Baylor women’s basketball adjusts to new roles ahead of season opener

Junior guard Yaya Felder (2) shoots a 3-pointer during No. 19 Baylor women's basketball's first practice of the fall on Sept. 25 in the Ferrell Center. Lilly Yablon | Photographer

By Jackson Posey | Sports Writer

Picture this: It’s Friday, Nov. 3, and No. 19 Baylor women’s basketball is just hours away from starting its revenge tour.

After falling short of a Big 12 title for the first time since 2009-10, the Bears reloaded, stocking the cupboard with high-impact transfers. Senior guard Sarah Andrews, an All-Big 12 First Team member and the lone remaining holdover from the Kim Mulkey era, said this year’s team is “very much so” deeper than any she’s played on.

“You saw over the years, we’ve been playing with seven, eight people because people have been injured or just for other reasons,” Andrews said. “I think this year the depth is going to take us a long way because now you have people at different positions that can come in, and we have the same thing on the floor. I mean, they bring something different, each and every player, but now we can go into our bench and stay fresh and compete for 40 minutes.”

Much of that depth comes from incoming transfers, including former Kentucky junior guard Jada Walker, Iowa State sophomore guard Denae Fritz and Belmont senior forward Madison Bartley. But the biggest scoring addition came in the form of junior guard Yaya Felder, who averaged 22.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game last year at Ohio.

“She’s a fun, exciting player,” Andrews said of Felder. “She’s somebody you want on your team. She’s going to give it her all, she’s going to attack the rim, she’s going to put pressure on the defense and make them decide whether or not they want to guard her. If you got her, she’s going to pass the ball. She’s a fun player to play with and somebody that’s fun to watch play.”

Andrews is on a minutes restriction to open the season, which could clear the way for Walker to play more point guard. Head coach Nicki Collen said Walker’s playmaking ability can really pop if she stays within the flow of the game and limits overthinking things.

“I think Jada is still trying to figure out, ‘What am I doing and why am I doing it?’” Collen said. “And it’s that fine line of taking away her aggressiveness and the things that she does well because she’s overthinking. And that’s a natural transition. But it’s one that, I don’t want it to take away from what she does well, having her think too much.

“And so, her packages are going to be much more limited in terms of what we’re doing when she’s running the team. And I think we can still be ultra-successful, it’s just going to take her time to understand, ‘How’s the defense guarding me, what are good options here?'”

Walker, who averaged three assists and 2.61 steals per game (second-best among major-conference players) in her final year at Kentucky, isn’t the only lineup-versatile piece on the roster. Graduate student forward Dre’Una Edwards, fellow Kentucky transfer who sat out last season as a 4-4-4 transfer, also brings size down low.

“I still think Dre is shaking the rust off a little bit, and she dealt with some physical issues a couple months ago that kind of broke up that advancement, but I do think she’s a player who really gives us a mismatch depending on how you look at it,” Collen said. “She can be a small 5 but a bigger 4. She can definitely play the 4 and is comfortable with the 4. But when you put her at the 5, she’s really smart on angles and dictating from behind the defense. She can stretch you to 3, she can drive by bigs.

“When you’re smart and you understand angles and you use your base well, you can defend people three and four inches taller than you well. … I think she has the ability to do both, and I think that lineup is really dangerous when all of a sudden, we have five people who can shoot the 3, five people who can attack you.”

The infusion of new talent has the potential to push others into different roles, particularly as players continue to break out throughout camp. One of those is sophomore forward Bella Fontleroy, a unanimous Big 12 All-Freshman Team member in 2022-23 who’s transitioning from the post to the perimeter.

“I think she’s someone that as she develops in this role can be really, really special because of her ability to shoot it and then maybe post up smaller matchups,” Collen said. “She was defending a lot of fives last year, so I think it’s a challenge to defend on the perimeter. She’s doing a good job with that. But I think it’s about, does she embrace the challenge of playing more on the perimeter, being a little bit more of a ball handler, being able to post up mismatches?

“She’s a physical kid, but learning to use her body to score around the rim takes time. You can kind of get away with anything in high school, a lot of the times, if you’re someone over 6-foot tall, but [she] struggled at times last year when we would post-feed her at putting the ball directly in the hands of her defender. So, just getting her to understand angles and use her body. But I think she can be that inside-outside player that can really grow this year and grow alongside Aijha [Blackwell] in kind of a similar role. I think they’re both going to be uber-important to our success.”

The Bears are set to play an exhibition match against Hardin-Simmons at 6 p.m. on Friday before officially opening their season on Monday against Southern, with both contests coming in the Ferrell Center. They’ll play their first major-conference opponent the following week, hosting No. 5 Utah on Nov. 14.