March 10, 2023 

‘It’s the Kaitlyn Show’: How Kaitlyn Chen went from Princeton’s X-factor to Ivy League Player of the Year

Chen is one of the most skilled players in the Ancient Eight — and one of the most joyful, too

There is an ever-present lightness to the way that Kaitlyn Chen plays basketball, even as the Princeton junior point guard shoulders the weight of leading a program that is a perennial Ivy League favorite. It starts each game with her introduction as a starter: She runs out onto the court, is hoisted into the air by a teammate, and smiles and waves to the crowd.

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“It’s from ‘The Lion King’!” she said, miming the liftoff. “You know, when they lift up Simba?”

During the game, too, Chen is often smiling, regardless of the scoreboard or the previous play. If she misses a free throw, for instance, she might react with a grin instead of a grimace. “In the most heated moments, she’ll always smile, because it’s just who she is,” head coach Carla Berube told The Next. “… She brings so much joy to our team.”

In her second season competing for the Tigers after her freshman season was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chen has grown from an X-factor into the leading scorer. For some players, making that leap can be difficult or even impossible. For Chen, who was recently named Ivy League Player of the Year, it’s looked effortless. She is averaging 15.4 points per game, up nearly 50% from last season, while also shooting more efficiently from the floor and increasing her assists. Most importantly, she’s done it all without letting expectations or pressure stamp out the joy she plays with on the court.

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As a 5’9 guard at Flintridge Prep in San Marino, California, Chen was a three-year captain and set school records for career points, rebounds and assists. She was recruited by former Princeton head coach Courtney Banghart, and she liked the program so much that she thought she might commit on her official visit in April 2019. But while she was there, Banghart accepted the job at North Carolina, and Chen pressed pause on a commitment.

Enter Berube, who had spent the past 17 years at Tufts and also coached with USA Basketball. She called Chen right after she took the job and spent much of the summer watching Chen play AAU. Berube saw “something different about Kaitlyn, something special,” even though she hadn’t yet watched much film of Banghart’s Princeton teams or the returning players to judge how Chen might fit.

Chen described herself as a drive-first player in high school, especially for Flintridge Prep, where she was relied on to score more than distribute. “Everything was really just to the basket and finishing at the rim,” she told The Next. Watching her in AAU, Berube noticed her ability and desire to play both ends of the court, her athleticism, and her strength — and how much fun she seemed to be having doing it all.

Chen became the No. 66 player in the class of 2020, according to espnW’s HoopGurlz rankings, and was one of only two Ivy League-bound players in the top 100. “She’s been our point guard basically since the day that she stepped on campus,” Princeton assistant coach Lauren Dillon said earlier this season on Princeton’s “Get Stops” podcast.

But Tigers fans would have to wait another year to see what makes Chen so special, as the Ivy League canceled the 2020-21 season due to COVID-19. Several Princeton players took the year off school to preserve their Ivy League eligibility, but Chen enrolled and was on campus in the spring, when the Tigers were cleared to do small-group activities. She worked out with Abby Meyers and Carlie Littlefield, two of the best Princeton guards in recent memory, and got a crash course in the Princeton defense.

“[Berube is] very particular and there are certain principles you have to get down, like always having your hand up or being in help,” Chen said. With plenty of time to work on fundamentals, the coaching staff put the players through lots of defensive drills. “That really sort of helped cement it in my mind, like these are things I always have to do,” she added, “and it sort of became more of a habit.”

Though Chen entered her first season of college play more prepared than most rookies, it still took time for her to settle in last season. In her first collegiate game at Villanova, she had seven turnovers and shot below 30% from the field. She didn’t become a starter until her 10th game, and things didn’t fully click into place until late in the Ivy League season.

Among the things Chen had to learn, Berube said, were how to defend without fouling and how to lead an experienced Tigers team. She had to develop her pull-up jump shot to complement her finishes at the rim, and she had to balance setting up her teammates and looking for her own shot. Late in the season, Berube and Dillon encouraged Chen to be more aggressive and score more — and when she took their advice, she started to realize just how effective it would be.

Overall, Chen averaged 10.5 points per game in 2021-22 on 43.4% shooting from the field, along with a team-high 3.2 assists per game. But in her final 10 games, she attempted three more shots per game than her season average, and her field goal percentage rose to 47.5% as she started to find success with her pull-up jumper and 3-pointer.

