Photo credit IU Athletics

‘This kid’s the real deal’: Yarden Garzon’s experience brought IU women’s basketball a seasoned talent

On a hot summer day in 2019, some of the top girls basketball players in the Fort Wayne area gathered at a local gym.

Vernard Hollins, director of the Always 100 AAU program, was working with an international player, and he wanted to put her in one-on-one situations against other skilled athletes.

The gym was small, and on this day, the heat inside was sweltering.

But those circumstances didn’t affect that Israeli visitor, 15-year-old Yarden Garzon. She’d already played with Israel’s U16 national team in the European Championships, and was ready to take her game to another level. So facing other top players was familiar for Garzon.

And even after she’d worked with Hollins for some time by then, she still surprised him.

“She was facing the basket, the girl’s pressuring her, and she turned around, took that Dirk Nowitzki, off one leg fadeaway. I’m like, ‘Wow, you have that in your bag, too? We didn’t work on that!'” Hollins said. “And then I took her up to open gym at Saint Francis (NAIA school in Fort Wayne), and she went up there and just dominated. She dominated. I said, ‘This kid’s the real deal.'”

Garzon spent nearly two months working with Hollins that summer. The sessions were grueling, and the days were long. They worked out three times every day — off-the-dribble skills at 6 a.m., catch-and-shoot at noon, and 5-on-5 in the evening.

And at the end of each day, they’d talk through everything they did. She wanted to understand why they did certain things and how it was going to help her. Hollins saw a kid who wanted to improve.

Hollins has worked with more than 20 players from Israel, and most find that amount of work to be too much.

Not Garzon. She liked how Hollins challenged her and brought out her competitiveness — and she enjoyed it so much that she extended her stay.

Garzon dreamt about this sort of opportunity, to spend a summer intensely working on her game. The experience showed her that her conditioning was nowhere near the level she thought it was at.

“It was just fun. Every minute on the court was fun,” Garzon said. “I wanted to stay on the court. I wasn’t even wanting to go away even though I was tired after all this. I love the game and I love to be on the court. It was a big (experience).”

Hollins played college basketball at Wright State from 2000 through 2004, and then played overseas until 2015. He started Always 100 in 2011, at first just working with American athletes. Other players he’s trained include James Blackmon Jr., the late Caleb Swanigan, and former Purdue women’s basketball player and 2017 Miss Basketball Karissa McLaughlin.

Some time later, Hollins started working with international players. He brought in kids from Switzerland, through contacts he made while playing there.

Hollins’ college coach, Ed Schilling — former IU men’s basketball assistant — later connected him with people in Israel and recommended his training services. And that led to his work with Israeli players.

The seven weeks Garzon spent working with Hollins directly led to her playing at Indiana years later. And now, the Hoosier freshman is off to a fast start to her collegiate career.

Photo credit IU Athletics

A family affair

Garzon grew up in Ra’anana, Israel, around 13 miles northeast of Tel Aviv. Her older sister, Lior, described Ra’anana as the type of small town where you can go anywhere and know most of the people.

Lior is two years older than Yarden, and she’s a junior on the Oklahoma State women’s basketball team. Yarden also has an older brother, Dvir, and a twin sister, Yuval.

The entire family is sports-oriented. Dvir also played basketball, as did their dad, Eitan. Their mom, Ruth, played volleyball. Yuval also enjoyed volleyball, but stuck with dancing.

When they were younger, Yarden and her family would go out and play sports together almost every weekend. Basketball was a frequent activity, but they’d play soccer, volleyball, or just about any sport they could.

That was how Yarden got started in basketball. But it took a bit for her to really get hooked.

“I started two years before she started. She didn’t want to go play basketball, at all. She wanted to play volleyball,” Lior said. “But after I started, she said, ‘Let me try it too.’ And she was good. So she stayed, and just kept practicing.”

Yarden and Lior never played on the same team, which Lior called a missed opportunity. They played against each other at the club level once, shortly before Lior left for the United States. That game turned into a back-and-forth affair between the siblings, once the actual game became a rout. They specifically went at each other on both ends of the floor, trash-talked one another, and drove the crowd to laughter over their friendly rivalry.

Yarden’s parents exposing her and her siblings to sports at a young age played a big role in their upbringing. They were never forced to play competitively — they did that because they enjoyed the game.

And even as they went to club teams and beyond, the parents remained involved. Eitan accompanied Yarden to Fort Wayne when she worked with Hollins. He, too, hadn’t seen training as intense as what Hollins put Yarden through.

Hollins said Eitan was on board with everything they did, and felt he was a big source of Yarden’s basketball savvy.

“He’s a basketball junkie,” Hollins said. “He gave me full range to kind of get on her, to teach her. He wasn’t one of the dads that was overprotective. (He was) open-minded and very supportive of some of the decisions I thought was best for Yarden.”

