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'A moment to learn': Fil-Am Vanessa de Jesus looking to make mark with Duke

Vanessa de Jesus played high school basketball for the Sierra Canyon Trailblazers. Courtesy Jose Montanez

Vanessa de Jesus, an 18-year-old Filipino basketball sensation, is set to debut for Duke University in the U.S. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Division 1 this season.

Coming off a stellar stint with Sierra Canyon High School, De Jesus is the first Asian to earn a spot in the prestigious Blue Devils women's basketball program.

"I'm so grateful to have this opportunity, especially this year with new coaches coming in," said De Jesus. "I think it's a great opportunity for me to just grow as a player, just to take the experience to get better on the court."

Born to Filipino parents in Valencia, California, De Jesus collected accolades in high school, including the All-CIF Open Division 1st team, All-Gold Coast League MVP, and All-CIF Southern Section Co-Player of the Year awards. She averaged 15.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, and 2.0 steals in her final year with Sierra Canyon.

The highly touted recruit received offers from multiple Ivy League schools but eventually committed to Duke for its balance of basketball and academics.

"Duke was one of my dream schools right from the beginning, so that was a no-brainer for me," said De Jesus, who's taking a pre-med course. "Just being able to practice now and get to know the team more and the coaches have been so fun. It has been the best part so far."

The Blue Devils have started training under new Duke coach Kara Lawson, a former WNBA champion, Olympic gold medalist, and Boston Celtics assistant coach.

"I've been able to get workouts now with our new coaches, and having coach Kara teaching us has been really helpful," said De Jesus. "I've learned a lot in a short time, just very specific stuff like her perspective in basketball from all her past experiences."

De Jesus, a 5-foot-8 point guard, has been putting Filipinos in the limelight with her achievements. One day, she hopes to play for the Philippine team and represent her parents' home country in international tournaments.

"Just being able to represent Filipino basketball players in California, in the US, it's just an honor," she said. "I'm interested in playing for the Philippines because I saw how big basketball is there. I've seen so many things from afar of how much you guys love basketball. I love basketball too so I'm very excited about that."

Gilas Women head coach Patrick Aquino believes that De Jesus can open the door for other Filipinos who are aspiring to join elite women's basketball programs in the U.S.

"With Vanessa coming into Duke, it's a good opportunity for other Fil-Am girls who are there, and also other Filipinas who want to play or be scouted by other big schools," said Aquino. "The opportunity of having a great program and having coach Kara, I'm just happy for her and wishing her good luck. Hopefully, those experiences she's gonna get from Duke, she will give back to the Philippine national team in the future."

Due to FIBA rules that require a player to acquire a passport before the age of 16, De Jesus can only compete as a Filipino local in FIBA 3x3, Southeast Asian Games, Asian Games, and Jones Cup.

De Jesus, who played for club team California Storm, said her basketball career was largely influenced by WNBA superstars Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird.

"(Taurasi) actually played previously (for Cal Storm) when she was younger and she helped originate that program. Just watching her and her playing style, she's just so smooth. She's the 'girl Kobe' as people say," said De Jesus. "(Sue Bird) being a point guard, her vision and understanding of the game is something that I've always appreciated about her. I'm just so amazed at her intelligence and IQ of basketball. Those two are really day ones for me growing up."

De Jesus also admired one of the most prominent women's basketball supporters, the late Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, whom she was fortunate enough to train with a couple of years ago.

"In my sophomore year in high school, I got the chance to work at Mamba Academy over the summer, so I was able to get to work with Kobe in some of his camps," she said. "Also my club team, we're able to play or practice with his daughter's team, Gigi and the Mamba girls. Just hearing from him beyond the court, Kobe's mentality and understanding of the game is unreal and he's such an amazing person."

De Jesus looks forward to competing at a high level and being part of Duke's rich women's basketball history when the NCAA starts its season in a bubble this November.

"I'll be playing against some of the best players in the whole country. I think of it like a moment to learn," she said. "I know it's not going to be easy and there are gonna be struggles. I know I'm young but I need to keep getting there and growing from that."

Fans will not be allowed to watch at the venue during her freshman year, but De Jesus knows that she has an entire basketball-loving Filipino community -- both in California and in the Philippines -- rooting for her success.

"Having that support from back home, it's really nice to think of. I'm really just grateful always," she said. "I already talked to some of my friends and family, and they're all gonna be out there when I play in California. Once fans start coming, it will be more fun and the support will be even greater. I'm just excited about that."