Chen became an X-factor for Princeton as the Tigers went undefeated against Ivy League opponents and upset Kentucky in the NCAA Tournament. In the Ivy League Tournament final against Columbia, Chen scored a career-high 30 points on 9-for-13 shooting, getting to the free-throw line 14 times, and won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award.

“She just wasn’t going to let whoever was guarding her stop her,” Berube said. “… When she saw daylight, she was letting it go.”

Chen spent last summer in Washington, D.C., interning at Children’s National Hospital and living with fellow Princeton point guard Maggie Connolly. She and Connolly played plenty of pickup and worked on their shooting, sometimes driving 45 minutes to an hour after work to find a gym. In particular, Dillon asked them to work on finishing short-range, wide shots over defenders, and with neither point guard being much of a shot blocker, Connolly and Chen set up a shooting machine and practiced finishing over the netting that extends above the rim to corral misses.

“[The netting was] just a little taller than anyone in women’s basketball,” Connolly told The Next with a laugh, “but I think it helped.”

This season, Chen is averaging a team-high 15.4 points per game on 48.9% shooting from the field after being the Tigers’ third-leading scorer as a sophomore. Much of her increased production has come at the rim: She is taking 31.1% of her shots at the rim this season, up from 19.6% as a sophomore, and making 64.1% of them, which ranks in the 81st percentile nationally. As a result, she is taking fewer shots four to 10 feet from the basket — but with the work she has put in on creative finishes and her pull-up jumper, she is much more efficient from there, making 51.9% of her attempts this season compared to 31.6% as a sophomore.

“I’m a lot more confident in my pull-up jumper now,” she said. “I was a little [at] the end of last season, but now I feel like I am a lot more confident in that.”

Beyond her scoring, Chen has become a better facilitator, too. Her assist rate is a whopping 28.7% while her turnover rate is just 16.2%. Both are much improved from last season, when the difference between them was just 2.3 percentage points. According to Her Hoop Stats, she is one of only five players in the country to achieve those assist and turnover rates while also shooting at least 48% from the field.

Chen often balances facilitating and scoring by trying to set her teammates up early in games but also recognizing when Princeton needs her to score. “She’s like, ‘Okay, now’s not the time [to defer]. I need to sort of turn it up a notch,’” Connolly said. “And she does, and it’s amazing to watch.”

Because of Chen’s versatility as a distributor and scorer, she can play on the ball at point guard or move to shooting guard when Connolly is in the game. Either way, with Chen on the court this season, Princeton has outscored opponents by 22.0 points per 100 possessions; with her on the bench, that margin shrinks to 12.3 points per 100 possessions.

“When you become the leading scorer, you’re gonna have to make the big shots in the big moments, and … she’s ready for the big moments,” Berube said. “… We’ve certainly put a lot more on her plate this season, and she’s done a great job. [I’m] really proud of how she’s stepped up for us and in so many ways.”

For Chen, though, the increased responsibility “doesn’t feel like that much of a shift.” She has noticed defenses being more aggressive with her, including trying to deny her the ball, being physical with her, and guarding her more tightly. But she tries to keep things simple and read what the defense is giving her, and her teammates and coaches always keep her confidence high and encourage her to shoot.

Classmate Ellie Mitchell, the Ivy League’s leading rebounder, is one teammate who is often in Chen’s ear. “She says, ‘Keep shooting your little pull-up jumpers. Those are so easy to rebound,’” Chen said. “When I hear stuff like that, then it just makes me feel more confident.”

That confidence has led to games like her past four: 20, 25, 18 and 27 points, each on better than 50% shooting at key moments in the Ivy League regular-season race.

“Kaitlyn Chen really got us going,” Berube told ESPN+ after the first of those games, at Brown on Feb. 17. Princeton had a relatively slow first half, but Chen went on a personal 11-0 run to spark a 33-2 third quarter for the Tigers that helped them clinch an Ivy League Tournament berth. “She’s really, really important to us.”

The following night at Yale, Chen had a then-season-high 25 points on 12-for-18 shooting and committed just one turnover. “I was sort of in a zone,” Chen said, “and in my mind, I was sort of like, ‘I think I can score when I want in this game.’”

