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Page last updated at 23:10 GMT, Friday, 13 August 2010 00:10 UK

Johannah Leedham offers GB hope for European qualifiers

By Rob Dugdale

Johannah Leedham
Leedham is rated as world class by GB's coach Tom Maher

GB women's coach Tom Maher has no doubt what his team's best asset is in their fight to land a place at the 2012 Olympics.

Maher, who has worked with the likes of Australia's Michelle Timms and Lauren Jackson, two of the best players the women's game has seen, looks across the training court at 22-year-old Johannah Leedham.

"That's our star quality," he says, adding, "Mate, she's a world class player already."

Leedham's rise, within two years, from a player that looked willing and able to impress to a record-breaking scoring machine drafted by the Women's NBA has been little short of meteoric, considering she only took up the game at the age of 12.

That was when her elder sister, Jennifer, offered her a vacant spot on her basketball team for a youth event in Ellesmere Port, Cheshire.

Johannah was a netball player at the time, but not for much longer.

Both players subsequently took the local Ellesmere Port club on to win the national championship and both crossed the Atlantic to study and play at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. Jennifer was Johannah's assistant coach last season.

"Playing at the college I played at I got a lot of minutes," says Leedham, who credits Australian Maher and Canadian assistant Ken Shields for sharpening up her game last summer.

Without a senior programme, the pair entered a young GB squad in the World University Games in Belgrade and Leedham's 18.9 points per game proved she was international class.

"Last summer I felt like my game really elevated when they brought Tom and Ken in for those six weeks," she says.

"The whole mental aspect of my game changed - I started going harder all the time. Tom always says you have to go at game speed whether you're practising or playing."

Back at college, her final year was almost impossibly successful.

She set a new scoring record for NCAA Division II with 27.1 points per game, and her college gave her the ultimate accolade, retiring her jersey number, 13.

Then came the interest from the WNBA's Connecticut Sun. "The coaches came to one of my games and they were saying 'just watch the draft,'" she recalls.

"But I was playing in Division II and you sit and watch so many great Division I players so you don't expect that.

"I was in the airport when it happened. I got a text and I was like 'Oh my God - no way!' But it was a complete shock."

Leedham will attend training camp with the Sun in April next year but is currently looking for a professional job in Europe to keep her going until then.

She's professional, she's not precious at all and she works hard at her game

GB coach Tom Maher

"I'm looking at places in Italy and Spain but there's nothing set yet - no offers on the table. I'm looking for something closer to home as well - somewhere I can fly to from John Lennon Airport would be nice."

Maher is in no doubt what makes Leedham a class above.

"She's got a real-world approach. - she's professional," he says. "She's not precious at all. And she works hard at her game."

An example of that came when Leedham was recently sidelined by a bout of knee tendinitis. Maher noticed she was sitting taking notes on the training session. "We didn't tell her to do that," he shrugs, clearly impressed.

According to her mother Sue, sitting watching when she could be playing is agony for a daughter who is almost pathologically competitive, wanting to win every drill in training.

Like the GB men's team, Maher's group are trying to convince world governing body Fiba that they are good enough for a hosts' spot in the 2012 Olympics.

While the GB men's squad are justifiably attracting a lot of attention for the unbeaten start they have made to EuroBasket qualifying this summer, the women's position is potentially more precarious.

They have suffered in the past in not having the high-impact talent the men do with the likes of NBA players Luol Deng, Pops Mensah-Bonsu and, potentially, Ben Gordon.

That is where Leedham comes in. She offers the team the class it will need to compete at the top European level.

"We 're not a bad little team," said Maher, whose squad edged Israel in a three-match friendly series in Tel-Aviv recently.

"We need a star player but I don't think we're dead in the water without her. The next goal is to look towards reaching the finals."

That would be a major improvement from the relegation battle they found themselves in two years ago, when only Fiba's generosity saved them from the oblivion of Division B and offered them hope of an Olympic place.

GB's first qualifier is at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena on Saturday against Group D top seeds Slovakia in a double-header with the men's team.

Sarah McKay, the team's 6ft 7in centre, has had to leave the squad after a recurrence of the knee trouble that has blighted her career.

Leedham herself thinks GB could surprise some people.

"I think the group we've got together is the best we've ever had," she says. "The talent is unbelievable."

Squad: Rose Anderson (Central Oklahoma Uni, USA), Kim Butler (Panionios, Greece), Stefanie Collins (UWIC), Chantelle Handy (Marshall Uni, USA), Johannah Leedham (Franklin Pierce Uni, USA), Julie Page (Aix, France), Azania Stewart (Florida Uni, USA), Jeneya Wade-Frey (Tennessee-Chat Uni, USA), Joanna Claydon (Leeds), Natalie Stafford (Barking), Rachael Vanderwal (Limerick, Ireland), Lisa Hutchinson (Sheffield), Meagan Hoffman (UWIC).

Women's EuroBasket qualifiers:

GB v Slovakia, 14 August at Birmingham NIA
Germany v GB, 17 August in Wolfenbuettel
GB v Ukraine, 20 August at Surrey University
Slovakia v GB, 23 August in Kosice
GB v Germany, 26 August at Liverpool Echo Arena
Ukraine v GB, 29 August in Dnipropetrovsk

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see also
GB women can qualify, says Maher
14 Jul 10 |  Basketball
Aussie Maher will coach GB women
11 May 09 |  Basketball
GB women's basketball coach quits
10 Feb 09 |  Basketball
GB women 'still working for 2012'
22 Jan 09 |  Basketball
Romania shred women's 2012 dream
19 Jan 09 |  Basketball
GB women secure opening victory
04 Jan 09 |  Basketball
Sports handed London 2012 budgets
03 Dec 08 |  Olympics

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