McDonald's All American girls game preview: Game plans and roster comparisons

The 2024 McDonald’s All American Game will be played on Tuesday, April 2 in Houston (6:30 p.m. ET on ESPN2). Last year, we saw a high-scoring affair with the West squad winning, 110-102. USC’s JuJu Watkins and Notre Dame’s Hannah Hidalgo were named co-MVPs of the night scoring 25 and 26 points, respectively. It was a nice preview into what thus far have been dominant freshman seasons for both at the collegiate level.

What might we expect to see Tuesday night as the East and West square off? Who are the freshman stars of next season? What might be the keys to the game?

Let’s project the lineups and stir some debates before we watch the game.

Full roster breakdown: 2024 McDonald’s All American Girls’ Game roster

Projecting the lineups

Based on the balance of the rosters and numerous evaluations of the players in several different capacities, here is a breakdown of how the two teams can play to their strengths after a few days of preparation by the coaches as part assessment, part projection and part imagination.

Note: This analysis was done before any of the McDonald’s All American practices and scrimmages (which will be streamed on ESPN+ at 2:30 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 31).

East roster

Projected starting lineup: Madisen McDaniel, PG; Syla Swords, G; Mikayla Blakes, W; Sarah Strong, F; Kate Koval, P

The East has a potential first unit with four players featuring a “lead guard” mentality that will create and facilitate. The team also has the best traditional post in the game in Koval. Swords, Blakes, and particularly Strong are great decision-makers and passers, which will allow McDaniel to be in attack mode, playing to her strengths in transition. The versatility and overall IQ give this squad the freedom to explore different styles and strategies of which to bring to the floor. Swords, Blakes, Strong and Koval are well-known shooters from the perimeter, which should open spacing up for this unit. This group could even explore a two-man game with Strong and Koval in ball screens, which would be a tough cover.

The second unit for the East could have some serious speed at the one and two positions in Zamareya Jones and Kayleigh Heckel. Both are relentless to the rim and fantastic in transition. Berry Wallace and Joyce Edwards would provide some interchangeability at the wing and forward spots with Wallace providing a serious spot-up threat and Edwards patrolling on the offensive glass. Zania Socka-Nguemen is an excellent screener and has added the ability to drive the ball to the rim. She pairs well with Edwards on the glass in the front court in this prospective unit, and the duo will be hard to handle inside as the guards go to work. It will take focused effort and a precision scout to contain this group.

Rounding out the second unit are two of the best facilitators in the country in Kendall Dudley and Olivia Olson. Both can come in to provide a spark at a primary ball-handling position or a stretch position at the forward spot. Both bring a calming and decisive presence to the floor — which will be an advantage for the East squad.

* The injury to McDaniel provides the possibility of sliding Heckel into the starting lineup with Long Island Lutheran teammates Swords and Koval. This group is battle-tested, having played the hardest schedule in the country this season. The familiarity of these three could prove to be very advantageous for the East.

West roster

Projected starting lineup: Jaloni Cambridge, PG; Allie Ziebell, G; Morgan Cheli, W; Kennedy Smith, F; Arianna Roberson, P

The West has a potential first unit with some serious switchability defensively, as well as three quick-release knockdown shooters in Ziebell, Cheli and Smith. The space that this creates for Cambridge to operate in transition and to attack gaps in the half court is dangerous. Roberson runs the floor with intensity, so she could see some early rim-run touches. Her length and ability to move and cover ground defensively give this unit the freedom to switch actions against whatever the East throws at them. Smith can guard anyone inside or out and Roberson will be able to help from anywhere off the ball. On the surface this will look like a “small-ball” lineup, but because of Smith’s strength and versatility plus Roberson’s ability to control the paint, it’s more of a modern lineup indicative of the future of the game. Cheli and Ziebell’s decision-making and rebounding will allow some speedy leak-outs for Cambridge potentially.

The prospective second unit of the West represents a strong defensive backcourt with Alivia McGill, Jordan Lee and Avery Howell all physical and locked-in defenders. Me’Arah O’Neal and Justice Carlton, who are skillful inside (and outside), provide balance in the frontcourt. Carlton has savvy skills off the ball and can get physical inside. The focus will be on O’Neal and her potential to use her length and mobility defensively, which we’ve seen in glimpses, but not with major consistency. It is a unit that theoretically could switch 1-5, especially in late shot clock situations. Offensively, McGill is great in the pick-and-roll game, Lee has proven to be an effective slasher, and Howell is a knockdown 3-point shooter. The potential two-man games of McGill plus O’Neal and/or Carlton are intriguing since both are pick-and-pop threats, mobile enough to slip and find space, and are also threats in “throw-and-go” situations, keeping the defense honest with their ability to put the ball on the deck.

Rounding out the second unit for the West are Mackenly Randolph and Imari Berry. Randolph is versatile on the floor — she is both a quality decision-maker and passer as well as an old-school post-up threat. Berry brings an immediate scoring punch and some playmaking thrill to the floor as soon as the ball is in her hands. Both of them will give the West a boost and provide some different options when inserted into the lineup.

