Jayla Oden, a rising senior at McDonogh, made the decision of her life April 24, committing to Illinois to play basketball for third-year coach Nancy Fahey. Before it all came the grinding in McDonogh’s gym, competing to be the best in the Interscholastic Athletic Association of Maryland.
Oden competes in the IAAM A conference against the likes of St. Frances, Roland Park and St. Vincent Pallotti — previously going head-to-head with Division I talents such as Angel Reese (Maryland), Mir McLean (Connecticut) and Eniya Russell (South Carolina). Oden (15.2 points per game) was the fourth-leading scorer in the A Conference last season, trailing McLean (21.3), St. John’s Catholic’s Kayla Cooper (21.3) and Reese (18.6).
The 5-foot-9 point guard is ranked as the 31st player at her position in the country and a three-star recruit, per ESPN.
She’s unsatisfied with her accomplishments.
“I’m still working as a person and as a basketball player,” Oden said. “My job isn’t finished. I’m still trying to be No. 1 in my book. I’m No. 1 to others, but I’m not No. 1 in my book. I still have a lot of goals in life — graduate college and obviously to get player of the year and hopefully we have a senior season. I still haven’t gotten that yet, All-Metro Player of the Year — just the little things that I want to accomplish and going to college and accomplishing a bunch of different goals down there.”
Oden’s competitiveness doesn’t end on the court. She’s an excellent student with a 3.4 GPA. That type of commitment to excellence hasn’t been lost on Rosa Oden, who has seen her daughter strive to be the best all-around person that she can be.
“I’m extremely excited that she’s going to the University of Illinois,” Rosa Oden said. “Jayla has worked extremely hard both on the court and off of the court. The first thing that has always come for her is academics. She’s really hard on herself and she strives to get straight A’s as much as she can. Getting B’s for her is always like ‘Where’s the A? Where’s the 100%?’ Also, she works day in and day out.”
Oden first started her basketball journey in elementary school. Her father Steve Oden and her mother Rosa, supported her every step, beginning with her play at Woodlawn’s Edmondson Westview Recreation Council (Edreco) basketball league.
“As long as she worked hard and continue to love basketball, we would do whatever we needed to do as parents to make sure that she had all of the tools and things to become as successful as she wanted to be,” Steve Oden said. “Watching her grow the past couple of years has been tremendous — just sitting back and watching her put in all of the hard work day in and day out is rewarding on and off of the court.”
Steve Oden wanted his daughter to play baseball or softball, like he once did. But she decided to get out onto the court, proving to her father that she could be talented and excel at the game. She picked up a basketball, rode to the court with him and wanted to join in on a pickup basketball game with the local boys.
“‘She’s a girl,‘” Steve Oden recalled the boys saying. “I said, ‘So what, girls can’t play?’ They allowed her to play and at that time, she didn’t really have any fundamentals with basketball or have any concepts, but you could look at her and tell that she had some of the skills and things that you would like to see in a basketball player. Watching that, she fully committed to wanting to play.”
Jayla began working with Daryl Adams, a basketball trainer and the father of former Mount St. Joseph and current Portland Trail Blazers guard Jaylen Adams. Her training at the Rhythm Dribble facility in Laurel began at the age of 7 and has continued to this day.
The work was tough and she would become incredibly frustrated — including work on dribbling, passing, shooting and defense, over and over again. The frustration didn’t matter. She was eager to put in the effort. Oden and her family were able to stick to the process and use those practical skills on the court that she learned with Adams to be an elite player in her conference.
“She’s really skilled — she loves the game of basketball,” Daryl Adams said. “That’s the first thing — not like it, but love it. That’s the first thing that will show in her showing up for work. She puts her hard hat on and gets it done. Moving to the process cleanly, I think if she continues to do that, the college ball begins to simply itself and slow down. I think that once the college game slows down, then the sky is the limit. She can go as far as she wants to go because she has a base in hard work.”
When she first got into McDonogh’s program, Eagles coach Brad Rees loved her basketball IQ and athleticism. Since then, she’s developed, displaying a lead-by-example style of play and becoming more vocal.
Throughout the 2019-20 season, Oden battled asthma-related issues. Her team’s 19-7 record was good enough for a third-place finish in the IAAM, finishing with a 60.4 points per game, trailing just St. Frances (63.1). McDonogh allowed just 45.0 points per game and finished with the second-least points allowed after St. Frances’ 44.5.
The Eagles’ success is because of her ability to get her teammates involved to create shot opportunities and coach them up on the defensive end, according to Rees.
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“This junior year, she was just a different player and a different person — played at a higher level and made everyone around her better,” Rees said. “She’s always been a good player, but now she’s at the level and has the ability to make everyone around her better, too, which is a gift that a lot of great players don’t have. This is the year [junior year] where she really developed — I thought — as an all-around player.”
There is a great deal of respect between the coach and his star point guard with Rees holding her accountable and making her speak up as a leader. Oden recalls a time when “she was a quiet kid” as a freshman when “she never talked in practice” and didn’t say a thing during team drills and didn’t call for the ball.
“Throughout the years, he’s always told me to speak up, advocate for myself, call for the ball, tell your teammates if a screen is coming, tell your teammates if you’re switching — the little things,” Oden said. “Ever since I’ve attended McDonogh since my freshman year, I’ve become a better leader, a better advocate for myself. Through Coach Brad, he’s helped me the during the three years I’ve been playing basketball for him — outside of basketball.”
Oden understands that she might not play this season because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Her Amateur Athletic Union season was canceled and she fears that she might not have a senior season. She’s had that fear since the beginning of quarantine.
It hasn’t stopped her from making regular appearances at Rhythm Dribble or finding courts outdoors to shoot to develop her abilities and running a mile or two a day.
“Everything happens for a reason obviously,” Oden said. “You can’t really be sad about the situation, you just have to work around it. That’s what I’ve been doing — working out with my trainer in one-on-ones, that’s really nothing new. We’ve just been working on things that will get me ready for college. My trainer has always told me since last year — ‘We’re not working at the high school level, we’re working at the college level’. So, that way, when I step on that big stage.”