VCU freshman guard Isis Thorpe has always been a bit of an independent spirit. In high school, she loved the piano sections of the K-Ci & JoJo hit “All My Life” so much she decided to take up piano. So she asked her mother for a keyboard and looked up tutorials on YouTube.
“I wanted to play the piano because I just wanted something new,” the Reading, Pa. native says. “I never wanted to be just a basketball player. I always wanted to do other things so I can say I’ve done something else.”
Thorpe later took a piano class as a high school senior, and while she still calls herself a beginner, she can play Christmas songs and some Beethoven, as well as some R&B standards.
Her basketball career has followed a similar plot line. A late-starter, the 5-foot-8 guard learned the game in her own independent way, but has proven to be a quick study. This season, she’s burst onto the scene to become the second-leading scorer for Coach Marlene Stollings’ upstart VCU Women’s Basketball team. Even among Stollings’ ready-made initial VCU recruiting class, Thorpe has managed to stand out.
Thorpe’s outstanding debut campaign isn’t just a nice surprise for the 18-6 Rams, it’s bordering on historic. Thorpe is averaging 12.9 points per game, the most by a VCU freshman since future WNBA pro Quanitra Hollingsworth averaged 14.7 during the 2005-06 season, and the most by a true VCU freshman since Rochelle Luckett (12.8) in 1998-99. Hollingsworth eventually scored 1,604 points in a VCU uniform, which ranks third in school history. Luckett is fifth with 1,483. Thorpe also ranks fourth in the A-10 in 3-pointers per game (2.5). Her 60 triples are already the sixth-most in school single-season history.
While they’re all different players at different positions, Stollings believes there’s no reason Thorpe, predominantly a shooting guard, can’t have a similarly prolific career with the Rams, if not better.
It’s been a rapid ascent for Thorpe, an under-the-radar recruit from Reading High School and the Philly Belles AAU program. It wasn’t until the seventh grade that Thorpe even took an interest in playing organized basketball, and she didn’t participate on the AAU circuit until she was in the 10th grade. She also says she never attended basketball camp, other than the Nike Skills Academy when she was a sophomore.
She was interested in basketball, just not to the point where she wanted to pour herself into it. For years, Thorpe was content to walk to the park near her house and shoot by herself or play in pickup games.
She also says she almost never watched basketball on TV until someone told her about Candace Parker, then a star at Tennessee. An impossibly athletic, skilled player known for her occasional dunks, Parker’s game was a revelation to Thorpe. Her interest later branched out to Kobe Bryant, but everything changed, she says, during the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Thorpe became so consumed by the basketball games at the Olympics that she’d stay up late into the night to watch. She’d burn the midnight oil all the way until 5 a.m. when the sun came up, and then walk down to the park to shoot hoops.
“I used to get so energized, I just wanted to go out and play. I couldn’t go to sleep,” she says.
Thorpe treaded lightly into organized basketball at first. She’d always been an independent, a playground player. Running set plays and working within a team structure were foreign and somewhat antithetical to her view of basketball up to that point.
“I didn’t want to learn the basics of basketball. I thought it would be boring, learning and teaching. You know how you watch film? It becomes business-like. It’s not fun anymore. I just wanted to go out and play.”
But eventually, basketball took hold of her. The more of the game she learned, the more consumed she became.
“I just fell in love with it, and I always had this imagination of me playing in front of people and me hitting game-winning shots,” she says. “In order to do that, I had to play for a team and see myself in that light. And I just wanted to try something new.”
Thorpe later won back-to-back Berks County (Pa.) Player of the Year awards and became a primary target of Stollings, who was looking to rebuild the VCU program. A prolific scorer herself in high school and college, Stollings employs a system she calls “Fury”, which features a blindingly up-tempo offense and a staunch 2-3 zone defense modeled after Syracuse. Thorpe’s athleticism and scoring ability immediately caught the eye of Stollings and Assistant Coach Nikita Lowry Dawkins.
“We always recruit a little bit on potential. think everybody does. Because you’re gauging how good can they be once you get them,” Stollings says. “She was someone we had targeted that could come in and help us right away. To what degree was always an unknown. But we knew she had the ability to score. She could put up points in bunches.”
Not only did VCU’s wide-open style of play appeal to Thorpe’s playground basketball roots, but Stollings’ and her staff’s commitment to life off the court sold her on the program.
“They’re trying to take you to the next level,” says Thorpe, who indicated she’s interested in law. “They are trying to build a better player, but more so, they’re trying to build a better person. It’s definitely not just basketball.”
Thorpe says her rapid ascent to full-time starter for the Rams has come as somewhat of a surprise. She called VCU’s frenetic summer workout plan, which Stollings considers essential to the “Fury” style, “one of the hardest challenges of my life.”
Despite the physical demands of her indoctrination to college basketball, Thorpe believes the key to weathering those initial months was above the shoulders.
“It was all mental. All of this stuff was mental,” she says. “I think that’s something I always wanted to get better at, was my mental game. And I guess that was definitely the hardest challenge. Initially, I approached it with a negative. Once I changed my mindset, everything changed.”
Given her late start in the game and her inherent ability, Stollings believes her star freshman is merely providing a teaser of her potential. Once she becomes more comfortable reading the game on the floor, which Stollings says is a product of experience, there’s no telling where her ceiling will be.
“I can’t predict the future, but what I foresee in her game is she develops and gets really comfortable with what we term “the jab series”. I think she’s going to become unguardable in this league,” Stollings says. “I really think that she has the potential to eventually lead the league in scoring, things of that nature, if she really gets down to work and develops that jab series at a high level.”