Why South Carolina’s freshman sensation is wowing Magic Johnson, the NBA and college basketball

Let’s begin with the play, because what else initially comes to mind when thinking of South Carolina star freshman MiLaysia Fulwiley?

You know the one. Against No. 10 Notre Dame, in the season opener, in Paris. Fulwiley receives an inbounds pass with just over two minutes to go until halftime and begins galloping up the floor. By the time she reaches the 3-point line, three defenders are inside the arc, but nothing is stopping her. Fulwiley picks up her dribble, goes behind the back with the ball and elevates. For a brief second, it looks as if she will attempt a scoop layup on the basket’s right side. But then, in an instant, she cradles the ball to the left and uses her right hand to flip it up with the perfect amount of spin so it falls through the hoop. “The Eiffel Tower is shaking,” ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco says on the broadcast.

The razzle-dazzle electrifies the 3,200 spectators in attendance and hundreds of thousands watching on TV. Kevin Durant, amazed by the string of moves, tweets about it. Magic Johnson tweets it’s “the best move in all of basketball including the pros like LeBron, Steph, KD, Victor, and Jokic” and urges his 5 million followers to seek out the replay. It’s undeniably eye-popping. But to those who know Fulwiley best, the sequence isn’t surprising.

“That play is routine for her,” South Carolina coach Dawn Staley says.

“That play, we’ve seen it 1,000 times,” her high school coach, Reggie McLain, says.

“She’s just special. I have not seen a kid play the game the way she plays it,” adds Ashley Rivens, her grassroots coach at Team Curry.

Although she’s only a freshman, Fulwiley has been making on-court magic in Columbia, S.C., for as long as she can remember. She grew up a 13-minute drive from the university’s campus. Long before she made Colonial Life Arena her stage, she created, and re-created, highlights in the driveway of her family’s three-bedroom home and at nearby Crane Forest Park. She’d watch YouTube videos — often of LeBron James, Columbia native Seventh Woods or other mixtape stars — grab a ball and experiment for herself. She’d tell her sisters, Zyana and Jayla, to sit on the porch and count down from five. “One day, the camera is gonna be on me and I’m gonna be like everybody else I see on YouTube,” Fulwiley says she would think to herself.

In daylight and darkness, on a strip of concrete or surrounding grass, in front of the house or at the goal in the back, she imagined nailing buzzer-beaters. She played in the park until she could no longer see the hoop. She practiced crossover combinations and spin moves. Eventually, in high school, the 5-foot-10 guard worked on dunking. (Yes, she can throw it down.) “You are gonna be somebody special,” her mother, Phea Mixon, told her.

Fulwiley’s highlights are a reminder, however, that just because something is routine for one person doesn’t mean it’s replicable for others. By the end of her seventh-grade season, McLain invited Fulwiley to join W.J. Keenan High’s varsity playoff run. South Carolina and Ole Miss offered her scholarships before the school year ended. As an eighth-grader, she played high school varsity full-time. Keenan won four state titles and played in five championship games with her on the roster.

Immense talent hasn’t led to immense ego, say those who know her best. Mixon describes her daughter as humble. Staley calls Fulwiley low-key and sometimes shy. “We have to teach her that you’re not an ordinary young person,” Staley says. Fulwiley, 18, knows she has much to learn. And though she’s comfortable skying above defenders, she reminds herself to stay steady. To remain grounded, even when her aerial acrobatics go viral. “I’m in control of how I want to feel,” she says. “My mom did a great job telling me, ‘Don’t get the big head because you can lose everything just how you got it.’”

As Fulwiley surged up ranking lists — eventually making her way to No. 13 in ESPN’s Class of 2023 — and past her defenders, Mixon often put her daughter’s opportunities over her own career in customer service. She prioritized attending Fulwiley’s tournaments and college visits. “I really wanted MiLaysia to secure her future, because once I saw how special she was, I knew that things can change,” Mixon says. Through hard work, she told her daughter, Fulwiley could accomplish what she aspired to achieve.

Fulwiley noticed her mother’s efforts. “It means a lot to me,” she says, “just knowing that my mom cares about me enough to stop things that’s going on in her life (and) sacrifice.” Mixon can count on one hand the number of times she’s missed Fulwiley’s games in high school or college.

Though she’s competitive off the court — McLain says Fulwiley didn’t even like to lose in PE kickball — she has largely maintained a singular focus. “Basketball has been my one and only love,” she says. In elementary school, her answer to “What do you want to be when you grow up?” questions was always a professional basketball player. She stood out in youth events. Fulwiley recalls attempting a 3-pointer in a boys’ church league game when she was only 6 or 7 and wondering if she was dreaming because she had tried a shot that even she thought was audacious. In the sixth grade, she scored 60 points in a game, but her team lost 71-70. She now calls her 60-piece “a waste” because of the result. Nevertheless, it brought more attention to her.

