Leila Washington has gone from a student as a freshman to a teacher as a sophomore for the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart of Princeton basketball team. Courtesy photo
Leila Washington has gone from a student as a freshman to a teacher as a sophomore for the Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart of Princeton basketball team. Courtesy photo
" People seeing her in the hallways and the cafeteria are just drawn to her. She takes advantage of that to spread goodness around her. " Justin Leith Stuart basketball coach

Leila Washington has had quite a metamorphosis over the past year, going from a girl who watched and learned as a freshman to someone who is providing the lessons one year later.

The Stuart Country Day School of the Sacred Heart sophomore is the leading scorer on the Tartans girls basketball team with a 15.3 average through a 5-3 start. Last year, the Old Bridge resident played in just nine of 13 games and averaged just over one point per contest.

But with the Princeton school graduating seven seniors, including a slew of talent, someone had to step up this year – and Washington has done it admirably.

“Leila was on a team with four Division One players and two of them were guards last year, so she was going up against them in practice every day,” coach Justin Leith said. “She played a little here and there; this year she was tossed into a leadership role.”

Leith added that “She has a great attitude. She was very quiet last year; this year she’s super vocal. She’s helping some of the younger freshmen, and even the older kids because she’s the best athlete on the floor, usually. She’s looked to for a bunch of different reasons.”

Washington has always been a top-level player coming up through the Old Bridge recreation and travel programs, and then with her Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams. While she wasn’t accustomed to playing a reserve role as a freshman, Leila made the most of it and learned from some top-flight players.

“They helped me a lot,” she said. “They helped challenge me to push myself. Obviously, they were more experienced. They just helped prepare me better mentally as well as physically.”

Knowing her time would come, Washington remained patient and geared up for a bigger role this season.

“I knew a lot of the older girls were going away,” she said. “I knew there would be a lot of inexperienced players this year, so I would have to step up in some way.”

Washington has done just that. Aside from being the team’s leading scorer, she also leads in assists (32), rebounds (60), blocked shots (10) and steals (23). Despite standing 5-foot-8, her defensive ability is such that Leith has her defend the other team’s best offensive player, saying “It doesn’t matter if she’s 6-4 or 5-2 – Leila has the ability to guard them.”

As for her offense, she is primarily a guard but will do whatever is needed.

“She has a great skill set,” Leith said. “She can shoot the ball and she can get to the rim extremely well. She was even doing that in practice last year, which is impressive [for] being so young. She plays all over. We’re very small this year and she can play any position.”

Washington decided on attending Stuart after a recommendation from a travel coach. She saw a good academic environment as well as how the basketball program improved, and she felt it would be a good all-around fit.  

Washington also grinds away in the classroom and on the court with equal zeal.

“I work on everything – dribbling, shooting, a lot of point guard stuff … I know this year I’m gonna be the one bringing up the ball, so I try to work on some of the point guard skills,” Washington said. As for her ability to score, she said, “I’m very confident driving to the basket. I have good and bad games shooting from the perimeter, but recently I’ve become more consistent from the three-point line.”

Washington had three games in which she scored 20 or more points and hit two 3-pointers in two of them. She also had two treys in a 17-point outing. 

As for her defense, Washington feels it’s just a matter of working hard.

“I always just try my best whenever we’re on defense,” she said. “This year we really key on defense. It’s one of our keys for success.”

Washington’s stellar season is impressive, considering where she stood just one year ago with the usual freshman growing pains.

“I think there was a learning curve,” Leith said. “She struggled a little bit, part of that was with COVID shutting us down at times. But the pace of the game was much faster than she was used to coming out of eighth grade, and with her kind of being thrown in there.”

But she was constantly paying attention to the upperclassmen.  

“She was like a sponge,” Leith said. “She always had a great relationship with the other girls and was able to learn. I thought by the end of the season she was able to improve significantly, so I was looking forward to this year with her.”

It was well worth the wait.  

“You could just see it,” the coach continued. “She had tremendous athleticism. ... Last year she would disappear for a while, then suddenly, she would do something super explosive on the offensive side, and then she would disappear again. This year she’s put together more of those explosive moments.”

And while basketball is a huge passion for Washington, it’s not her only interest in life. She is a member of Stuart’s Black Student Union and is in a club called Seeds to Sow.

“Basically, we’ll come together every Thursday and look at current issues in the Black community and sometimes we’ll share with the rest of the school about the history and education,” she said of the student union. “In Seeds to Sow we help girls in Kenya raise money for their education. I just thought it was really a cool thing.  I just thought, ‘why not do it?’”

Washington’s concern for such issues is no surprise to her coach, who feels Leila is a strong ambassador within the school.

“She’s just a good human being,” the coach said. “She’s a great kid, a well-rounded kid. As a member of our community … she’s multi-faceted – she’s not just a basketball player. She’s involved in different clubs, she’s an excellent student academically, and people seeing her in the hallways and the cafeteria are just drawn to her. She takes advantage of that to spread goodness around her.”