The Brown and Yale games didn’t come down to the wire, but Chen showed what she could do in crunch time against Harvard on Feb. 24. Harvard had led for nearly the entire game, but two late baskets by Chen flipped the game from 47-45 Harvard with 2:44 to play to 49-47 Princeton with 19 seconds left.

The second basket was ultimately the game-winner, and it came off an offensive rebound by Mitchell. “I honestly thought she was just gonna go right back up with it,” Chen said, “… and then she sort of shoveled me the ball.” Chen stepped around a defender closing in on her and flipped up a short-range shot as she fell forward.

“Just Kaitlyn being Kaitlyn,” Berube said.

Chen capped the Ivy League regular season by scoring 20 first-half points at Penn on March 3 en route to a season-high 27. Princeton needed a win to clinch a share of the Ivy League title, and Chen kept the Tigers in it as her teammates scored only nine total points in the first half. (The Tigers then came roaring out of the locker room and wound up winning by 19.)

Among Chen’s first-half highlights: With the shot clock winding down early in the second quarter, she got the ball at the top of the key and drove into the lane. She shot a layup high off the glass and in, over 6’4 Penn forward Floor Toonders, much like she and Connolly had practiced all summer.

“She’s just been huge for us in so many games,” Berube told The Next ahead of the Penn game. “… There are a lot of times … where, all of a sudden, it’s the Kaitlyn Show for a bit, which is fun to watch.”

“I’ll be the first to say it’s basically impossible [to defend her],” added Connolly, who sometimes guards Chen in practice. “… Her first step is just so, so quick. And even if you’re there, she’s gonna shoot it over you. Her release is incredibly high for someone of her height. And she can elevate off the ground so high, so … she’s still getting any shots she wants off.”

On March 8, Chen was named the Ivy League Player of the Year and a unanimous First Team All-Ivy selection. She and her teammates found out in a meeting that also celebrated the Tigers’ four other All-League honorees. “We’re all jumping on her and she’s curled up in a ball hiding,” Connolly said. “Of course, she just wants to celebrate everyone else.”

Princeton guards Maggie Connolly, Kaitlyn Chen and Adaora Nwokeji run laps around the perimeter of the court. Connolly and Nwokeji look straight ahead, but Chen smiles and waves at the camera.
Princeton guard Kaitlyn Chen (center) waves to the camera as she and her teammates run warm-up laps at the Ivy League Tournament in Princeton, N.J., on March 9, 2023. (Photo credit: Ryan Samson, Sideline Photos)

Princeton’s regular-season title is its fifth in a row, and it will be the No. 1 seed for the Ivy League Tournament, held in its home gym. But this season looked different than the last two, when Princeton went undefeated in league play. This time around, the Tigers started 0-2 before reeling off 12 straight conference wins.

While Princeton has plenty of leaders with its five seniors and veteran starting lineup, Chen’s role has been critical to the turnaround. Not only is she the offensive focal point, but the exuberance she brings every day also keeps things fun for the Tigers.

“She plays with a lot of joy,” Berube told reporters after beating Dartmouth on Feb. 11, “and I think that rubs off on other people, too, and gets them playing at a really high level.”

Even in tough or pressure-packed moments, Chen said, she is happy to be playing basketball rather than nervous, and that’s what allows her to giggle after double dribbling in an NCAA Tournament game last season or stay calm when trailing late against Harvard.

“For the most part, I am having fun because, I mean, basketball is fun,” she said. “… When everyone’s really tense and stressed, I feel like we’re never really playing our best basketball. So I think just having that sort of positive energy [is important]. And it is generally a lot of fun to play with my best friends, too, so it’s hard to take away from that.”

Fittingly, when you ask Chen what her favorite thing is to do on a basketball court, she picks something that spreads the joy around.

“A great pass that really sets up my teammate, because I feel like that’s when you have the most fun,” she said. “… You’re sharing the basketball and then it’s like, I’m happy, you’re happy, we’re all happy. It’s just [a] good time.”

The Next’s Isabel Rodrigues, who is also a senior sports writer for The Daily Princetonian, contributed reporting for this story.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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