Kaila Charles spent almost every day this summer in the gym with the Maryland women’s basketball coaching staff, and when the daily workouts didn’t satisfy her cravings the Terrapins junior started scheduling two extra sessions a week with the personal trainer she’s had since high school.
To be sure, Charles had a lot to learn. She cycled through ballhandling drills designed for perimeter players, she practiced drawing double teams not while driving in the paint but far from the basket, and she trained her mind to read defenses more quickly than before. It was a summer’s worth of fine-tuning skills that all but laid dormant last year, when Charles’s role for the Terps was neatly defined: get to the basket and score.
“Now I have to learn how to get my teammates open and make my teammates better instead of trying to score every possession,” Charles said.
As Maryland kicks off what it hopes will be a resurgent season Friday against Coppin State, its alpha player has found herself occupying a new role.
Charles’s job last year was difficult and important but at the same time simple. She was the program’s leader and offensive engine, averaging a team-high 17.9 points per game (four points more than the next-leading scorer), not by choice but by necessity. Maryland was inexperienced and thin on consistent shooters.
This season, the junior’s task is more nuanced. The Terps have offensive threats all over the floor, and Coach Brenda Frese is no longer asking Charles to drive the offense all by herself.
What she’s asking for is something that requires a bit more gradation and a bit more maturity on Charles’s part. Frese is asking the Terps’ best player to lead by giving up the ball more.
“I spent a lot of time talking to her about, ‘Your scoring average is going to go down,’ ” Frese said Tuesday. “Her role for us this year has to change, and I spoke her to about Alyssa Thomas and how the best players out there make everyone better. She should be a stat-sheet stuffer when you talk about her ability to score and rebound and get steals and assists — we really just talked about rounding out her game to make the right play. She gets it. She’s a winner, she wants to win.”
Maryland, ranked No. 9 in the Associated Press preseason poll, is coming off a relatively down year in which it finished 26-8, its worst mark since the 2012-13 season, and was knocked out in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Terps shored up last season’s weaknesses by adding three critical elements to their lineup: size, three-point shooting and experience at point guard.
The Terps’ two freshmen forwards, Shakira Austin and Olivia Owens, measure 6-foot-5 and 6-4. Guard Taylor Mikesell won the nationally contested American Family Insurance three-point championship in spring and Sara Vujacic shot 45 percent from beyond the arc in her last season at junior college. Sophomore Channise Lewis has a season’s worth of experience running point.
That means Charles has been shifted, literally, out to the perimeter more often, where Frese hopes to expose mismatches, take better advantage of the 6-1 guard-forward’s versatility and put Charles in position to distribute the ball more if need be.
“We have so many more pieces offensively and defensively, so it’s knowing that team success is more important than scoring so-and-so points,” Charles said. “… It’s going to help me become a complete overall player in terms of learning how to pass better, learning how to read the defense, when to take my shot, to know when I need to pass it or when I need to slow down the offense.”
Frese said that becoming a complete player has a lot to do with Charles’s contributions off the court as well. The coach, entering her 17th year at Maryland, expects Charles to take a step back from scoring without sacrificing her leadership duties on a team that, despite its added experience, still skews young.
The Terps’ roster three freshmen, a transfer student and just one senior, Brianna Fraser. Frese is depending on Charles to use the voice she found as a sophomore last year, and more importantly, set the tone ahead of every game with her energy level.
Charles’s job is changing for the Terps. But in their preseason individual meeting Tuesday, Frese made it clear that the junior is still Maryland’s go-to player.
“We go as she goes. … She’s our voice on the court; she’s our voice in the locker room. She wants the responsibility,” Frese said. “We spoke after our first exhibition game; her energy wasn’t as high, and our team’s energy wasn’t as high. But the thing I love about her is she accepts that responsibility, and she got that leadership role at a young age when you talk about her sophomore year. She kind of had to groom herself in that role last year. But these last two years, in my opinion, it’s her team just with the responsibility we put on her shoulders.”
Charles didn’t blink when Frese explained the shifted role she would be inhabit as the team’s leader this season. She was a senior in high school at nearby Riverdale Baptist the last time the Terps went to the Final Four, and memories of watching that team drive her as she enters her second-to-last year in college. Charles is eager to do whatever the team needs.
“Last year we did have a young team, but I feel like we worked hard and made the best of our situation. This year, we’ve learned from our mistakes, we really didn’t lose that many people, and we’re just ready to work,” Charles said. “ … If we just keep building, keep working to build our chemistry, then we can get back to that Maryland standard.”