March 14, 2024 

Hailey Van Lith leans on self-confidence through LSU transition

“LSU is unique because it’s a very pro-style vibe”

GREENVILLE, S.C. — When Hailey Van Lith announced in April 2023 that she’d be taking her talents to the reigning national champions, Twitter was abuzz with comparisons between her and LSU head coach Kim Mulkey — the intensity, the guard play and most important: the braids.

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“The only comparison between me and Hailey are the braids. She’s so much better than I ever was as a player,” Mulkey, who was a star point guard at Louisiana Tech in the 1980s, said at SEC Media Day in October.

Although Mulkey and Van Lith share the iconic blond braids and a few facial expressions, the two say their similarities end there.

“There are mannerisms-wise and specific things we do we are the same,” Van Lith told The Next on Friday. “Other than that, we are very different, especially from a basketball standpoint. My game is very different from hers, and that has benefited me because she’s teaching me a whole side of basketball that I didn’t come in with.”

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LSU brings point guard growth

Mulkey was a classic point guard, whereas Van Lith gravitates toward the wing, calling herself “a natural scorer.” When Van Lith arrived in Baton Rogue, she was asked to play the point guard position because  Mulkey needed more help with ballhandling. Van Lith was prepared to learn the position and step up for whatever the team needed, but she hasn’t consistently played the point since high school, so it’s been an adjustment.

In this transition, Van Lith has gone from averaging 19.7 ppg and 4.5 rpg as Louisville’s primary wing to now averaging 12.3 ppg and 2.4 rpg — a symptom of her new position and the offensive threats surrounding her in Angel Reese, Flau’jae Johnson, Aneesah Morrow and Mikaylah Williams. Van Lith drew criticism earlier in the season for high turnovers, especially in a few big games in the first two-thirds of the season.

And this transition can often be very mentally challenging for players. Van Lith says she leans on her family, but her biggest support system is her self-confidence, part of the larger independence LSU allows.

“LSU is unique because it’s a very pro-style vibe. We all have our own lives. We come to practice, and we like each other. It’s not that we don’t like each other. We’re good friends, but like we all got our own shit to do,” Van Lith said. “It’s definitely unique, but it also allows you to be super individual and pursue the things you want to pursue.”

Throughout the season, she’s learned to pursue her own spin on the position and find solitude in knowing who she is. 

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Finding herself at the point

“At the beginning of the year, I was caught in the cycle of being a passing point guard. And that was not benefiting me,” Van Lith said. “I’m not Steph Curry, but I look at Steph Curry, and I’m like, ‘OK, he’s not the traditional point guard, and that’s who I can be.”

Van Lith says the key to her game is taking 3s and rebounding — if she’s had significant boards, she’s probably playing like herself. On Feb. 9, Van Lith scored her season high with 21 points and seven rebounds, leading her team to a 40-point win over Florida that set a program record for points scored in an SEC game. Throughout the season, she’s decreased her turnovers and learned to take care of the ball better.

She chalks her success up to “playing free” and not second-guessing her reads. Mulkey has also adjusted her rotations, playing Last-Tear Poa at the point more and opening up opportunities for Van Lith to shift over to the wing, which she admittedly still prefers.

“I feel like we’ve started to understand if she’s there, pass it there or give her a 3 [and] make a play,” Poa told The Next. “I feel like the flow is easier because we don’t really have to hold back.”

Throughout her season, Van Lith has received plenty of criticism — Tigers fans expected the player she was at Louisville, but that’s just not the case in Baton Rouge. Mulkey has been clear in rejecting the criticism.

Van Lith admits it sometimes upsets her, like the rumor she saw that she was paid $500,000 to come to LSU, but she’s learned to block out the noise.

“​​If they think I’ve had a bad year because my numbers aren’t up and they don’t know the details of how I’ve got better and what exactly is going on with my game, that’s OK. It’s not their job to know every single detail of my life,” Van Lith said about fan and media responses. “When I was younger, I was not like that. I was caught up in social media and I cared way too much.”

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The remainder of the season

Even after the Tigers’ SEC Tournament championship loss, there’s a lot more basketball for LSU and Van Lith. Van Lith is eligible for the WNBA Draft this year, although she has not said whether she’ll declare. According to Mulkey, Van Lith originally told her she’d stay for one season.

Many are speculating about how this year will affect Van Lith’s draft stock, with many mock drafts dropping Van Lith’s position over concerns about her ability to play against bigger guards and run the point.

But in the meantime, ESPN currently projects LSU as the No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament, where Van Lith already has two Final Four appearances and an Elite Eight appearance under her belt. And although this year’s LSU team is more talented, the reigning champions are younger and less experienced, and so it might just be Van Lith’s opportunity to shine.

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Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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