FORT SMITH -- Basketball appeared to be in the past for Aaliyah Prince.
With a degree from New Mexico State after a standout playing career, she was back home last year in Texas transitioning into post-graduate life.
It then all changed with an offer she couldn't turn down.
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith women's basketball coach Ryan McAdams, a former assistant coach at New Mexico State, had a proposal of Prince playing one last season. The Lions now couldn't be happier to have the 5-8 grad transfer guard back in the game, making an impact on and off the court.
Despite not playing last season, Prince hasn't missed a beat since returning to basketball. She is averaging team-highs in points (14.3), rebounds (5.7), assists (3.3), steals (1.3) and blocks (.7) during the initial four games of the season for UAFS.
"There has been zero surprise with her play," McAdams said. "I know she can play at a very high level. There has been some basketball rust to shake off. But she is the most athletic kid I've coached ever on the men or women's side of basketball. That gives her the opportunity to do things other people can't.
"She can do it all. By the end of the year if she puts it all together, it could be a really breakout year for her."
The transition back to college life and to basketball has been very smooth for Prince, who teammates and coaches describe as a selfless and caring leader who guides by her example.
However, the decision to return wasn't as easy. Prince missed basketball and being around a team, but she was on the fence, and it took many conversations between Prince and McAdams to make sure it was the right fit.
Prince's faith in McAdams, who she calls one of her favorite coaches ever when they shared time at New Mexico State, was a big factor in the decision.
"The trust took a while," Prince said at UAFS media day before the season. "But it is there. It took a while to make this decision. It was hard. But I'm already feeling it is worth it. I don't want to put too much pressure on myself. I want to take things slowly with this being my last year. I'm trying my best to make my impact on the team in any way I can on the court and off it."
Prince is one of three graduate players on the roster this season with former teammate Rodrea Echols from New Mexico State and Truth Taylor, who last played at Shaw University.
As was the case with other transfers coming in with degrees already, McAdams wanted to make sure the players were entering into this opportunity with the mindset that it would be beneficial for everyone in the program.
Being stellar teammates for the rebuilding Lions coming off a 7-18 season in the second year at the school for McAdams has been invaluable.
"Aaliyah's playing ability and accolades in her career are important," McAdams said. "But the influence she can make on a locker room is very special. That is something I knew she would bring to our program. That is almost more valuable than her play. This is an important transitional year for us. I needed to have people in my program I trust to lay some foundation. Those transfers really lead the way with that."
McAdams noted at the school's media day that he doesn't take lightly the trust graduate players give him with their last season of basketball. He knows this is the final stop to make an impact as a player and improve themselves off the court with additional education opportunities.
"You never want to look back at something with regret," McAdams said. "We are doing our best, I think, to transition these players through whatever phase of their lives they are in right now. They all have college degrees and completed the traditional cycle. But all three wanted to finish their career looking for one final season and to see what they can do.
"Their experience is a standard-setter. The only way you get the experience they have is going through it all."
It could have been very easy for Prince to call it a career after finishing her fifth and what she thought was her final year at New Mexico State in the 2020 season. She closed out her Aggies career averaging a team-high 12 points with four rebounds, an assist and a steal per game while shooting 45% from the field.
Her efforts earned her Western Athletic Conference second-team and WAC defensive team honors. Her Division I eligibility was exhausted after that season, but Prince did have a year of Division II basketball available for her. Prince couldn't be happier where she is now reunited with her former coach and playing basketball again.
The Lions haven't achieved the team success they have wanted this year, dropping the initial four games of the season, including one in overtime. But Prince said she feels a turning point coming soon for the program.
"I'm just trying to impact the team in any way I can," Prince said. "We can have an amazing team once we bring it all together. We are definitely going to be explosive when we figure it out. These games are really helping us find our way. We feel so much smoother in practice, so we are trying to bring that over to the games."
UAFS sophomore guard Riley Hayes (Bentonville High) was shocked to learn Prince didn't play basketball last season. After a couple of pickup basketball games earlier this year, Hayes was very impressed with Prince and her ability to make plays.
That admiration has continued into the season.
"She has been such a great addition to our team," Hayes said. "It has been something cool to watch. She brings a lot to this team. You have to guard her on the drive, which creates a lot for our perimeter. But she also can just score it when we need it. She can elevate and score at the rim. She can get pretty much whatever she wants."
Hayes and Prince were flanked by McAdams before the season at the team's media day. McAdams contrasted the two athletes' playing experiences by correctly identifying Hayes' age and joking that Prince was a 35-year-old veteran.
Prince isn't quite that old, but she has plenty of basketball knowledge to share, which has been an enjoyable part of this journey for her.
"It is really fun, but I wish I had more of a teaching ability," Prince said. "Sometimes I just don't know what to say. I wish I could be a better teacher and show them what I do. But it's kind of hard. I have knowledge I want to pass on to these players here. I hope I'm helping them be the best players they can be."
It turns out Prince, who is very humble, is passing along more knowledge than she knows she does. Count Hayes among the many on the team soaking up the knowledge Prince has after playing college basketball at the Division I level for five years at New Mexico State before joining UAFS.
"Watching her and taking the things she does on the court has really helped me out," Hayes said. "She leads with her actions and doesn't have to lead vocally. Following her actions and trying to add those elements to my game has benefited me. I know she has been there and done that. It's cool to learn from someone who has experienced a lot of college basketball."
McAdams has been beyond happy with the contributions of Prince with her stellar play and always positive attitude. But what he has loved most is the continued growth from Prince as a person.
With her degree in criminal justice and studying of leadership at the graduate level, Prince has plans to help others by being a probation officer.
"I'm most proud of her investment in herself," McAdams said. "She is really making the most of this opportunity on and off the court. She is the type of person you really, really root for because she really cares about others. Aaliyah is working hard toward her goals moving back into the adult portion of life.
"She is put together and is driven for what's to come after basketball ends for her. If nothing else comes from her time here than that, it will be worth it all."
SCHOOL University of Arkansas at Fort Smith
CLASS Graduate senior
NOTABLE The San Antonio native returns to basketball this year after being in the workforce last season. … Prince is averaging team-highs in points (14.3), rebounds (5.7), assists (3.3), steals (1.3) and blocks (.7) during the initial three games of the season. … She was at Division I New Mexico State for five years and finished on a strong note in her final season in 2020. … During that season, Prince averaged a team-high 12 points with four rebounds, an assist and a steal per game while shooting 45% from the field. … Her efforts earned her Western Athletic Conference second team and WAC defensive team honors. … The 2016 graduate was a three-star recruit out of Highlands High School, where she averaged 14.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, 3.8 steals, and 1.9 assists per game.