A quiet town of 3,140 people sitting in the valley of the Cascade Mountains, Cashmere is the home of Hailey Van Lith, one of the most electrifying point guards in the nation.
Once as under-the-radar as the idyllic Washington town, Van Lith is now an internet sensation, boasting more followers on Instagram than most WNBA and college basketball stars.
A fiery point guard with a healthy helping of spice to her game, the lefty is a walking highlight. She’s been crossing up defenders almost from the moment she picked up a ball—literally breaking her older brother’s ankle in their first game of one-on-one.
The 5-9 Van Lith may not stand out off the court, make no mistake: She’s a killa who intends to bury her opponent as quickly as possible. And she’ll make it look easy while doing so.
“[My style of play] is a little saucy. I definitely do enjoy the flair, but I can be fundamental too, and I really love defense,” says the 17-year-old junior. “So it’s saucy, but it’s also serious. It’s business out there for me.”
Before every game, Van Lith goes in to the huddle and screams, “Let’s get this money!” Then she goes to work, unleashing an array of buckets. Step-back trey. Cash. Snatch back hesi through traffic. And one. Pump fake cross. Swish.
Armed with elite quickness and strength, Van Lith is impossible to hold in check. A hawk on defense, she plays the passing lanes for steals and creating fast breaks.
“Transition is where you can really get saucy,” Van Lith says. “You can throw behind-the-back passes, you might do a wrap-around. It’s endless.”
Behind all the views and the likes, though, is a player who has put in the work to get to where she is today. When she was in fourth grade, Van Lith’s dad Corey rented out the elementary school gym across the street from their home. Each night, they would run drills for two hours.
“Hailey was different when she was little,” Corey says. “She had goals. She loved watching basketball. She watched all the greats. Very early, she was like, ‘I want to do that. That’s what I want to be.'”
A former basketball and baseball player in college, Corey designed a training plan to help Hailey execute on her dreams. By the fifth grade, she was fully committed. Hailey even recalls taking pictures of Ray Allen’s jumpshot with her pink Nintendo DS in order to break down his mechanics.
As the reps in the gym began to add up, the ball began to find its way to her hands when the game was on the line. No moment was too big. Hailey wanted the rock when the game was in the balance.
“Hailey loves the big game. She loves the atmosphere of basketball,” Corey explains. “I said, Do you get nervous? And she’s like, ‘No, not really.’ I believe that comes from preparation. Just the process of preparing.”
Through countless hours in a gym, Hailey and her father built a bond that could only be forged by sweat, blood and tears. Hailey will often point out that her dad is both her biggest fan and harshest critic, and that’s exactly what she wanted when she chose this path. She wants to be pushed to her limits. She doesn’t want anything sugarcoated.
“Sometimes you don’t always like putting in the work, but the results are really fun. And that’s what kept me going and kept me hungry was the success,” Van Lith says. “We do still do that, we do it every night. It’s just increased in intensity.”
Now, the late-night training session is often Van Lith’s third (or more) for the day. When not in the gym, she’s serious about recovery. She makes good use of an air compression leg massager at home and takes ice baths.
She still watches film of the greats in hopes of adding something new to her bag. Right now, Van Lith looks up to another point guard who thrives in the big moment and wears her same No. 11.
“Michael Jordan is the GOAT, but the GOAT right now is Kyrie Irving,” she says. “He’s crazy, and he has the most drip in the game, and I love him.”
On the women’s side, Van Lith is drawn to Diana Taurasi. Not only does Taurasi have championships on every level, but DT is a legendary competitor. That same desire to rip out her opponent’s heart is readily apparent when you watch Van Lith play.
“She’s hilarious and the most competitive person,” Van Lith says. “I think that we’re kind of similar in that she has this fire inside of her, and she’ll talk during games and she lets you know what’s up.”
Today, Hailey Van Lith is one of the most recognizable high school hoopers in the country. But it wasn’t long ago that she felt like she wasn’t getting the same attention as some of her peers. Sure, Van Lith was ranked among the top players in the country, but she was still being covered like an under-the-radar hooper from a small town in the PNW.
She knew she was destined for more. To stay focused, she would often recall the Bible passage, 1 Peter 5:6, which reads, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time.”
She read the verse over and over last summer while playing thousands of miles away from home with the U17 USA Basketball squad. The weeks spent in Belarus and neighboring countries tested her patience and fortitude. But she stayed the course. In due time.
“Until this year, I was under the radar. I wasn’t really popular. I was ranked fairly high, but I wasn’t known across the nation like I am now,” Van Lith says. “That [passage] just spoke to me because I wasn’t getting this attention, and I wasn’t being seen as equal to these other girls just because I wasn’t out there yet.”
Now with the cameras firmly pointed in her direction, the way she approaches the game hasn’t changed. And neither has her underdog mentality.
Having surpassed the 2,000-point mark as junior, Van Lith is on pace to become the all-time leading girls’ scorer Washington state history. Of course, setting the scoring record would be nice, but if her season doesn’t end with a state title, all the individual accomplishments won’t mean a thing.
So far, a high school title has alluded Van Lith. Cashmere has fallen just short in all three of her high school seasons. After finishing third in the Class 1A playoffs last March, Van Lith will stop at nothing until she’s holding the trophy next spring.
“I know what it feels like, especially to lose the big one at the end,” she says. “But it gives me a reason to go to the gym the next day and get better. So I would say it keeps me hungry.”
Van Lith was right back in the gym after the season finished, already fine-tuning and preparing for her final chance at a title. She took no time off to rest. How could she rest when the job is still unfinished?
Between AAU ball, playing for the USA Basketball national and 3×3 teams, Van Lith will barley have a chance to catch her breath during the offseason.
She’s narrowed down a list of top programs vying for her commitment. After making some official visits, Van Lith is planning on making her decision this fall. “Maybe sooner, you never know,” she adds.
Van Lith has dreams of becoming a first-round pick and creating a legacy in the WNBA. But ultimately, her mission is to continue to grow and evolve the women’s game. And she’s doing it the only way she knows how.
“My generation of [hoopers] is a little more saucy. We’re evolving to the boys—we want to score and we want all those flashy plays,” she says. “We’re elevating it. And we’re making them give us attention.
“And I’m going to do my best to make girls basketball look good and play to the best of my ability.”
Ryne Nelson is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @slaman10.
Story updated April 5, 2019.