How Jenna Staiti expanded her game with former SEC star Carla McGhee during pandemic

A middle school bus lot became a basketball court. Jenna Staiti went 'old school' and trained with former WNBA player Carla McGhee through the pandemic.

Jenna Staiti perform a drill during a training session at Vickery Creek Middle School. (Courtesy of Sandi Staiti)

Ninety-degree midsummer heat beamed down on an asphalt bus lot. Three equidistant basketball goal posts stood in front of a linked fence. The hoops are far from pristine condition with an arched metal rod for support, rusted backboards and a chained net dangling from below.

The parking spaces at Vickery Creek Middle School in Forsyth County, Ga. became a temporary SEC practice gym. These were the makeshift conditions for Georgia center Jenna Staiti. No cushy Stegeman Coliseum facilities — or any hardwood court — could be of immediate use during the Covid-19 pandemic. There were few options to prepare for a farewell campaign, so Staiti locked in as if it were a do-or-die NCAA tournament game with thousands of fans.

“A few of them balked at first,” Jenna’s mom, Sandi Staiti said. “I said ‘Listen, we’re going old school. How do you think the NBA players did it in the ‘70s? They didn’t have a fancy new gym.’”

One afternoon, Staiti wrapped up a training session with former WNBA player, college coach and Tennessee Lady Volunteer alumna Carla McGhee. The final challenge is a shooting drill with 10 shots in seven marked spots. Staiti missed the eighth and ninth shots consecutively, and McGhee made her restart. After a few rounds of consecutively-missed shots, McGhee had another trainee and had to end the session.

Staiti hadn’t finished the drill on her terms, however. She wanted another shot — despite a lengthy session, fatigue and the Georgia heat. She called her mom.

“I need you to come rebound for me,” Staiti said, as recalled by Sandi. Her mother obliged. Eventually, the task was achieved and a 1-on-1 between mom and daughter followed. Jenna won.

“That’s when I knew what type of kid I was working with,” McGhee said.

Staiti finished the 2019-20 campaign with a late-season eruption: 19.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per contest over nine conference games. She walked away from the season-ending loss to top-ranked South Carolina with a bitter feeling. Staiti wanted to do more. She carried the Lady Bulldogs through a final stretch, but felt an urge to extend the run. 

Georgia forward Jenna Staiti during a SEC tournament game against Alabama on March 5, 2020 at Bon Secours Wellness Arena. (Courtesy of Tony Walsh — Georgia Sports Communications)

One season of eligibility remains for the former five-star and Gatorade Player of the Year, so Staiti maintained confidence and couldn’t wait around in the midst of a nationwide shutdown. A connection with McGhee after watching her 14-year-old sister, Jillian Staiti, have a few sessions with the former Tennessee star. McGhee’s background allowed Jenna Staiti — someone who needs trust in order to meet potential — to envision a strong connection. 

“The cat's out of the bag now,” McGhee said. “She needs to come back as a new person.”

Staiti met with McGhee at least twice per week. They’d have frequent one-on-one sessions, and McGhee would occasionally bring in other players to work alongside Staiti. Stanford forward Maya Dodson, a 6-foot-3 senior, made trips to the makeshift digs from her hometown of Alpharetta. Lady Bulldogs’ guard Caitlin Hose (who frequently visited the Staitis from Hazel Green, Ala.) would tag along on occasion, too.

McGhee entered each session with a developed plan of drills, recommendations and areas to target. Some of the drills constructed by McGhee came after Georgia’s coaching staff gave feedback via phone call. McGhee focused on Staiti’s mental approach along with the usual conditioning and adding new moves to the repertoire. All of those efforts were to make Staiti “more than a one-dimensional player,” McGhee said. 

Staiti had to check off a wide-ranging list of goals throughout her training period. McGhee wanted to see a greater willingness to shoot 3-pointers, making moves to draw fouls while double teamed, becoming quicker on defense, and driving past defenders with a hard dribble. 

McGhee believed refining those areas could allow Staiti to evolve into an all-around threat. She could prove it to her trainee by demonstration, too. 

“I'm proven. I've played on all of the levels and I've won,” McGhee said. “It wasn't about tooting my horn, but I could show her ways to be successful. Anything I wanted her to do, I did it. I told her that if I pushed her and challenged her, then she would be a different person.”

Staiti’s encounter with McGhee came at an ideal time for the soon-to-depart senior and the Lady Bulldogs. Georgia wants to depend on Staiti as it tries to return to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2018. Staiti has repeatedly voiced her desire to become a team leader and ensure Georgia has a chance to continue its postseason legacy. 

Head coach Joni Taylor realizes the potential for SEC opponents to view Staiti as a viable threat and alter game plans around her. In the midst of the late-season spurt, Taylor said Staiti has “always been capable of this.”

“She wants to end with a bang,” Sandi said. “This is only my interpretation, but these athletes feel cheated. You had seasons end and dreams not realized. Jenna, and everybody else, has something to prove.”

Jenna Staiti poses for a photo with former Tennessee Lady Volunteer Carla McGhee after a session in early June. (Courtesy of Sandi Staiti)

Staiti can consider her future, too. The former swimmer-turned-hooper didn’t see the pursuit of basketball continuing after college. She caught the attention of many around the country with a strong finish, however, and Staiti could find herself creeping onto the WNBA draft radar if it continues. 

Those realizations are why Staiti had dedication through the pandemic. An opportunity became present to elevate her game, and McGhee saw the potential for results. 

“She's most definitely a WNBA type of talent,” McGhee said. “The coaches love bigs who can flat-out score. She's versatile and can get in the lane. She has the leg up at 6-foot-5 with a 7-foot wingspan. Heck yeah, she can play (at the next level).”

Most of Staiti’s Lady Bulldog teammates built similar routines while away from campus. Atlanta-area trainer Robert Swain hosts Javyn Nicholson, Mikayla Coombs and Kaila Hubbard on a regular basis. Freshman Sarah Ashlee Barker had sessions with Pinson Valley (Ala.) boys’ coach Darrell Barber alongside transfer Maori Davenport. Senior point guard Gabby Connally trained with EZ Garcia in San Antonio, Texas.

The relationship between McGhee and Staiti has an interesting path. McGhee’s roots to the area are from playing one season in the American Basketball League (ABL) with the Atlanta Glory — alongside a trio of Lady Bulldog greats: player-coach Teresa Edwards, Saudia Roundtree and Katrina McClain. 

McGhee then became a WNBA executive and a college coach, working in multiple stints with Dawn Staley. For another Georgia tie, now-Atlanta Dream assistant Darius Taylor (Joni’s husband) replaced McGhee after she left Staley at Temple and South Carolina. Once McGhee’s son entered high school, she wanted to stop coaching to watch him play.

They wanted to return to Atlanta, and McGhee became a trainer and owner of the “More to Hoopz” organization. She never saw herself as a trainer, but McGhee said this latest chapter came from “God aligning her steps.” She now works with a variety of athletes living around the area, ranging from beginners to a Division I athlete like Staiti.

Over the pandemic’s first few months, McGhee allowed Staiti to improve. Even when it wasn’t too easy in sweltering heat and on asphalt at a middle school. 

"She gets it. She knows (the sentiment of) 'I'm going to do my part. I'm not going to let anybody deter me. I'm going to put some work in,’” McGhee said. “Good things are going to happen. They have no choice but to happen."

Contact: Brandon Sudge can be found on Twitter (@brandonsudge and @ladydogsreport). You can reach Brandon via e-mail at brandon@ladydogsreport.com.