, she pushes herself to return to the court. She doesn't say a word. She calmly catches the ball, dips her eyebrows down and knows what to do: BAF.
Mirin Fader is a Writer-At-Large for B/R Mag. She's written for the Orange County Register, espnW.com, SI.com and Slam. Her work has been honored by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association. Follow her on Twitter: @MirinFader.