When McLain first watched Fulwiley play, as a seventh-grader, he saw a player who stood out among her peers. He observed her elite athleticism, prodigious basketball IQ and competitiveness. A motor Fulwiley describes as “go-go-go.”

That spring, McLain added her to the high school’s playoff roster, and she immediately dominated practices, taking over in one-on-one drills. Still, McLain adds, she was “extremely quiet.” She didn’t get fazed by the teachers, trainers and other coaches poking their heads in the gym to see her play.

Staley says the success of her program is “based on the kids in our area.” A’ja Wilson is from Columbia. Alaina Coates is from a nearby suburb. “No one leaves the state,” Staley says, “without them making it really hard for us to say no.” The Gamecocks made it hard for Fulwiley to say no.

As she flourished in high school and on her grassroots team, her family kept envisioning her wearing garnet and black. It was initially only a lofty aspiration, but one they hoped could be a key step to reaching the WNBA. Mixon says Staley promised to hold Fulwiley accountable and help her reach the next level. The idea of staying home in Columbia also brought added excitement because her friends and family could easily see her play. Fulwiley’s now-deceased grandfather, Charles, was a longtime Gamecocks fan. He wore the school’s apparel and had school stickers on his car. He told Fulwiley he could see her suiting up there one day. She wears No. 12 in his honor; it was his favorite number.

One morning during Fulwiley’s second week of summer classes at South Carolina, she arrived late for a team breakfast. She says she was only two minutes behind schedule. She thought nothing would come of it. But tardiness in college, she quickly learned, was different from being late in high school. Staley told her she would sit out of a practice.

The discipline resonated. “Stuff like that made me lock in,” Fulwiley says. She told her mother: “Dawn does not play.”

In the weeks and months that followed, Staley has continued emphasizing the team rules. She stresses to Fulwiley the importance of being on time to class and weight training and creating pro-ready habits. Even in moments of tension, Staley reminds Fulwiley of her potential.

“She’ll ooh and ahh us,” Staley says. “She’ll make me turn away from her because of a move she’ll make. I gotta walk away from it because it was so very good. And then she also has some things that she needs to work on that will make me scream at her. And I don’t like screaming at her because she’s got an angelic look to her. She doesn’t like to be screamed at, but certain things will hit me differently.”

The 18-year-old has even stunned coach Dawn Staley with some of her moves.

In those instances, Staley will correct her, often prefacing the feedback by saying, “This doesn’t mean that you’re not a generational talent.”

In high school, Fulwiley was Keenan’s star. In college, she has starred at times, like in her 17-point, six-assist, six-steal outing against Notre Dame or in an 18-point, nine-rebound showing against Clemson. However, there have also been games when Fulwiley watched idly from the bench. She saw the floor for only three minutes in a 7-point win over North Carolina, with Staley saying Fulwiley lost her opponent a few times on defense. She played a mere 10 minutes in South Carolina’s 24-point victory over Missouri and missed all five of her field goal attempts. Yet it is then when coaches see Fulwiley’s trust in their decisions. “She really embraces the process, and I love that about her,” Staley says.

Against Texas A&M on Sunday, Fulwiley put on perhaps her best showing. She scored 21 points in 20 minutes, exploding past defenders in the pick-and-roll on multiple occasions. Staley said Fulwiley’s confidence translated to magic. The top-ranked Gamecocks matchup against No. 9 LSU on Thursday night provides another opportunity to unearth something amazing. But Staley also stresses that “the stuff in between the spectacular plays is where (her) greatness is really going to come.” In other words, how she makes the ordinary extraordinary.

Fulwiley says she has plenty to learn — too many things to rattle off. Staley notes Fulwiley can sometimes be unselfish to a fault and that she has room to “be in the gym a little bit more.” Fulwiley has nearly as many assists (40) as turnovers (34). Nevertheless, she takes feedback well. Coaches demonstrate something once, Staley says, and Fulwiley can execute it immediately. “She wants to be great,” Staley says. “And wanting to be great takes listening. It takes doing. It takes vulnerability.”

Fulwiley feels grateful to be at South Carolina, soaking up knowledge from the veterans. And although her stage has changed, she has stayed attached to her roots. She has returned to Keenan three times this season to watch the Raiders play. Once, she sat on the end of their bench, and she has spoken to the players at halftime. Sure, her sister Jayla is still playing there. However, Fulwiley goes back for more than that. “They played a big part as to why I’m here today,” she says. “I owe them my support and my dedication.”

Even with an arsenal of aerial attacks, she’s stayed tied to the ground. To her past. To her family. To Columbia. Mixon says, “I can’t tell you how many times I cried” seeing people scream her daughter’s name in Colonial Life Arena. She thinks about the sacrifices and how her father would say, “Whatever you do, you need to make time so that your daughter can follow her dreams.”

“I’ve prayed for times like this,” Fulwiley says. And in her driveway, she prepared for times like this, too.

(Photos of MiLaysia Fulwiley: Jacob Kupferman / Getty Images)

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