October 10, 2022
‘She’s gonna take over’: How Penn’s Kayla Padilla is soaring on and off the court
The two-time First-Team All-Ivy player returns for her senior season with much more than basketball on her mind. That’s part of what makes her great.
For the first time in over a decade, Penn women’s basketball star Kayla Padilla didn’t get many workouts in with her trainer, Jared Lloyd, at home in California this summer. That was because she was in Chicago, interning for Google.
Padilla, a senior guard and a frontrunner for Ivy League Player of the Year in 2022-23, has been one of the best players in the conference since she stepped foot on campus three years ago. But, as the Google internship suggests, she didn’t get to where she is athletically by focusing solely on basketball. Instead, her ascent on the court has come as she has challenged herself off the court as well, in everything from academics to entrepreneurship to community outreach.
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Growing up in Los Angeles in the early 2000s, Padilla told The Next, “all the stars were aligned” for her to play basketball. In her Filipino culture, basketball is “a humongous thing,” and she got to see Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal star nearby for the NBA’s Los Angeles Lakers.
Padilla started playing basketball young, and though she was competitive, she played primarily for fun — and the extras. “It was more about the snacks for me,” she says. But around the fourth grade, she realized how big of a role basketball would play in her life when she traveled to a tournament by plane for the first time.
Padilla and Lloyd also started working together around that time, and Lloyd marvels at how similar Padilla was then to how she is now. She has always had a knack for making shots — especially going left — and she has consistently been hard-working, focused and professional. Lloyd estimates that she has been disengaged during a workout fewer than five times in their entire time working together.
“I think one of the biggest things about me is that I’m a self-starter,” Padilla says, “and I’m able to motivate myself and don’t need much external motivation.”
Playing primarily shooting guard, the 5’9 Padilla became a two-time all-state selection at Bishop Montgomery High School under head coach Noelle Quinn. But she got on Penn’s radar well before those honors rolled in because of her exploits with her AAU team, West Coast Premier. One of her teammates was current Colorado State guard Cailyn Crocker, and Crocker’s brother Camryn — a Penn men’s basketball alumnus — tipped off Penn women’s head coach Mike McLaughlin about Padilla’s talent.
From that recommendation, McLaughlin and his staff developed a strong relationship with Padilla starting in her sophomore season. That relationship ended up being a key reason why she chose Penn, but what truly made it “a no-brainer” for her was the off-the-court opportunities. She enrolled in Penn’s Wharton School, which has been the No. 1 undergraduate business program in Poets&Quants’ rankings for five straight years, and is studying finance and management.
“I knew that there would be more opportunities for me post-college than just basketball,” she says. “… So if I could set myself up in the best way possible to navigate a good career path through that, I think [that] was kind of the main priority.”
McLaughlin had had an inkling that Padilla would contribute right away for the Quakers after he watched her practice and play live during her senior year of high school. He quickly proved himself right, as Padilla started all 27 games as a freshman at Penn and led the team in minutes per game despite playing with veterans around her.
“They needed someone like Kayla,” McLaughlin told The Next. “… She could create a shot. She could score all different ways: She can get to the basket, she can shoot the three, she can pull up. She can get you open; she can get me open. …
“She was the perfect fit at the perfect time.”
As a freshman, Padilla averaged 17.4 points and 2.4 assists per game while shooting 39.9% from 3-point range. She was named the Ivy League Rookie of the Year and a First-Team All-Ivy selection, and Penn finished second in the league with a 10-4 conference record.
After the COVID-19 pandemic prompted the Ivy League to cancel the 2020-21 season, Padilla led the conference in scoring last season at 18.5 points per game and earned another First-Team All-Ivy nod. According to McLaughlin, she improved her range, her strength and her first step from her freshman year. She also took on more ball-handling responsibilities with the graduation of point guard Kendall Grasela and ranked third in the league last season with 4.2 assists per game.
“It was a pretty big learning curve just because I think being the point guard on a college level requires a really higher IQ of the game [and] a greater sense of ball security and knowing the personnel of your team,” says Padilla. “… But I think it’s something I’ve really kind of embraced and adapted into, especially last season.”
Overall, Padilla was one of the most efficient offensive players in the country last season, ranking in at least the 93rd percentile nationally in offensive rating, assist rate, turnover rate and offensive win shares. That was despite ranking in the 99th percentile in shot attempts per game and being circled in Sharpie on opponents’ scouting reports. McLaughlin attributes Padilla’s efficiency to the fact that she always practices at game speed, and Lloyd credits her shot selection and team-first mentality.
“She’s one of the most selfless scorers I’ve ever seen and ever trained and coached,” Lloyd, who has trained players for over 20 years, told The Next. “Meaning, she wants to win,” whether that looks like having 36 points against Memphis in November or five points and 11 assists against Brown in February.
“When you see a kid that already comes in with some of them tools and then is able to blossom, mature, grow,” McLaughlin says, “I mean, what else can you ask for?”
As Padilla has flourished on the court, she has also expanded her reach and come into her own off the court. Her off-court endeavors are all passions of hers, and many are things that she created from the ground up, quietly at first but more loudly as of late.
“There’s a lot of layers to me just besides basketball,” Padilla says, “and I feel like I’ve been way more comfortable within the past year of kind of just making that a little bit more public.”
