Sykes revitalizes career on Banks with breakout season
Heading into the Rutgers women's basketball team's season, junior forward April Sykes had a few options: leave for another program, continue struggling or turn her career around.
For most, the first two options would have been the easiest, especially if they averaged a meager 4.4 points per game in their first two seasons after being heralded as the No. 2 recruit in the nation.
But for Sykes, her only real option was to revitalize her basketball career — and she did just that, finishing the season as the squad's leading scorer and The Daily Targum's Most Improved Player.
"I think that there's no question that she made a commitment when it would have been very easy to leave and go somewhere else and blame our school or the system," said head coach C. Vivian Stringer. "She didn't, she stepped up to the plate, acknowledged what it was that she needed to do, and just committed herself to becoming the player that she was projected to be."
For Sykes, her first two seasons in Piscataway did not go exactly as scripted.
As a highly sought-after recruit, Sykes was known for her explosive scoring ability and deadly 3-point jump shot — something put on display time and time again during her time at East Oktibbeha County High School (Miss.).
That ability never took form on the floor of the Louis Brown Athletic Center, as she not only struggled to score, but shot just 28.2 percent from 3-point range in her freshman and sophomore campaigns.
To reverse her fortunes, the Starkville, Miss., native went to work in the offseason, using the summer, her experience and her teammates as platforms to spring back to her old self.
"I learned from my struggles, and I've failed in the past," Sykes said. "I just learned so much from all that I've been through. My freshman and sophomore year in the summertime was a big summer for me for getting in shape — the type of shape I need to be in. And my teammates — I can't say how much my teammates mean to me for everything I accomplished this season."
But the results did not occur right away this season for Sykes.
Through the team's first three games, Sykes did not lead the team in scoring and appeared to be playing at a level reminiscent of her first two seasons as a Knight.
But against Pacific in the Knights' fourth regular season contest, Sykes put on a show, going 3-for-5 from 3-point land and finishing with a game-high 19 points.
Sykes notched 23 more double-figure scoring efforts from then on to end the year with a 14.1 point-per-game average and Stringer's trust.
"I think it's great, especially for coach Stringer," Sykes said. "She has a lot of trust in me, and I know it took a long time to gain it. I don't expect anything less from myself than she expects out of me. She doesn't want to label me as a shooter. She prefers to call me a scorer."
But Sykes caught more than just Stringer's eye during her breakthrough season.
Her play earned her a spot on the All-Big East Second Team, the All-Metropolitan First Team and even the attention of the U.S. Olympic Team, which she earned a try out for from May 22-25 in Colorado Springs, Colo.
And now, with the title of "most improved" added to her list of accolades, Sykes' confidence has taken off.
"I think it means a lot for where I came from and where I'm going as far as my vision," Sykes said of winning the award. "It shows that I can improve, and I can get even better for next year."
But getting even better for next year could mean a far deeper run for the Knights than a second-round exit in the NCAA Tournament.
With four commitments from players in the ESPN HoopGurlz Top 100 and the entire roster returning next season, the Knights could be poised to emerge in the national radar with Sykes leading the way.
Now that her career turned around, Sykes can get back to playing the way she is accustomed to, but more importantly, the way she expected to play as a Knight.
"She's now beginning to live out her dreams," Stringer said. "She's probably a perfect example of dreams that are delayed but not forgotten."