In college basketball, a certain caliber of talent is so rare that a program might only see such an athlete once every 20 years.
For Penn women’s basketball, that athlete is Kayla Padilla.
As a freshman making her collegiate debut this season, Padilla has rocketed to the top of the squad, the Big 5, and the Ivy League.
The Torrance, Calif. native has quickly become the highest scoring player for the Quakers (10-4, 0-1 Ivy), and even more, the entire Ivy League. Her impressive 273 total points across 14 games has her easily on top of the Ivy League by a margin of 43 points.
And the basketball world has noticed.
Padilla has racked up five Ivy League Rookie of the Week awards, most recently after scoring 27 points against Princeton earlier this month. She also has two Ivy League Player of the Week awards and was named the National Freshman of the Week by the U.S. Basketball Writers Association — an honor given to only three other Quakers in program history.
The mountain of statistics and recognition rings familiar for Penn women’s basketball. Padilla’s level of star power in her debut season has mirrored that of all-time program scoring leader, 2001 graduate Diana Caramanico.
Caramanico went on to score 2,415 career points for the Red and Blue and led the team to its first-ever Ivy League title and NCAA tournament game. By the end of her freshman season, Caramanico had amassed 10 Ivy League Rookie of the Week Awards and over 500 points, a trajectory that Padilla could easily follow in her debut season.
While Caramanico is a more historic comparison, of the four Ivy League Rookie titles awarded to freshman during his 11 year tenure, head coach Mike McLaughlin felt Padilla’s talent is most reminiscent of 2014 graduate Alyssa Baron. Unsurprisingly, Baron is the second all-time scorer in program history, ending her career at Penn with 1,806 points and an Ivy League title.
“The best comparison I have with [Kayla] is Alyssa Baron," McLaughlin said. “Kayla’s a little more creative with the ball and can really shoot the three right out of the gate as a freshman. There are a lot of similarities in terms of their impact but they’re obviously different players."
Padilla sits atop the League for three-point conversion, having hit an impressive 41 out of 94 attempts. The freshman is undoubtedly a scoring engine, whose presence is a huge driver of the team’s offensive success. Out of the eight games where she has put up more than 20 points, the Red and Blue have won six.
The Quakers' loss to Temple last week was the first game where Padilla scored in the single digits. Unsurprisingly, the Red and Blue struggled to create offensive momentum in the fourth quarter.
For such an offensive powerhouse, it’s only natural that the greatest area for growth for Padilla is her defensive game. Indicative of a greater focus for the entire team, Penn will look to refine its defensive play going into the Ivy League portion of the season.
“We’re asking Kayla to do so much on the offensive end as we develop defensive intensity," McLaughlin said. “So I’d like to see her be a little more active chasing balls down and rebounding the ball. But she’s really doing a phenomenal job given everything that we ask of her."
Padilla’s talent comes from a rich 14-year background of passion for the game. She first picked up a basketball at four years old and hasn’t put the ball down since. After competing throughout middle school, Kayla attended Bishop Montgomery High School and joined its successful program.
For three years, Padilla was coached by basketball veteran Noelle Quinn. A Bishop Montgomery alum herself, Quinn attended UCLA before a successful 12-year career in the WNBA.
After getting drafted as the fourth overall pick in the 2007 WNBA Draft, Quinn debuted with the Minnesota Lynx. She would also go on to play for the Los Angeles Sparks, Washington Mystics, and Seattle Storm. She returned to coach the Bishop Montgomery team late in her career, splitting her time as the head coach there during the WNBA offseason. It was Kayla’s sophomore year when Quinn first returned to the Lady Knights in a coaching role.
“I remember the first practice I walked in, and immediately [Kayla] caught my eye as far her talent and just how hard she was working," Quinn said. “I was still playing when I was coaching, and almost every day that first season we played 1-on-1 after practice just to get her competitive juices flowing and to challenge her in a certain way."
Padilla blossomed under Quinn’s leadership. Her impressive accolades in her short time at Penn are minuscule compared to what she racked up over her four years at Bishop Montgomery. Her senior year, she was a McDonald’s All-American nominee and was named the 2019 Daily Breeze Player of the Year, an honor awarded to only three other Lady Knights in program history. It was her competitive experiences at the high school level that set her up for such a dynamic transition to college play.
“I think playing those really competitive teams, and me being a captain three out of the four years taught me to deal with adversity early on and to help lead a team against other really great teams,” Padilla said. “I think that exposure to high-level play was instrumental in helping me be able to step into a competitive platform in the Ivy League.”
Over her four years Padilla amassed a whopping 1,907 points for Bishop Montgomery, good for third all-time in program history, just behind her coach’s 2,764 for first on the list.
“Since early on I thought of [Quinn] as a mentor, but now as I’ve gone off to college I’ve seen her more as a friend," Padilla said. “She’s actually the reason why I wear number 45 right now. Just to pay tribute to her and everything she’s done for me and how much she’s influenced me."
Quinn donned the number 45 for her entire career as a basketball player — from the court of Bishop Montgomery throughout her time in the WNBA — and it remains the only number to have been retired in Bishop Montgomery history.
It’s no surprise that Quinn sees herself in Padilla. She attributes Padilla’s astonishing success to her drive and fundamental willingness to work hard.
“Just a flat-out passion for loving basketball and just wanting to get better is where I can relate to Kayla, even though we’re a different generation,” Quinn said. “I think that’s the reason why she’s having such great success so early. She has that engine and motor. You’re seeing the product of someone who just puts her head down and works hard and obviously has done amazing things in that.”
Padilla’s attitude certainly reflects that sentiment. Despite the mountain of recognition she continues to receive, her only response is to keep working.
“She’s impacted us greatly and is learning from day to day what it takes to be a good player and a winning player and a program player," McLaughlin said. “She wants to be the best she can be and she wants to help Penn win as much as possible."
It’s an athlete of this incredibly rare caliber that will undoubtedly serve the Red and Blue as they take on the rest of the Ivy League.