Looking back, Annie Payton can see a confused little girl who couldn't understand the rules.

Looking ahead, she can see a confident young woman who makes a difference in the world as a pediatrician.

But when you are the best player in Camden, on the brink of your senior season, there's no time like the present. And no place like the basketball court.

"This is going to be our burst-out year," Payton said of the Camden High School girls' basketball team.

It's an odd December in the city that serves as the beating heart of South Jersey basketball. The Camden boys aren't ranked in the preseason Top 10. Neither are the Woodrow Wilson boys or girls.

But the city's pride is salvaged by the presence of the Camden girls, the No. 10 team in The Inquirer Top 10, a strong contender in the loaded Olympic National division, and one of the favorites to capture the South Jersey Group 2 title.

Under first-year coach Jonathan Taylor, the Panthers have four returning starters from last year's 11-11 team. They have size, speed, skill.

Mostly, they have Annie Payton.

"She's my kind of player," said Camden athletic director Al Dyer, the former girls' coach at Woodrow Wilson.

Dyer knows girls' basketball talent. He built a mini-dynasty at Wilson, producing several Division I players and capturing the Tournament of Champions as the state's No. 1 team in 2005.

He remembers coaching against Payton during the athlete's freshman and sophomore years at Camden.

"We couldn't rattle her," Dyer said. "I don't think I've ever seen her nervous. She will not back down. She's tough as nails. She will run through a wall."

Off the court, Payton is an excellent student at Brimm Medical Arts High School, a magnet school in Camden. She has signed to attend Hofstra University on a basketball scholarship. She plans to major in premed, with an aim at becoming a pediatrician.

"Ever since I can remember, I wanted to be a doctor," Payton said.

Payton was born in Newark but grew up in Camden. She started playing basketball as an 8-year-old at the Boys and Girls Club of Camden County, across Park Boulevard from Camden High School. She was no instant success.

"I was a big fan of the double dribble," Payton said. "I couldn't figure it out."

Payton improved enough to move into the starting lineup at Camden as a freshman. She has scored more than 1,300 career points, turning the Panthers from a soft spot on some schedules into one of South Jersey's most improved teams.

Taylor said the 5-foot-9 Payton is a talented all-around player who works hard to get her teammates involved at the offensive end. But she has one skill that stands out above all others.

"She goes to the basket," Taylor said.

Payton averaged 21.8 points last season. But she believes she made drastic improvement last summer, when she played on the Philadelphia Triple Threat AAU team that included Willingboro resident Briyona Canty, a Trenton Catholic junior who is regarded as one of the country's best players in the Class of 2011.

"Just playing with those kinds of girls against that kind of competition, it helped me out so much," Payton said.

Payton knows high school basketball is ingrained in the culture in Camden. She was a huge fan of that 2005 Woodrow Wilson team. She knows all about the great players who took the court before her in Clarence Turner Gymnasium.

She practices every day under banners that commemorate state title teams as well as great players, from Dajuan Wagner and his 3,462 career points to Kevin Walls and his 2,775 career points to Nate Johnson and his 2,424 career points, and on and on.

"If you don't know, you find out real fast around here," Payton said of Camden's rich basketball tradition.

The Camden boys are the defending South Jersey Group 2 champions, and those Panthers are likely to contend for the sectional crown again in March. Woodrow Wilson's boys and girls could be in the mix, too.

But the best player in the city is a girl who couldn't understand the rules as an 8-year-old and hopes to be a doctor by the time she's 28.

Annie Payton will focus on the here and the now. She will play like a star senior in a Camden uniform. She will take the ball to the basket.

Contact staff writer Phil Anastasia at 856-779-3223 or panastasia@phillynews.com