Kaila Charles makes her voice heard as Maryland's next women's basketball star

You’re liable to hear Kaila Charles before you see her.

Start with Taiwan, where the Maryland women’s basketball team traveled in August to represent the United States in the World University Games. Shoved together in a cramped apartment and groggy from jet lag, the other players could only marvel at the way Charles rose with the sun, yapping at full volume.

“She is so loud,” senior guard Kristen Confroy said, grinning broadly. “Maybe it’s not even yelling for her. It’s just talking.”

It’s the same story every time the No. 17 Terps line up to take the floor for a game. Charles’ exhortations drown out all the other sounds in the tunnel. On court? Yes, she talks there as well, maybe too much when she takes issue with an official.

Maryland coach Brenda Frese needed to cajole some of her previous stars to become vocal leaders. Not Charles. She seemingly left her shell behind at birth.

In some programs, such an outspoken sophomore might be dismissed as impertinent. But in College Park, Charles’ assertive personality was precisely what the Terps needed as they sought to turn the page from an unsettled offseason. Everyone knew Maryland was going to lose All-Americans Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough to graduation. But the turnover was compounded when National Freshman of the Year Destiny Slocum abruptly announced that she would transfer after last season.

Slocum was expected to be the next in Frese’s long line of stars. Instead, that burden (or opportunity) shifted to Charles, who had thrived as the team’s defensive ace in the shadow of her flashier compatriots. She did not hesitate to seize the mantle, becoming the clear standout on a 25-7 team that will learn its NCAA tournament seeding Monday night.

“She presented that way — which was impressive — from the first day she set foot on campus,” Frese said. “She just had a relentless mentality of wanting to be the best. We obviously knew going into her sophomore year that she was going to have to shoulder a big piece of what our team was going to be like. And I think you see that, how she wants that responsibility.”

The 6-foot-1 Charles leads the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks and is third in assists and steals. She made first-team All-Big Ten and, tellingly, delivered her three biggest scoring games against Maryland’s three highest-ranked opponents — South Carolina, UConn and Ohio State.

“She understands that we need her to show up big every night,” Confroy said. “And she’s had no problem taking on that role.”

Maybe it’s because she grew up as the baby in a house full of superb athletes and alpha personalities.

Her mother, Ruperta, ran the 4x400-meter relay for Antigua and Barbuda in the 1984 Olympics. Her father, Walter, was a soccer goalie from Trinidad and Tobago. The two athletes met and fell in love at Howard University, then proceeded to raise four children in Prince George’s County. Kaila’s older sister, Afia, ran track at Central Florida. Her brother, Akil, played college basketball in Nova Scotia.

And they all competed as fiercely in family games of UNO or Monopoly as they did in their respective sports. To make any headway in such a household, young Kaila had to shout.

“My whole family is loud. We’re always yelling at each other; it’s how we communicate,” Charles said, laughing. “We enjoy each other’s company, but sometimes, we also get annoying with our competitive nature. When we play simple games, it can get really heated.”

The Charleses did not push their children to play any one sport, but Walter sat them down every New Year’s Day and insisted they write out lists of goals for the coming year. Ruperta was not surprised when her youngest chose to dribble a ball rather than sprint around an oval.

“Kaila didn’t want to follow in her sister’s footsteps or in mine,” Ruperta said. “She wanted to do her own thing. That came very early on.”

Charles gravitated to the fiercest alpha dogs in the sport she loved — Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

But it wasn’t all survival of the fittest. Her siblings nurtured her as well. When she first showed a serious interest in basketball, Akil insisted that his friends let her into their pickup games. After years of battles with older boys, girls her own age seemed like easy pickings, and Charles emerged as a precocious local star at Eleanor Roosevelt High School. She led the team to consecutive state championships and earned All-Met honors from The Washington Post as a sophomore and junior. Then she transferred to Riverdale Baptist in search of better competition and was named a McDonald’s All American as a senior.

She even went to prom with future NBA No. 1 draft pick Markelle Fultz.

Such a talent in close proximity to College Park inevitably drew personalized recruiting attention from Frese. Charles had grown up watching the Terps on television and rooting for the likes of Kristi Toliver and Alyssa Thomas. But Maryland did not top her early list of college destinations. She yearned for a less familiar setting.

But she loved the effort Frese made to attend her games in person. As Charles’ trust in the Maryland staff deepened, the idea of staying at home started to feel more palatable. When she walked into Frese’s office after her junior year and said she was signing, the veteran coach leaped to her feet to whoop and holler.

“She’s just a winner,” Frese said. “Knowing those intangibles and what she was going to bring to College Park … we were elated.”

Frese knows talent, and her instinct on Charles was true. As soon as practice began last season, the freshman sought to guard Walker-Kimbrough, only one of the two or three deadliest wing scorers in the country. The pair also roomed together, so Charles received up-close lessons on what it meant to lead an elite college team. She saw how Walker-Kimbrough, already an All-American, found some way to work on her craft every day of the year.

“One good way to learn from the best players is to guard them,” Charles said. “She knew that I wanted to push myself, and I felt like I helped her as well, because she knew I never wanted to let off on a play. I feel like we really helped each other on and off the court.”

She was the team’s fourth or fifth scoring option most nights, and her performance was often a side note to the theatrics of her ebullient classmate, Slocum. But those who paid close attention saw the makings of a true two-way star, the rare player who could lead the team in scoring and guard the other team’s best player — from post to point guard — night after night.

That’s exactly what Charles has done this season.

Though still a sophomore, she’s an accepted leader who rallies the Terps both on the court and at social functions, such as team meals at her family’s home in Glenn Dale.

“I think I probably see what everyone sees,” her mother said. “She was thrust into being a leader, and she kind of brings them all together. She went to Maryland, not with a chip on her shoulder, but she wanted to be a starter and she wanted to win. So this is natural for her.”

It’s early still for Charles, and this year’s Maryland team isn’t as overwhelmingly talented as those from recent seasons. But if she maintains her trajectory, she’ll join Toliver, Thomas and Walker-Kimbrough among the players who’ve had their jerseys honored in the rafters at Xfinity Center. It’s telling that neither Charles nor Frese downplay that possibility.

“It’s definitely in her DNA, when you talk about the competitiveness,” Frese said. “She has it at the highest level.”

“It does cross my mind,” Charles said, her bright eyes tilting toward the ceiling of the arena.

Less clear is where she stands in the athletic pantheon of her family home. Her brothers still think they can beat her one-on-one. Her sister still thinks she’s the fastest.

“I’m still the youngest,” Charles said.

In other words, the competition, and the accompanying talk, won’t stop anytime soon.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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