When Diamond DeShields became the youngest member of the USA Basketball U18 National Team a year ago, she admitted there were times she felt a bit overwhelmed by the idea of playing with and against players routinely three years her senior.
This year, the rising junior at Norcross High School once again finds herself the youngest player on another USA Basketball National Team -- this time, the U19 team.
But she headed to the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colo., earlier this week for the team's training camp in advance of the 2011 FIBA World Championship for Women later this month in Chile, with a year's worth of international experience -- and a slightly different outlook.
"I can't call it easier," the 6-foot-1 wing forward said. "But it definitely did help a lot making the (U18) team last year. They're not going to just hand (a spot on the team or playing time) to you. You've got to earn it.
"In fact, I think last year, (the coaches) were a little bit more lenient on who made the team because the tournament we played in was just our region of the world. This year, it's against world competition. So now, they're looking for the best of the best."
DeShields proved to be the best of the best among a deep pool of players in Gwinnett County this past season, earning the Daily Post's 2011 Girls Player of the Year honor by averaging a county-best 20.9 points, and adding 5.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game in helping Norcross to its second straight Class AAAAA state championship.
It was a step up from an outstanding freshman year in which she earned first-team All-County honors by the Daily Post in helping the Blue Devils to their first state title.
Norcross coach Angie Hembree definitely saw a difference in DeShields last season after her experience with the U18 National Team last summer.
And she's hoping another year of international experience on the U19 team will help DeShields take her game to an even higher level for the 2011-12 high school season.
"She's a phenomenal athlete," Hembree said of DeShields. "It's amazing (to make the U19 team) as a sophomore, but I think she's really matured both physically and mentally.
"Her mental approach to the game is what I think has improved the most over the last year. ... She still needs to improve. There are still things she needs to work on, and she hasn't by any means played her best basketball yet. But the sweet thing about her is she knows that, too, and makes a conscious effort to work on that."
To that end, there is one specific area of DeShields game she is making a definite effort to work on while with the U19 National Team this year.
After averaging 9.0 points per game -- the team's third-best figure -- with 3.4 rebounds in 14.2 minutes per game for the U18 squad last summer, her focus is on the other end of the court this year.
"Every year, my game changes, but in a good way," DeShields said. "This year, I want to become a defensive stopper. People (ask), 'How is that possible?' after seeing me play high school ball. But one of my main focuses has been playing better defense. The coaches are looking for people who can play good defense.
"But you can't go (to training camp) trying to do too much. You've got to do what you're good at and don't try to experiment. That's the worst time to do that."
Hembree is confident DeShields will handle that balancing act and will come back home a better player than when she left.
"She's taking responsibility not just on her play, but also taking a leadership role on the team," Hembree said. "She's not just a member of this squad. She's an impact player."