The Gophers are off to an 8-1 start and there's already one player leading with offensive play.
That player would be Kenisha Bell, a redshirt junior, who is averaging 19.2 points, first among Minnesota players. With another year of experience, Bell has proven that she’s one of the best guards in the Big Ten. However, this kind of success didn’t come overnight.
She moved to Minnesota in middle school after growing up in Chicago, where she started making a name for herself on the basketball circuit. She played at Bloomington Kennedy High School, where she led the team in her senior season to a runner-up finish at the 2014 Class 4A State Tournament. That year, she was named to the Associated Press’ All-State First Team and the Star Tribune’s All-Metro First Team, averaging 20.5 points per game in the process.
Bloomington Kennedy's head coach, Quintin Johnson, said he noticed something special about Bell from the moment he saw her play.
"Her competitive drive, her passion, for not only the game of basketball, but the position she played," Johnson said. "She just won’t quit, and she’s 100 percent serious about what she’s doing."
Johnson didn't spend all four years with Bell, giving him this unique perspective to look through when analyzing her talent. He became Bell's coach after two years of coaching at Jefferson High School, where he had to coach against her.
"What I saw was a raw, athletic talent," Johnson said. "All the stuff you see now, she had then, but it wasn’t fine-tuned. They weren’t allowing her to make the mistakes she needed to make to get better and learn from them. It’s kind of similar to what happened to her last year with the Gophers, where she had a lot of turnovers, but now she’s doing a fantastic job with it."
With high school behind her, Bell went to Marquette University, setting freshman records in points, with 434, field goals, 157 and free throws with 111. It was clear pretty early on that she was going to be a problem for defenders after a unanimous selection to the 2014-15 Big East All-Freshman team.
But Bell didn’t stay at Marquette. Instead, she chose to return to Minnesota after visiting with newly hired head coach Marlene Stollings, and saw that she could fit in perfectly with Stollings and her staff. After a few years of being around Bell, Stollings has already seen the potential Bell once displayed become a full-fledged reality.
“The biggest thing I’ve noticed is her maturity and her poise on the court, and her maturity with the team off the court,” Stollings said. “When something bad would happen in previous years, you would see her go backwards, and what we’ve seen this year is that if something bad happens, she wants to turn it into something good in the next possession.”
Due to NCAA rules, Bell had to sit out and redshirt after transferring. In the 2016-17 season, she came back better than ever. She averaged 16.1 points, 4.9 assists, and 2.2 steals per game, which landed her fourth in the Big Ten for assists and fifth for steals. Bell improved off those numbers early in the 2017-18 season.
“Offensively, I think she’s more balanced when she drives,” Stollings said. “She has such tremendous speed. She’s as fast as any guard in the Big Ten. What I think we see is her going into traffic and taking a balanced shot.”
Bell said her teammates have been huge contributors to her early success, citing that the work they put in the over the summer has only made her better.
“We spend a lot of time in the gym together,” Bell said. “In the summer time, we were all going to shoot late at night. We’ve been building a bond with each other, finding the strengths and weaknesses within each other in order to get better and build confidence."
Bell has been described as serious and mature on the court. The sophomore said her ability to finish off the contact has helped fight off plays that did not go her way.
“I don’t show too much emotion,” Bell said. “Sometimes when things don’t go my way, I just brush it off and think about the next play."
That kind of thinking is just the mentality the Gophers will need come tournament time, as they’ll look to make an appearance in the NCAA tournament after being left out the last two seasons. Amongst a group with high hopes, Bell stands out as the added spark plug for the team.
“You have to have a leader at the point position, and that’s what [Bell] brings to our team,” Stollings said.