With his team down 17-8 less than six minutes into a matchup against the Chicago Sky Sunday, Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller knew he needed to switch something up.
Sky guard Allie Quigley was much of the reason why. She had already drained two triples, a hook shot and a layup for 10 of her team’s points. So Miller called a timeout and subbed in rookie Kaila Charles, electing to have the former Maryland women’s basketball standout take on Quigley.
“Kaila gave us a spark,” Miller said. “She’s a pesky and disruptive defender at times.”
Quigley didn’t score another field goal until the third quarter. The same couldn’t be said for Charles, however.
The Glenn Dale, Maryland, native’s first basket came off an assist by Brionna Jones, who played with her in College Park for one season. After two defenders collapsed on Jones in the paint, Charles sprinted inside from the corner, received an overhead pass and floated in a layup with ease.
Though the Sun ultimately lost 100-93, Charles had the best game of her young WNBA career. The former Terp finished with 15 points in 25 minutes, both career-highs, along with two rebounds, an assist and a steal. She shot 4-of-5 from the floor and 6-of-6 at the charity stripe, and she ended the contest with the best +/- of anyone on her team.
“I was reading the game when I was on the bench, and I’m always trying to stay ready,” Charles said. “I know that some time my time will come and I want to be able to produce when I get on the floor. So I was just reading the defense. If a cut was open, I’ll try to cut if a pass was there, or look for my shot. But I was just trying to go with the game, I wasn’t trying to force, and just read the defense.”
With around seven minutes left in the first half and the Suns down 36-27, fellow former Terp Alyssa Thomas handed the ball of to Charles beyond the arc. The rookie drove to the free-throw line, used a cross-over dribble and pushed hard into the paint, where she sunk a layup over two defenders.
“She’s a tough kid,” Veteran guard Jasmine Thomas said. “She works hard. She learns on the fly. You can see her adjusting to things that she’s being taught at this level.”
Prior to Saturday’s game, Charles was averaging 6.2 minutes and 2.2 points per contest. It’s taken her some time to find her offensive footing in limited playing time, but Miller has praised her defensive prowess throughout the season.
So have her teammates. Jasmine Thomas remarked Saturday that many of the best players on the team say she’s the hardest to go up against in practice. Charles said it was “definitely cool” to hear DeWanna Bonner, a three-time All-Star and two-time champion, say she doesn’t want the rookie to guard her in practice.
“It gives me confidence because these are the greats and they think I can guard them,” Charles said. “That’s something I want to build on. At Maryland I was able to guard different positions, but I didn’t get really recognized for my defensive effort. So that’s something I really wanted to focus on coming in the league, being good on both sides of the ball.”
Though her senior season was cut short to the COVID-19 pandemic, Charles finished her career at Maryland with the sixth most points and rebounds in program history — one of just six Terps to be in the top-10 for both categories. She was a three-time First Team All-Big Ten selection under head coach Brenda Frese, also winning four Big Ten regular season titles and two tournament championships.
Charles was drafted by the Sun in the second round of the virtual 2020 WNBA Draft, and her introduction to the league has certainly been an unusual one.
In a normal rookie year, Charles would have had a much longer training camp before the start of the season, as well more times in between games. She would be living at her apartment in Connecticut and traveling around the country with her teammates instead of in what has been deemed the “Wubble” down in Bradenton, Florida at IMG Academy.
The transition has been somewhat tough with the unique conditions, Charles said, but she’s just happy to be in the league and back to playing basketball. And it’s helped to have two fellow Maryland alums, Jones and Alyssa Thomas, showing her the ropes.
“It’s great to have them because I’ve never left home, so being away from home and having familiar faces made the transition easier,” Charles said. “They’re always talking to me, they’re always helping me out. And so having those familiar faces has definitely helped me settle in, helped me gain more confidence and helped me get better every single day.”
And Miller has noticed the improvement.
“[I’m] really proud of her,” Miller said. “She’s getting more and more comfortable out there.”