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NaJai Pollard’s old-school game makes her Delaware State’s all-time leading scorer

She’s also school’s all-time shot-blocker

Over the course of four years at Delaware State, this Lady Hornets superstar has rewritten the school’s record books and left a legacy all her own.

When people say the phrase “ball is life,” it typically evokes a vision of someone who is about basketball 24 hours a day. This can take shape in many forms, from the kid who plays NBA 2K until his thumbs are numb to the dedicated fan who wouldn’t dare miss the Phoenix Suns face the Cleveland Cavaliers on NBA League Pass. There are the hoop lifers who actually play ball daily, and then there are those who are historians of the game. This is where NaJai Pollard and I sparked our best conversation.

“Did you say Cain?” the Lady Hornets’ all-time leading scorer asked me while taking down notes.

“No, sorry, it’s Bernard King,” I replied, worried about my potentially shoddy cellphone reception. “Like the crown.”

“Oh, OK,” Pollard replied with relief. “I got it. I’ll get on YouTube and check him out immediately.”

Pollard’s game is reminiscent of King’s, and when you watch her play, the reason is obvious. As the old school might say, the Delaware State forward can put up 30 points in a phone booth. On the block, on the elbow, at the nail or on the baseline. If she finds her spots on the floor, the defense is already done for.

King, the Basketball Hall of Famer, was already out of the NBA by the time Pollard began to watch basketball seriously. However, there was no surprise as to where her basketball inspiration came from initially.

“Carmelo Anthony,” Pollard said almost gleefully. “I loved watching Carmelo. He was the only player I grew up watching play consistently. His midrange game, face-up game, his postgame, his aggressiveness, his ability to get his shot off from anywhere. Then it evolved to Kawhi Leonard. Same with Candace Parker. They can do everything, and that’s what I want to be. I want to be a triple threat. If they play off, I can make them pay. If they play too close, I can get space. I want to get my shot off in any way, shape and form, and I still have room to go to get better.”

Pollard’s journey intertwined with newly installed Lady Hornets coach David Caputo. Caputo knew he was getting a good player, but then he held his first workout with her and his mindset changed.

“Oh … she can go for real,” Caputo said with pride. “When you see her out the gym, you wouldn’t think she’s the all-time leading scorer in school history. For a player who’s that good, there’s no arrogance to her, and all she wants is help on getting better.”

Getting better means growth not only as a basketball player but also as a person. Caputo highlights Pollard’s defensive limitations at the time he took the head coaching job and how she worked to learn leverage, improving her foot speed and not chasing every block. Now as a senior, she’s the No. 8 scorer in the nation (22.8 points per game) and is one of 40 players in women’s NCAA Division I hoops averaging 10-plus rebounds a game (10.5). She’s also the team’s leader in blocks and steals. It’s a testament to Pollard’s hard work and attention to detail, something she made very clear as I asked about the legacy she’s leaving behind.

“Did you ever think four years ago you’d leave Delaware State as the all-time leading scorer?”

“I’m the all-time leading scorer and shot-blocker. Don’t forget.”

“Duly noted.”

Even when she’s fact-checking the interviewer, it’s pleasant. You can’t help but smile while chatting with Pollard, the 5-foot-11-inch native of Richmond, Virginia, who had dreams of playing at North Carolina, her father’s favorite school. If she’s not immersed in the game, she’s texting her two brothers or calling to check on her mother. It’s her pleasantness that stands out most to Caputo.

“Everyone loves her at Delaware State,” he said. “She’s the nicest person, and she’s been so successful for this team. She’s brought a ton of notoriety to this school. When you say the name NaJai Pollard around this school, it brings smiles to people’s faces. No one would say a bad thing about her, and everyone wants to see what’s next with her.”

What’s next for Pollard is a professional playing career, as overtures have been made both domestically from the WNBA and from teams overseas. It’s the career Pollard has always wanted, even when she was mimicking Carmelo’s jab step or Candace’s up-and-under. It’s the opportunity that her time in Dover, Delaware, has prepared her for, including scoring the go-ahead bucket and 21st point at senior night to give the Lady Hornets a 59-56 victory over Norfolk State on Monday.

“My intention when I got to Dover was to win rings and be a part of a successful team,” Pollard said. “Delaware State molded me into someone who is humble and willing to work hard towards my future successes. I had to learn that everything is not going to go how you expect and you must find the positives. I’m thankful to my classmates, teammates and coaches to give me the chance to grow.”

Pollard’s growth will leave her with the legacy of being arguably the greatest hooper in the history of Delaware State. Ball is life, indeed, but she’s nice too.

What more can I say?

What more can I do?

I gave this up to you …

I know this much is true …

My love …

– Jay-Z, “What More Can I Say”

Eddie Maisonet is an associate editor for ESPN. He is an unabashed Russell Westbrook and Barry Switzer apologist, owns over 100 snapbacks and lives by Reggie Jackson’s famous quote, “I am the straw that stirs the drink.”