In San Diego, a local gym was separated into two courts. On one side was the upper grade team, and on the other was the lower grade team.
On the lower court, 10-year-old Te-Hina Paopao laced up her shoes to begin her practice drills.
One of Paopao’s coaches tapped on the shoulder of Terri Bamford — the head coach of the higher grade team — and said, “Hey, I think she needs to be up with you.”
It was clear at the age of 10 that she was at a skill level twice her age group. Since elementary school, she had the star power to later become one of the best out of San Diego.
Four years younger than her surrounding players, Paopao jumped into their flex offense with pure ease, taking the commanding role at point guard.
“At 10-years-old, she got it. She understood it,” Bamford said. “From then on, she was 10 and she played on my 16U travel team in the summer. She was 10 and was my starting point guard for the 16U team.”
Bamford went on to coach Paopao throughout her high school career at La Jolla Country Day, where the point guard eventually became a McDonald’s All-American and a 2020 California Gatorade State Player of the Year, among a plethora of other accolades.
WNBA star Kelsey Plum, who was also coached by Bamford, said that Paopao’s been ready to make the leap to college for quite some time.
“As an eighth grader, she was one of the top players in the country,” Bamford said. “Coaches all over were like, ‘She can start for me now at the college level.’”
Besides her work ethic, her basketball IQ is what separates her from others. Paopao’s ability to control the tempo on the offense has allowed her to open up opportunities for her teammates. She knows how and when to stop on a dime, make the defense freeze and make decisions accordingly.
At practices, she would look at the practice plan and make sure she was on top of her game and the agenda for the day. She would push her teammates through some friendly trash talk, but it was all to let them know that she cared about them.
“She always came in ready to go with a big smile on her face,” Bamford said. “I don’t even remember her coming to practice in a bad mood or upset about something. This is what she loves to do and she would just get after it.”
Even in her press conferences, Paopao is always smiling when answering questions. Oregon coach Kelly Graves even dubbed her smile “super infectious.”
By the time Paopao was ready to commit her junior year, she had the leadership skills, basketball IQ and incomparable work ethic to set the foundation for her career at Oregon.
As the second-youngest of six children, family was most important to her and ultimately one of the deciding factors in her decision to commit to the Ducks. Knowing that her uncle, Oregon football associate head coach and defensive line coach Joe Salave’a, was also in Eugene made it an easy choice.
Coming into Eugene, the 5-foot-9 guard is Oregon’s first true freshman point guard since Sabrina Ionescu in 2016. She shares the same star power and freshman repertoire to Ionescu as well.
After Oregon’s Big-Three era, the No. 11 overall prospect has proved to be a young weapon that the Ducks need. Her versatility has been on display so far this season with her breakout game against rival Oregon State, posting 22 points and 4-for-5 shooting from behind the arc. In the last three games of Pac-12 play in 2020, she averaged 11.6 points per game and continues to fill the stat sheet in her minutes played.
With five freshmen on the team, Graves continually emphasized that each player needs to find their niche in order to receive consistent playing time and stay in the rotation.
“Te-Hina's skillset is incredible,” Graves said. “She reminds me of Sabrina [Ionescu] in her ability to affect the game in so many ways. She is a strong rebounder, an uncanny passer and an elite three-point shooter. She's an unselfish teammate, a hard worker who always plays the game with a huge smile and a baller to the max with a really high basketball IQ."
Her ability to control the game’s pace and tempo as well as her poise and leadership skills have earned her a starting point guard position this season and will surely aid the team moving forward.
“I love that kid, I tell ya,” Graves said. “She’s a really special and great player.”