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Battling the pros

Garzon came into college basketball far more seasoned than the typical freshman.

She started playing club basketball with Maccabi Ra’anana at eight years old, and stuck with that team through her high school graduation. Starting at age 15, she was playing on — and against — teams with WNBA players who traveled overseas to play in FIBA during their offseason.

That was intimidating at first. The pros would jokingly call Garzon names like ‘baby face.’ And her first season at that high level was challenging on the court as well. She recalled particularly struggling against Indiana Fever guard Tiffany Mitchell.

“I remember I couldn’t do anything to stop her or to play offense against her, because she was way stronger, faster, and everything than me,” Garzon said. “So then I realized how much more I need to put in it for being good.”

After that first season, she gained a better understanding of the game and was able to start holding her own against the professionals.

Even when Garzon was just 16, those WNBA players could see her potential. Then-New York Liberty forward Joyner Holmes played with Garzon that second season at Maccabi Ra’anana, and it didn’t take her long to realize how good Garzon was.

“The biggest memory that stands out for me is just, a 16-year-old, first one in the gym, last one to leave. At your age, you could be out doing whatever. Israel’s an amazing place to experience with a bunch of stuff to do. But you’d rather be in the gym,” Holmes said. “My first week or so there, I saw this kid, I was like, ‘Wow.’ But actually seeing her play and perform, it was like, ‘She’s going to be special.'”

Holmes, who now plays for the Connecticut Sun, said Garzon was never fazed by the elite talent around her, despite her youth. Early on in Garzon’s second season with Ra’anana, Holmes and current Phoenix Mercury guard/forward Kaela Davis encouraged her to step up and be confident.

“‘You’re one of us. Don’t be afraid of anything,'” they told her.

Garzon was a key piece on that 2020-21 Ra’anana team, which struggled to a 5-19 record. She was their best 3-point shooter, led the team in blocks and tied for the team-high in assists, and ranked among the leaders in several other statistics.

Those club teams weren’t entirely full of WNBA players — they could have no more than three Americans on the roster. So it was mostly Israeli players, but with enough high-level talent to make the games intense.

Garzon played three years of games at that level. After the second season with Ra’anana, she moved to Maccabi Ironi Ramat Gan while taking a gap year between high school and college.

She said the biggest difference between the college game and what she faced in Israel is how much American players dedicate their lives to the sport.

But playing around WNBA players for that long before entering college prepared Garzon far differently than American high school players.

“It helped me a lot with English, because we talked in English — we didn’t have another choice,” Garzon said. “It was rough on me when I did mistakes. But I knew when to step up and go to the next one. And especially the physicality — I already faced against it, so I kind of knew how it’s going to feel like.”

Photo credit IU Athletics

Coming to America

When Hollins saw Garzon’s work ethic and enthusiasm for improvement, he knew she had Division I potential.

He’s helped many players he’s trained at Always 100 get to various colleges, and has built rapport with many college coaches. IU head coach Teri Moren said he’s someone who she and her staff trust.

So when Hollins called IU and some other Big Ten programs about Garzon and sent them some tape, the endorsement carried weight.

“I reached out to some Big Ten schools, just kind of like, ‘Hey, this kid’s a big-time player. She’s not a mid-major kid. She’s a big-time player,'” Hollins said. “So as I called around and I reached out to IU, and I sent them some footage, they’re like, ‘Whoa, yes, this kid can play.'”

Moren’s Hoosiers have experience with international players, with Aleksa Gulbe (Latvia) helping the program’s recent ascent, and Mona Zaric (Serbia) one class ahead of Garzon. That familiarity with foreign athletes helped Hollins believe IU could be a good fit for the Israeli.

Garzon appreciated the welcoming environment the IU staff cultivated. She visited campus when the Hoosiers hosted Kentucky in November 2021, and the raucous atmosphere for a women’s basketball game blew her away. That crowd at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall far exceeded what she was used to in Israel.

“I saw their growth, like every year, they did something bigger,” Garzon said. “When I visited here, I saw how much effort and work they put into it. The fans was really good, and I really loved it. It was the first time I saw so many fans at (a) women’s basketball game. It was cool.”

She committed to IU around a month after that visit. The Hoosiers knew they had a talented player coming in, but there was still an element of unknown.. The coaching staff only had film from workouts, FIBA, and national team to observe while recruiting her. They didn’t see her play in person before she arrived on campus.

And when she did, she impressed everyone very quickly. The coaches and players realized Garzon was ready to play a major role right away.

“The first day she stepped on campus in August, we really quickly realized how good she was,” said All-American Grace Berger. “She’s not a typical freshman. She plays like a pro out there. She’s someone that’s really easy to play with, that’s really fun to play with.”

Garzon wasted no time in announcing herself to women’s college basketball. She starred during IU’s closed preseason scrimmage against Cincinnati, and has started every game for the Hoosiers this season. In the season-opener against Vermont, she recorded 19 points while shooting 5 for 8 from 3-point range, along with four rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and a steal.

