Every freshman has a light bulb moment.
For Jaida Roper, it was more like all of the lights in Las Vegas flashing the same message.
“After the summer, I was like, ‘Wow. These girls are faster, stronger and bigger than me,’” the Kentucky freshman said. “‘I’m going to have to do something. I have to make a change.’”
Unlike in high school, when she could pretty much take the ball into whatever lane she wanted, it was a little different at the college level.
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“This was a hard transition for me,” the former star from Houston High School in Memphis confessed recently.
And it’s been one that is ongoing.
Just when she feels like she’s made strides, she finds ways she needs to improve.
The good news for Roper is that she has a bit of swagger to her, which always helps as players get blinded by the light bulb moments.
“Jaida has the confidence to be successful,” said UK assistant coach Kyra Elzy, who has been working on the side with Roper for months helping the freshman grow her game. “She wants to learn. She wants to be coachable, but more importantly, she wants to play. That confidence is going to help her along the way.”
Roper’s transition started with getting better in transition, becoming more explosive in her stops and starts, relearning her own body and how it moves.
“I’ve been kind of dying in my stops,” Roper explained. “All of my body weight goes to my plant foot instead of the other foot that’s jumping off. We’ve been working on that, getting quicker, working on my starts quicker, just being ready to play.”
The 5-foot-6 guard finds herself spending a lot of time with UK strength and conditioning coach John Spurlock, who has “really done a good job of helping her get out of her starts and stops to make her quicker,” UK Coach Matthew Mitchell said.
It took the freshman guard some time to figure out how hard she had to go — both mentally and physically — to become a key contributor.
Even after Roper got faster and quicker in the offseason, she didn’t get as much playing time as she expected. She asked her coaches what else she needed to do.
“I think she was just showing up and like, ‘Hey these things have worked every day of my life, why aren’t they working now,” Mitchell continued. “So you go through this, it’s almost like a period of grief, you feel bad and sorry for yourself because the stuff you did in high school doesn’t work now in the (Southeastern Conference).”
Coaches encouraged her to spend extra time outside of practice working on her three-point shot and her defensive fundamentals.
Elzy reminded Roper that there are guards on the team with unique skill sets and that she had to find her niche, her way of contributing.
“One thing you can control: energy plays, diving for loose balls and hitting open shots, and playing to your strength, which is delivering the ball where it’s supposed to be when it’s supposed to be there,” Elzy said she told Roper.
It’s been a slow progression, but since SEC play started for Kentucky, Roper has made positive steps. That includes scoring seven points with five assists in 18 minutes against Mississippi on Thursday night as UK (15-6, 6-2 SEC) won its fifth straight game.
With the Cats’ roster already limited, Roper has stepped up with players such as guard Jessica Hardin out the past eight games while working through the concussion protocol.
When Hardin comes back, which could be as soon as Monday night at Missouri (15-7, 5-3), Roper wants to make sure she stays on the floor.
That likely will mean more light bulb moments for the freshman, who is still figuring things out. Sometimes she makes plays that she shouldn’t be trying to make, but other times Mitchell finds himself impressed with a play he didn’t know she could make.
Roper’s play “has made a huge difference in our team,” he said. “I’m so happy for her and really happy for our team because we desperately needed production from her, and these are real SEC games. This is not phony. This is not fake.
“She’s making contributions every step of the way even if it’s not seven or eight points. It’s given us some quality minutes and it’s been good for our team.”
It has been good for Roper, too. She’s learned some valuable lessons only partway through her first full season at Kentucky.
“I realized I just have to put in a lot of work outside of practice to get better,” she said. “Everyone’s at practice. You get better before practice or after practice when you put in extra shots, just doing the little things. … I’m just trying to put in all the extra work that I can.”
Kentucky at Missouri
When: 7 p.m.
Records: UK 15-6 (6-2 SEC); Missouri 15-7 (5-3 SEC)
Series: UK leads 6-1
Last meeting: UK won 64-62 on Jan. 5 in Lexington
TV: SEC Network
Radio: WLAP-AM 630
Probable starters: Maci Morris, 6-0, G, So. (11.8 pts, 3.1 rebs, 1.7 asts); Evelyn Akhator, 6-3, F, Sr. (15.5 pts, 10.6 rebs); Taylor Murray, 5-6, G, So. (12.5 pts, 5.1 rebs, 3.1 asts); Makayla Epps, 5-10, G, Sr. (16.5 pts, 4.3 rebs, 3.9 asts); Alyssa Rice, 6-3, C, Jr. (3.9 pts, 4.8 rebs)
Key reserves: Makenzie Cann, 6-1, G, Jr. (7.0 pts, 3.9 rebs); Jessica Hardin, 5-8, G, Sr. (3.5 pts); Paige Poffenberger, 5-8, G, Fr. (1.1 pts); Jaida Roper, 5-6, PG, Fr. (2.5 pts, 1.6 asts)
Probable starters: Lianna Doty, 5-7, G, Sr. (4.4 pts, 3.1 rebs, 3.5 asts); Sierra Michaelis, 5-10, G, Sr. (12.6 pts, 5.0 rebs); Cierra Porter, 6-4, F, So. (14.6 pts, 8.8 rebs, 1.7 blks); Sophie Cunningham, 6-1, G, So. (16.3 pts, 5.3 rebs, 3.8 asts); Lindsey Cunningham, 6-0, G, Sr. (7.2 pts, 4.5 rebs, 2.2 asts)
Key reserves: Jordan Chavis, 5-7, G, Fr. (4.3 pts); Hannah Schuchts, 6-2, F, Fr. (2.4 pts); Amber Smith, 5-11, G, Fr. (5.4 pts, 2.2 rebs), Kayla McDowell, 6-2, F, Jr. (0.9 pts, 2.4 rebs)