Game plans

Defending the East

The East lineup is going to be a challenge to guard with McDaniel, a speedy point guard, surrounded by perimeter shooting and a post threat in Koval. The West will have to make their bigs sprint the floor to protect the paint and be physical with Koval early so as to not allow an early deep seal. The perimeter players will have to get back quickly as well to slow down the shooting prowess of Swords, Blakes and Strong. Putting a body between McDaniel and the rim at minimum will be key or she will get to the paint with ease. Swords is a quick catch-and-shooter, so help cannot come off of her. Blakes’ and Strong’s defenders — both will have to cheat to help on them and be ready to stunt and recover upon kickouts. If the help does come from Koval’s defender, the other three must be ready to scramble or rotate to help and then recover to shooters for challenge and containment. Strong-side help when defending this group won’t work, only weakside rotation plus some secondary effort scramble.

The second unit and the bench bring balance and some versatility to the floor that will take a focused effort to defend. Jones and Heckel are both speedy guards that will draw help and create. Edwards and Socka-Nguemen will attack the offensive glass and Wallace and Olson will provide spot up threats. Dudley will add the glue that could make this unit dangerous. The West should try to speed this group up overall with ball pressure and reversal denials and when the ball is out of Jones’ or Heckel’s hands, try to make the others play one-on-one basketball.

Defending the West

The West projected starters bring a similar threat to the floor: a lightning quick point guard and a perimeter loaded with shooters in Ziebell, Cheli and Smith. Roberson will run the rim and put early pressure on the paint while the defense is focused on slowing down the ball, particularly in Cambridge’s hands. She must see a primary defender and a rim-protector between her and the paint or she is almost impossible to stop one-on-one. The defense really cannot help off of Ziebell, Cheli or Smith so Cambridge’s defender must be ready to play with a disciplined cushion to attempt to keep her in front, forcing pull-up jumpers or contested finishes at the rim. This group will move well without the ball so an active stance, awareness and communication will be vital on defense. Minimizing penetration kickouts for catch-and-shoot 3s is going to be key as well.

The second unit is more of a traditional lineup and has a little less firepower from the perimeter. McGill is the primary creator, so getting the ball out of her hands would be advantageous. Lee and Howell will take a physical defensive effort to contain, but they can be played straight up. It is crucial to keep Carlton and Randolph off the offensive glass. The X factors for this unit are Berry and O’Neal. Berry can get cooking and be that offensive catalyst and the East must challenge O’Neal on both ends. A game plan that includes a couple of ball-screen coverage options for McGill would be advisable.

Offensively for the East

The first unit for the East should be a high assist group and be able to sprint the lanes with Blakes and Swords to give McDaniel room to work the middle of the floor as well as provide spacing for early deep paint touches for Koval. Strong in the trail position provides spacing, facilitation and shooting opportunities as well as any number of options including drag screens, reversal two-man games and throw-and-go actions. Koval’s skills allow for her and Strong to be interchangeable in those spots and even for the two to provide some double-drag opportunities for these guards who will all be a major threat with the opposing interior defenders lifted and having to play Strong and Koval out to the 3-point line.

The second unit should control rebounding on both ends with the lineup of Wallace, Edwards and Socka-Nguemen. Heckel and Jones will likely be able to get many paint touches out of ball screen and hard rolls from Socka-Nguemen, which should draw help or at least a tag defender allowing for Wallace spot ups and Edwards to get loose on the offensive glass. The versatility and interchangeability of Wallace and Edwards will be a strong option to utilize. They can both play in ball screen actions as the screener or the ball handler, making various angles of ball screens the primary focus offensively of this unit. Dudley and Olson are both versatile options and see the floor and facilitate so well, this second unit will get a chance to exploit lineup mismatches in a variety of ways. Watching it develop in the practices is something with which to pay particular attention.

Offensively for the West

The 3-point shot is going to be a major weapon for the first unit. Having Cheli, Ziebell and Smith spotting up is a luxury and this unit should focus on getting out and running the lanes quickly, which will allow Cambridge to attack the paint. The versatility of Cheli and Smith will allow them to play the wing or the trail spots. Roberson runs the floor better than anyone in the country and can get some early offensive touches in transition. This group has a mobility advantage in Smith and Roberson at the forward and post spots, respectively. Getting Strong and Koval into as many ball screens as possible will be key, especially in early offense. When Cambridge inevitably forces some help and they get the defense into rotation, the ball can whip around and find good shots with a high assist-to-field-goal ratio unit.

The second unit should be able to create offense from intense defensive pressure. Carlton is a very hard one-on-one cover, so early touches for her in and around the paint would be advantageous. O’Neal and Howell will help space the floor and Lee is a tough closeout with a masterful midrange game. McGill is particularly effective in ball-screen action and she will set the table before looking for her own offense. Howell can crash the glass hard, which will balance O’Neal’s tendency to be more perimeter oriented. Berry will play some primary ball-handler minutes and she will break down her defender to create offense and Randolph can exploit an interior matchup or stretch the floor for this group adding a physical balance. As the practices unfold, it will be interesting to see who earns that second unit forward spot between Randolph and O’Neal.

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