Nov 12: Georgia's addition of elite prospect Janiah Barker takes program to 'a different level'
Barker is a five-star prospect who is ranked third-overall nationally and recently earned a McDonald's All-American bid.
ATHENS, Ga. — Atlanta native Gladys Knight belts out a few famous words on her Billboard Top 100 single that serves as an ode to her home state.
On that midnight train to Georgia
Everyone knows the tune to "Midnight Train to Georgia," but it has been more than a memorable hit to some.
Over recent years, Joni Taylor could be mistaken as the second lead vocalist and taken the role of one of The Pips in Knight's band. Georgia's sixth-year head coach has tweeted she's "got one more on that Midnight Train" on numerous occasions to become a staple phrase within the Georgia basketball program.
That train has been remodeled after nearly 50 years since the song was released, and has moved about 75 miles from Knight's hometown to the Classic City. It must be parked in the underbelly of Stegeman Coliseum, because that memorable phrase is a call of celebration of recruiting successes for the Lady Bulldogs.
Over recent days, those lyrics can be screamed and shouted across the team facilities. The early signing period, which began Nov. 10, has put the bow on recruiting efforts that resulted in massive additions to Georgia's future plans. The Lady Bulldogs added two top-5o prospects that will join the program ahead of the 2021-22 season, according to ESPN HoopGurlz.
The headliner, Janiah Barker, is the third-ranked prospect nationally, according to the same service. Barker, a greatly-pursued prospect from Marietta who happens to play her high school ball at basketball powerhouse Montverde Academy (Fla.), chose Georgia over South Carolina, Duke, Ole Miss and Louisville.
Barker earned a gold medal in the 2019 FIBA Americas U16 championship, averaging 7.7 points and 8.0 rebounds per game to win the title in Puerto Aysen, Chile. She also played on the 2021 USA Basketball 3x3 U18 World Cup Team.
"We're extremely excited to have her as a part of our program. She's got multiple years of experience with USA Basketball and is very talented offensively," Taylor said after Georgia's season opening 97-45 victory over Gardner-Webb. "She's a relentless rebounder, can score at all three levels and is somebody who is going to bring a different level to our program. We're excited to get her here and our players are excited to play with her.”
By the time Thursday evening's opener tipped, Georgia completed the elite prospect sweep by adding Sydney Bowles, the 37th-ranked prospect nationally out of Woodward Academy in south Atlanta. Barker and Bowles have a strong relationship, as evidenced by their interactions on recruiting visits to Georgia that were later shared on social media outlets.
Those additions, along with pledge Tineya Hylton who has not yet officially signed her national letter-of-intent (but can do so through the end of the signing period), comprise the highest-rated haul of the Taylor era and one of the best — if not at the top — 2021 classes in the country.
An observer who doesn't quite understand the ins-and-outs of the Lady Bulldogs' program at its core might be confused. Georgia finishes as the destination for arguably the best prospect in the country, despite two runs to the second round of the NCAA tournament under Taylor and without a Sweet 16 appearance since her days as an assistant under Andy Landers in 2013.
So, how can this be? The answer is fairly simple, yet rich in detail as it serves as a testament to the qualities prioritized inside those offices at the Stegeman Coliseum Training Facility where building continues each day.
Georgia's goal is unwavering and consistent from year-to-year. Taylor strives to compete with the nation's best like South Carolina, UConn, Stanford and others. Her program has a firm belief that it can reach that pinnacle, which is why the coach reiterates the phrase "Georgia basketball" quite often. Those words might seem like coachspeak, but there's deep meaning. They refer to the program's rich history and it's the model of how Taylor runs her operation.
Georgia basketball means a few things: competing for championships, a people-first culture, constant community outreach and a defensive-first on-court product that has potential to win against any team it faces.
It all starts with recruiting.
Taylor had quite the haul in her second season as head coach with adding Gabby Connally, Que Morrison and Maya Caldwell who have etched their names in Georgia lore. Along the years, Georgia's coaching staff sprinkled in a few other top prospects like Jenna Staiti (transfer from Maryland), Chloe Chapman, Javyn Nicholson and Sarah Ashlee Barker. The most-recent class featured two McDonald's All-Americans in Reigan Richardson and Jillian Hollingshead, whom Georgia began evaluating as eighth graders.
Those previous classes built the foundation and standard that Taylor sets, which allows for recruiting to elevate itself to another level.
The additions, specifically Barker and Bowles, aren't a result of a simple "This recruit is amongst the best! Go for it!" Instead, it's a plethora of meetings, thorough character evaluation and vetting to determine whether a certain recruit fits the mold that the Lady Bulldogs' desire. Taylor's coaching staff, after all, with Karen Lange, Chelsea Newton and Robert Mosley, features continuity as the coaches alongside the six-year leader have been unchanged.
A strong rapport between the coaches began nearly a decade ago when a then-assistant Taylor would jot names in a small notebook of assistants she'd want to work with once her time as a head coach came. They trust one another to use their roles to best configure a recruiting group that boosts Georgia's chances. The final product is plenty of contention for top names during each cycle.
"It has to be the right fit, because we're trying to put a puzzle together. You can't go get random pieces and expect the puzzle to come together," Taylor said. "We spend a lot of time recruiting those right pieces, then it all falls into place when they get here. It's very important that we line up on the dream and vision we have for the program."
Along with staff continuity and a cemented culture, Georgia has seen some results that help peak the interest of prospects like Barker and Bowles. The Lady Bulldogs made program history in the 2020-21 season with massive wins at Tennessee, Georgia Tech, a home thriller against Arkansas, an SEC championship appearance where Georgia nearly dismantled the powerhouse Gamecocks and earned a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The word "elite" has been thrown around the Georgia basketball program over recent months. That's the goal, and the Lady Bulldogs are reaching that peak as each detail has led to a statement-making addition in one of the nation's top prospects. Taylor realizes the importance of matching the level of the sport's blue bloods, but will also only do so if it benefits Georgia's culture.
She struck gold on both in a 24-hour span with introducing Barker and Bowles in red-and-black to the rest of the country.
Georgia's got the keys to the midnight train. A premier passenger in Barker is one of the latest to take the ride to Athens.
"She has a passion and enthusiasm for the game and for people that jumps off of the page," said Taylor, who highlighted Barker in depth. "She will be a great ambassador for our program. She's still a freshman, so she doesn't know what she doesn't know. She wants to be elite and a pro. That's how she's going to be coached and trained."