Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Norcross Junior Shayla Cooper has stepped up as the Blue Devils top scorer in the absesne of Diamond DeShields. She hopes to play a big role in the team's run at another state championship.
If one needed a sign of Shayla Cooper's basketball prowess, it came with her first points.
A third-grader in Alabama, Cooper made a team for fourth- and fifth-graders. A short season didn't lend itself to much playing time, but when she finally broke the scoring seal, it made a big difference.
"I only scored two points that season," Cooper said, "but it was two to win the game."
From there, she was hooked.
Cooper joined her first AAU team as a fifth-grader, the "official, official" start of her basketball career. When her family moved, she kept playing basketball. Different states, different schools, different teams, nothing kept Cooper away from basketball.
No matter the changes, Cooper adapted.
After her family moved to Florida, Cooper's position changed in accordance with her height. Suddenly, at 6-foot-1, she wasn't a guard anymore.
"When I got to Florida, I sprouted," Cooper said. "It was something in the water, something I was eating.
"I had to learn to play with my back to the basket and being able to face up. Now, it was like I had to wait for a pass. I used to pass the ball inside."
Then came another move, this time to Atlanta. Cooper first attended school near her home in Powder Springs, but the basketball felt wrong. So, she turned to Norcross.
And now she was a high school sophomore, changing schools again and meeting new, already successful teammates.
"At first I was nervous, but they accepted me pretty quick," Cooper said. "I feel like this is where I need to be."
But it wasn't just another school and another team. Cooper suddenly found herself in a role, much like her move to the post, she had never known. Coming off the bench.
"Last year was kind of tough because I've always started," Cooper said. "I had to adapt to coming off the bench.
"I am used to setting the tempo, but coming off the bench you have to get in the groove, so it was a little challenging."
But she didn't bolt, she didn't look for another school where she would get more minutes or more recognition. She got better. Cooper learned how to be a "microwave" as head coach Angie Hembree calls it; a player who warms up the floor when she checks in.
Now, Cooper is back to starting. She plays post at 6-foot-1, but brings the added dimension as a threat to attack with the dribble. She's not just a rebounder, she will get her team out in transition with the dribble as quickly as with the pass.
"A lot of post players don't know how to start the break," Cooper said. "I actually like getting the rebound and busting out and starting the break."
Cooper will take any rebound she can get and averages more than six a game.
"I am great at rebounding," she said. "That is one thing I am known for. If a shot is taken, I am good with knowing where the ball is going to come off."
And even on a team with a standout like Diamond DeShields, Cooper is averaging double-digit points per game. And when the team lost DeShields late this season to an injury, Cooper adjusted again. She moved to the wing and increased her offensive impact, including 22 points against Southwest DeKalb and 20 against Center Point (Ala.), the defending Class AAAAA state champion.
And all because she adapted. New schools, new roles, new positions. Nothing kept Cooper from getting better.
She's ready for any position in college. She's ready to come off the bench if needed and this year, she's ready to lead.
"When I go out there, I already know what to do and what they expect, just not for me but for my team as well," Cooper said. "I would say my role is to be as positive as I can be and not to let my team down."