Adjusting to living in the U.S. wasn’t as seamless off the court for Garzon as the on-court transition was. She was not only adapting to a new league, but a new culture and way of life. Garzon was completely shocked by the December winter storm that brought sub-zero temperatures, and she’d never seen snow until the season’s first storm in November.

She eagerly awaited that first snow experience, and made it fun. She gathered friends to play in the snow and have a snowball fight.

This is the first time Garzon has really left home, and she’s now halfway around the world from her family. Lior is also in America, but Stillwater, Oklahoma is around a 10-hour drive from Bloomington — it’s only around a six-hour drive from the northernmost city in Israel, Metula, to the southernmost city, Eilat.

Since arriving in Indiana, Yarden’s had several difficult moments of missing home.

“I think it’s the hardest part of being here, because I’m really connected and close to my family, especially to my siblings,” she said. “I knew it was going to be tough, but I didn’t know how much. But I’m talking with them and keeping in touch with them every day.”

Yarden flew to Oklahoma during IU’s holiday break to see Lior, and the sisters cherished that time. Yarden may not see family in person again until after IU’s spring semester ends. But she said her teammates and coaches always cheer her up when she’s struggling or feeling lonely.

Photo credit — IU Athletics

High capability and higher goals

Garzon’s versatility is what struck Holmes in Ra’anana, and it remains one of the biggest facets of her game.

At 6-foot-3, she’s the same height as All-American forward Mackenzie Holmes, and tied for the third-tallest player on Indiana’s roster. But Garzon’s skill set allows her to play anywhere from the 1 through the 4, creating a matchup nightmare for opponents.

She’s been one of the country’s best 3-point shooters this season, ranking sixth at 50 percent. Garzon is second on IU in assists and blocks, and third in scoring and total rebounds. She’s been a key playmaker for the Hoosiers while Berger has been sidelined with a knee injury.

Garzon is typically shyer and mild-mannered, but she’s already started to come out of her shell. After making a key steal in overtime against Nebraska, she let out a roar. Even Lior was surprised by that level of emotion from Yarden.

Hollins compared Garzon’s attitude to 21-year NBA veteran Joe Johnson, and likened her other attributes to Michigan fifth-year Leigha Brown, another player from his program.

Despite her experience, Garzon’s still had some freshman moments, with some high-turnover games while trying to help fill Berger’s void. But even so, her abilities and size afford IU a lot of offensive creativity.

“Inside of every practice, inside of every game, you can have some fun and run some cool actions for her. We feel like, as a staff, we can put the ball in Yarden’s hand. She’s going to make a good decision. She very rarely makes the wrong decision,” Moren said. “That’s nothing that we’ve taught. She is a very good basketball player that just happens to be a freshman.”

The Hoosiers are already asking the freshman to do a lot. But just as playing against WNBA players in Israel didn’t faze her, neither has any pressure in Bloomington. Garzon said she has not yet experienced real pressure moments in the college game, which has allowed her to just play basketball.

Berger is in her final year of eligibility, and Mackenzie Holmes will have one more after this season. Those two eventual departures will feel like a separator between eras for IU women’s basketball, just as losing Gulbe, Ali Patberg, and Nicole Cardaño-Hillary did after last season.

There’s always a plethora of variables in sports when looking into the future, but Garzon looks like a player who would be the centerpiece of future IU teams as an upperclassman. She already contributes so much, and still has plenty of room to improve even more.

There’s a feasible trajectory for Garzon to become one of the Big Ten’s — and the country’s — most dangerous players.

“She’s a really hard worker. She’s a crazy competitor,” Moren said. “She’s going to keep getting better because I think she has some lofty goals — not just here at Indiana, but after she’s done playing (here), even at the young age that she is.”

Joyner Holmes, now playing in Italy, hasn’t been able to watch much of Garzon at IU because of the time difference. But she’s watched highlights after some games, and she isn’t surprised how capable the Israeli has already looked. Holmes recalled their conversations in Ra’anana about Garzon’s dreams of playing in the U.S., and she’s enjoyed seeing her former teammate live that out.

With so much exposure to professional-caliber athletes, Garzon has ambitions of playing in both the WNBA and EuroLeague. And with her player profile, that could be achievable.

Garzon said she wants to enjoy a basketball career she can later reflect on and be proud of.

Holmes and Lior agreed that anything is possible for Yarden on the court, and that reaching the WNBA is feasible. Hollins said she’s in the right system and environment at Indiana to continue growing and reach her goals.

“I think she’s going to keep getting better and better,” Hollins said. “You couldn’t actually play for a better staff than what IU has, a winning program, people who are known to develop kids. I think the sky’s the limit with someone like Yarden, who’s going to soak up all the information, want to get better, want to develop.”

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