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Forward Kiah Gillespie brings transcendent talent to Terps women as season gets under way

Forward Kiah Gillespie brings transcendent talent to Terps women as season gets under way
Freshman forward Kiah Gillespie (1), a McDonald's All American, comes to Maryland with both post and guard skills that could provide the Terps with a unique weapon. (Courtesy of Maryland Athletics)

This preseason, Kiah Gillespie and Brene Moseley got to talking about music. Gillespie is a freshman on the Maryland women's basketball team, and Moseley a redshirt senior. Already, there was a generational divide.

Gillespie told Moseley about The Weeknd, an alternative-R&B sensation with lascivious lyrics and smooth-as-silk vocals. She gave Moseley her favorite tracks. Moseley was disappointed: She wanted something a little more old school, a little more soulful.

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"I've encouraged her to listen to Marv," Moseley, a professed oldies fan and Marvin Gaye evangelist, said at the team's media day last month. "She has yet to do that. That's just the youth in her."

Moseley should know by now: Basketball is changing, and so are the players at its highest levels. As an Age of Small Ball dawns in the NBA, a trickle-down effect is under way. The game has different values now. A forward who can rebound and defend and post up remains a commodity, same as it has been since the sport's early days.

But a forward who also can shoot 3-pointers and lead fast breaks and handcuff opposing guards — the kind of player James Naismith might have conceived of only in a science-fiction setting — has become like basketball's analog of the smartphone. Everyone wants one, and it's getting increasingly difficult to imagine life without.

"The game has definitely changed," coach Brenda Frese said. "The more positions you can play … you just have such a bigger ceiling."

This is the brave new basketball world into which Gillespie will step Saturday, a stretch-four starter for the No. 9 Terps in their season opener against Massachusetts Lowell. In the team's Oct. 31 exhibition opener against Division II Goldey-Beacom, starting over incumbent forward Malina Howard, a senior, Gillespie outrebounded junior center Brionna Jones (Aberdeen), Maryland's leading returning rebounder, and outscored junior guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, Maryland's leading returning scorer.

Both are preseason All-Big Ten Conference selections. Both describe Gillespie's game as if she should have been one, too.

Said Jones: "I know she's going to be something special going into the rest of the season."

Said Walker-Kimbrough: "Her basketball IQ is literally out of the water."

Hers was a development carefully cultivated. Levy and Martina Gillespie played in high school, coach the sport and gave Kiah (pronounced KUY-uh) her first basketball at age 3.

Kiah was always tall, but her parents never expected her to sprout to 6 feet 2. They treated her blossoming skill set accordingly: drills in the back yard, sanctioned dribbling around the house, some Amateur Athletic Union games against boys her own age, practice sessions with Levy's Capital Prep (Conn.) high school team and boys who were even older.

"When she started playing basketball, it was all about being a basketball player," Levy said in a telephone interview. "That meant dribbling and shooting and passing. It wasn't about a position."

Because the best players "can do everything," Levy said, he looked to the greats, so that he might imbue his daughter's game with some of their own, like basketball gene splicing. There was Magic Johnson, who saw the game in a way no one else did. There was Michael Jordan, a singularly gifted scorer and competitor. There was even Allen Iverson, another legend whose own gift, a peerless handle, detonated conventions.

Kiah heard all the anecdotes from her dad, tried all the moves he suggested she borrow. Still, she came up with her own modern hero, someone who "can do literally anything." He's big like her, too.

"Growing up, I was — I'm still — a really big LeBron [James] fan," Gillespie said. "And that's always what I wanted to be: undefined and hard to guard."

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Gillespie bristled, her father remembers, when others tried to say what she was and was not. As a freshman at Capital Prep, "she was pretty much told she was an interior player," Levy said.

By the end of a high school career in which she would be named first-team All-State three times; win back-to-back-to-back state championships; and collect scholarship offers from powers such as Tennessee, South Carolina and Maryland, Gillespie had evolved, her role now what she had envisioned.

"I was like a post guard, point forward," she said.

An awfully good one, at that. In her senior year, she averaged 31.2 points, 16.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. Taller defenders would be dribbled by. Shorter defenders would be taken to the paint. Said one opposing high school coach of Gillespie, only the second girls player from Connecticut to be named a McDonald's All American: "I can't think of anyone who can even come close to her in ability and versatility on the basketball court."

Gillespie's arrival in College Park has been heralded with wide-eyed comparisons. While her defense remains a work in progress, teammates and coaches have, independent of one another, likened her to Dirk Nowitzki, Carmelo Anthony, Elena Delle Donne and Candace Parker.

Walker-Kimbrough recalled one practice earlier this preseason with a smile, almost enviously.

"For me, I'm used to getting the rebound and going," she said. "And then it was weird to see her do it. And I was like, 'Oh.' So I was running the lane, and she can hit me with passes, doing things like that, having point guard skills, just being able to make plays."

Added Howard: "She practices like she can't be stopped offensively."

At Maryland, as in high school, she will not be asked to handle the ball as much as she once did. At one point, Frese, seeing Gillespie's perimeter proclivities surface, told her that to be the best player she could be, she would have to do more. That meant playing in the post more, which actually excites Gillespie, she insists.

"Of course, I'm not the Maryland point guard …" Gillespie said last month.

A reporter interrupted with a joke, which she echoed, grinning: "… not yet."

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