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Originally published November 4, 2013 at 5:36 PM | Page modified November 4, 2013 at 10:08 PM

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Huskies’ best player, Jazmine Davis, might also be their most improved

Washington junior guard Jazmine Davis is a hard worker who is better than ever, according to coach Mike Neighbors. Davis says early-morning workouts with freshman Kelsey Plum helped motivate her before this season.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Five key questions

Who’ll lead?

Someone will have to replace graduated captain Kristi Kingma, who had the ability to get teammates focused and energized.

Can the Huskies stay healthy?

Washington has had several injuries in recent seasons, often forcing players out of position. The Huskies will need all of their depth against this competitive schedule.

Is the hype legit?

Point guard Kelsey Plum and center Katie Collier enter as the first high school all-Americans in the program’s history. They need to emerge quickly as a star inside-outside package.

Will there be help on the boards?

Junior Aminah Williams finished with the second-highest rebounding total in UW history last season (356), but the Huskies were last in Pac-12 rebounding (minus 8.3 per game differential). Williams needs help.

Can the momentum continue?

Mike Neighbors is a first-time Division I head coach who was part of a staff that compiled back-to-back 20-win seasons. He’ll be expected to retain the standard.

Jayda Evans

Schedule highlights

Nov. 19 vs. Seattle U: The revived crosstown matchup continues; this time the Redhawks arrive as the regular-season Western Athletic Conference champions.

Dec. 7 at Texas A&M: UW coach Mike Neighbors began his college career as the director of basketball operations for coach Gary Blair, who led the Aggies to the 2011 NCAA championship.

Feb. 9 vs. Stanford: UW makes its return to the national stage with a matinee aired on ESPNU against the preseason No. 3 Cardinal.

Feb. 14 at Colorado: A brutal trip to the mountain schools last season killed the Huskies’ NCAA tournament hopes. Colorado and Utah are expected to vie for top spots in the conference again.

Jayda Evans

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The warmth on Jazmine Davis’ skin from a Caribbean cruise barely had chilled in the Northwest air when her phone rang. Bags still packed in her apartment, the Washington guard answered the late-night call.

It was incoming freshman Kelsey Plum asking to grab a bite to eat. They met that September night at EJ Burger to catch up. Plum, a high school all-American, had helped USA Basketball’s U-19 team win gold at the FIBA World Championships in Lithuania. Davis had just returned from the longest vacation she had ever taken — a weeklong cruise to Mexico, Jamaica and the Cayman Islands.

Nearing midnight, the conversation at the burger joint ended with Plum asking Davis if she wanted to work out the following morning. Meaning six hours later, before Plum’s 8:30 a.m. class.

“I couldn’t hesitate. I had to say, ‘Yeah, OK, I’ll be here at 6,’ even though I was crying on the inside,” said Davis. “And you know what? I was here at 5:45. I had to keep my pride.”

For two weeks, the Huskies’ new backcourt worked out together. The sessions began with individual shooting, then one-on-one and finally teaching each other their offensive moves.

It usually ended with Plum’s barrage of freshman-like questions for the two-time All-Pac-12 junior. What was your first game like? How did you come in? What were you thinking?

“She let me know that I got complacent because I used to be just like that,” Davis said. “I would get up in the morning, I would stay late at night and I would be there extra. I didn’t even know how complacent I had gotten.

“I hated it (morning workouts), but I appreciated it at the time because it opened my eyes to ... ‘Now I get these awards and I don’t want to get up early in the morning anymore?’ So, that’s how our bond started. ... Then I said, ‘OK, the season’s about to start, I’m not getting up at 6 o’clock anymore.’ ”

Washington coach Mike Neighbors said Plum will handle the point guard role, moving Davis to her natural shooting guard position. Davis’ eyes lit up when thinking about what the Huskies can accomplish.

The season opener is Friday at Saint Mary’s.

Neighbors didn’t pair the duo on the same team in practice at first, running different lineups with a talented roster he helped recruit as an assistant to former coach Kevin McGuff the past two seasons. McGuff accepted the lead spot at Ohio State in April and Neighbors was promoted to his first gig as a Division I head coach.

Nicknamed “Nabes” by his players, Neighbors is known for his defensive schemes and the sharing of a vast basketball playbook in weekly newsletters. First joining McGuff at Xavier, Neighbors has helped sign eight McDonald’s All-Americans, including three who’ve went on to play for WNBA championship teams.

He primarily worked with guards as an assistant coach, and has helped develop Davis’ game. Davis is on pace to surpass Jamie Redd as UW’s career leader in points scored and was named to the Wooden Award preseason top 30 list.

Davis was second in the conference in scoring as a sophomore (19.3 a game) to help UW finish 21-11. The Huskies lost in the second round of the Women’s National Invitation Tournament.

The Huskies had 10 summer practices before their 2011 Scandinavian trip before Davis’ freshman season. Neighbors says he needed only five minutes to evaluate Davis.

“You didn’t have to be a coach,” he said. “You could see her in practice and know that this kid got it. She wanted to get better. She’s our most improved player this year. It’s odd to say about possibly your best player, but she is.”

Davis, a native Californian, is a muscular 5-foot-7 player, quick on the court, evading defenders with crossovers and powerful dashes to the hoop. Her focus and strength was improved by her studies on her way to a martial arts black belt.

But there’s a softer side.

“I’m a huge jelly bean,” said Davis, who everyone calls “Jaz.” “I’m really tough on the outside, but on the inside, I like art, I love Disney songs, classical music and musicals.”

Davis can play piano, guitar, ukulele and trumpet. And she has a delicate singing voice. But she wants her stardom to come from basketball.

And she’ll even rise early in the morning to prove it.

“When I’m done playing a game, I want you to say, ‘That guard was good,’ ” she said. “They don’t have to know my name. It could just be, ‘That No. 32,’ but right after the game, I want you to think about what I did.”

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or On Twitter @JaydaEvans.

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