In April 2020, Padilla founded The Sideline Post, a website for college athletes to tell their stories in the model of The Players’ Tribune. Her goal was to show the human side of college athletes and their lives outside of sports — a cause she has been passionate about since high school. She admitted in her own Sideline Post article that she had been “hesitant” to launch the platform because she feared being told that she should stick to basketball. But she has since published stories by nearly 50 athletes in a dozen sports, and she now calls the effort “one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had.”
Padilla has also impacted younger athletes in her hometown by staying connected to Lloyd and his company, HomeCourt Edge. During COVID-19 shutdowns, Padilla juggled finance and marketing internships with helping Lloyd run weekly classes for kids, first virtually and then in person. She also showed up early and stayed late to talk with the participants, aiming to uplift them during a challenging time.
Padilla then partnered with Lloyd on a merchandise line after the NCAA changed its rules last summer to allow college athletes to profit off of their name, image and likeness (NIL). She designed the logo herself, drawing inspiration from the Filipino flag. “[When] we came out the gates, them things was selling everywhere,” Lloyd says. “We had sweatshirts, hats and hoodies and everything.”
The result was evident when Penn played in Los Angeles last November. Not only were “hundreds of people” there to watch Padilla, by McLaughlin’s estimation, but many of them were decked out in her merchandise.
“It’s not a monetary thing” for Padilla, Lloyd says. “… It’s more like she just wants to impact and empower the kids that are watching her and looking up to her.”
Padilla doubled down on that by sponsoring one of Lloyd’s travel basketball teams. The team wore her logo, she mentored the players from afar, and she even provided financial aid for players who couldn’t afford the program costs.
This summer, Padilla added a Google internship and coding skills to her resume. As part of Google’s large customer sales team, she learned about the company’s advertising and marketing efforts — and she also created a TikTok account to show others what it’s like to intern with Google. In her free time, she taught herself to code so she could launch another website, Springsteen Heardle. It’s a spin-off of a popular online game, Heardle, in which players guess the song from a short audio clip, and it exclusively uses songs by one of her favorite artists.
“I’m a huge Bruce Springsteen fan,” Padilla says, adding that she took a class during her sophomore year at Penn about Springsteen’s music. “… It’s been fun to venture and lean into that side of who I am more so this summer.”
Padilla downplays the coding she had to learn to create the Heardle (and subsequent Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stones iterations) by saying that she was “down to learn anything that was required” to pursue her vision. But as her vision of what she is interested in and able to juggle keeps growing, the people around her are appreciating how rare it is.
“I think whatever it is in life she wants to do, Lord willing, she’s gonna be successful because she has the drive and the determination,” Lloyd says.
“This is a kid that’s the true student-athlete. She’s taken advantage of every opportunity that the Ivy, Penn, Wharton … has to offer,” adds McLaughlin. “She’s so well-rounded off the court, which then translates on the court. …
“Whatever she decides to do, she’s gonna take over.”
For McLaughlin and Lloyd, Padilla’s individual success this season is almost a foregone conclusion, regardless of how opponents try to slow her down. She, too, expresses faith that her production will come if she focuses on the right things — namely, the process over the results.
The bigger question is, will Padilla get to play in the postseason for the first time in her career? COVID-19 wiped out the Ivy League Tournament in 2019-20 and Penn failed to qualify last season, giving Padilla one more chance to make a March run in a Quaker uniform. Her Player of the Year hopes could also hinge on that question.
Heading into this season, McLaughlin challenged Padilla to improve her defense and rebounding and be a more vocal leader for a relatively young Penn roster. She has long led by example, including by being extremely coachable, rarely making the same mistake twice, and always looking coaches in the eye as they deliver feedback. She has spoken up more over the years, but McLaughlin is asking for more still, knowing that the Quakers will go as far as Padilla leads them.
“A sign of greatness is bringing the others along with you,” he told her this spring. “Be very direct with people in terms of what your expectations are.”
Though Padilla was away from her teammates this summer, she still sought to do whatever she could to be a better leader. “I think leadership is also kind of a very introspective sort of thing, too, in just recognizing the ways I can improve individually … whether that be getting smarter, having a deeper understanding of our playbook, or just going back and watching film,” she says. “Things like that, that I can control myself … [were] the biggest focus.”
McLaughlin saw an improvement even before official practices started this fall. “I do see someone that’s a little bit more direct,” he says. “… And I haven’t seen Kayla not succeed in something since I’ve had her. So I would bet my money on it: She’s gonna leave as a great leader here.”
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When Padilla graduates, though, she won’t close the door on her athletic career quite yet. She has one year of eligibility left from the canceled 2020-21 season that she can use outside the Ivy League, and she plans to pursue a master’s degree while playing her final collegiate season.
For some players, combining basketball with internships, NIL deals, community involvement and two websites would be overwhelming. But in Padilla’s case, all of those activities contribute to her success because they help her keep the sport in perspective.
“I’m able to sort of realize that basketball, at the end of the day, is just a game and … it can be used as a vehicle to do something greater,” she says.
Padilla has already used basketball to help her leave a broader legacy, from inspiring youth to questioning stereotypes about college athletes. And now she has one more season at Penn to cement her legacy on the hardwood, too — not that anyone needs much convincing.
“I’m just going to enjoy coaching her,” McLaughlin says, “[for] as long as they let me.”
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.