By R.L. Bynum
From her days as a kindergartener, taller and better than everybody on a team of second-graders, Laila Hull has played beyond her years.
She already had two scholarship offers by September of her ninth-grade year, when it was evident that coaches recognized her potential early.
The 6–1 wing from Zionsville, Ind., northwest of Indianapolis, is part of the talented four-player incoming freshman scholarship group Coach Courtney Banghart will welcome to Carolina next month.
“I was really surprised,” Hull said of those early offers from Valparaiso and Miami of Ohio. “It was a really good feeling for me, and things only really went up from there. I knew since then that I would be able to play D1 and be able to do really good things with basketball.”
That was when she stopped running track and focused on becoming the best basketball player she could be. Hull led Zionsville Community High School to a 20–3 record last season, averaging 22.4 points, making 42% of her 3-point attempts and becoming the first player in school history to win Indiana Miss Basketball honors.
“It’s a huge honor,” Hull said. “I feel like that’s the highest honor you can get as a girls basketball player in the state. To be able to do that and represent Zionsville and all that they have done for me, it’s super-important.”
Hull shot 52% from the floor last season and averaged 8.3 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.4 steals and 1.3 blocks. Although she was the tallest player on her team, that last number isn’t what you might expect from a wing player. But she is versatile, quick and does a little bit of everything.
“On the defensive end, I’m usually guarding the best player, so I’m having more opportunities at the rim to make those type of plays like blocks,” said Hull, who swatted four shots in a 45–31 win Jan. 31 over Westfield. “So, I think that’s probably part of it. I never really played center unless I had the smaller person on me, and that was a good matchup.”
Hull, who patterns her game after Candace Parker and Breanna Stewart, raised money for breast cancer research tied to her free throw total, and made 125 in 23 games last season.
She scored a career-high 36 points in Zionsville’s 68–62 victory Nov. 8 over Lawrence North, the alma mater of UNC men’s basketball great Eric Montross. It was the first win over that rival in years.
“It was an intense game,” Hull said. “I’ve always felt like we were better than them. But, for some reason, that was the one game that we could never pull out. It was a really good team performance by us. I don’t think I really realized how many points I had until I looked up at the scoreboard.”
That was one of 16 games with at least 20 points last season for Hull, who stayed consistent despite battling a subluxated shoulder she’s finally overcome. Hull had nine double-doubles, including 20 points and 17 rebounds Nov. 22 over Fishers High School in a 51–49 win.
“I don’t really confine to one way of scoring or one way of doing anything on the court. I can score on all three levels and defend as well. I would just describe myself as a very versatile player,” said Hull, who can defend a player of any size or quickness on a switch. “I have to often guard the post if I’m the biggest person on the floor or have to guard the guard if really needed. I’ve had a lot of experience having to do that.”
Hull, also the Gatorade State Player of the Year, will be the second Indiana Miss Basketball to play at UNC after Stephanie Mavunga, who transferred to Ohio State after her sophomore season, won it in 2013.
Hull beat out five-star UConn recruit Ashlynn Shade, No. 15 in the Class of 2023, for the honor. The two former AAU teammates will team up again for the Indiana All-Stars against the Kentucky All-Stars in games in Owensboro, Ky., on June 9 and Indianapolis on June 10.
As Miss Basketball, Hull will have the honor of wearing No. 1.
She wore No. 42 at Zionsville because her preferred No. 4 wasn’t available, and her dad wore 42 in the CFL. Lee Hull, who played at Holy Cross and won a Grey Cup with Winnipeg in 1990, became the head football coach at Delaware State in December. Her brother Jordan was a wide receiver at Lafayette College for four seasons.
That season as a kindergartener was in Maryland because her dad — the MEAC Coach of the Year in 2014 with Morgan State — was the wide receiver coach at the University of Maryland for six years.
“Everybody just assumed I was a second grader because of how tall I was,” Hull said. “I made one of the best teams. They finally asked how old I was. They were like, ‘yeah, she’s in kindergarten,’ and they were like, ‘what?’ They let me stay on the team, I guess because I was tall enough and I was good enough.”
Being the daughter of a football coach can mean moving a lot. Her family moved to Indiana as she went from middle to high school when her dad became wide receiver coach for the Indianapolis Colts.
When he took the offensive coordinator job at Howard in 2020, her mom stayed with her in Indiana so Hull could finish high school in Zionsville.
“It was a bit of a difficult decision,” said Hull, who will finally wear the No. 4 jersey at UNC. “I found a really good group of friends and community, as well as basketball, in Zionsville. So they were like, ‘No, we’re going to try to keep you here and let you grow and finish out your high school seasons.’ So, it’s been hard on my parents, for sure, for them having to be that far apart. But they did that for me, which I’m really grateful for.”
Hull is Zionsville’s all-time leading scorer (1,668 points), second in rebounding (754), third in steals (227), and led the Eagles to 57 wins over four seasons.
Assuming no conflict with UNC’s schedule, she’ll circle Nov. 18 on her calendar. That’s when her dad’s Hornets will play a few miles from Carolina’s campus at N.C. Central.
When UNC coaches began recruiting Hull in May 2021, she said they set clear expectations.
“They were never dishonest with me about their intentions,” Hull said. “And they were always very clear about what they wanted from me and how my recruitment with them would go.”
The Tar Heels kept recruiting Hull, but a year passed with no scholarship offer. She said the staff told her how she needed to improve her game and the areas where she needed to focus.
“They stuck with their word, and once I was able to show them and prove to them that I was good enough, they eventually offered,” Hull said. “Everything they said about my game also has been correct, and just the way I had to improve in certain areas has really helped me.”
Carolina offered her a scholarship in July 2022. Hull says that the improvements in her game that led to the offer were her outside shooting and court vision.
“Just my basketball IQ, making the right decisions and being able to knock down shots more consistently for sure,” said Hull, whose cousin Kendall Toney played basketball at UNCG from 2006 to 2010. “Consistency has been something that I’ve been working on for a while and has greatly improved since my junior high school season.”
After she made 27% of her 3-point attempts as a freshman and 32% in her sophomore year, she fell to 11% as a junior before making a career-high 42% last season.
“I knew that was something I definitely had to get better at if I wanted to get recruited at a higher level,” she said of perimeter shooting. “So, I spent a lot of time with my AAU coach and my trainers and, eventually, my shooting just got a lot better.”
Read about UNC’s other scholarship freshmen
Five-star forward Ciera Toomey
— Big-time UNC recruit Toomey’s love for Carolina, the state stoked years ago during Pinehurst golf trip
— Five-star UNC recruit Toomey leads team to state title 10 months after ACL surgery
Four-star point guard Reniya Kelly
— Dynamic UNC guard recruit Reniya Kelly won first of four state titles at age 12; at 7, ‘Broadway’ wanted to be great
Four-star forward Rylee Grays
— Funny off court, intense on court, 4-star Grays will give UNC versatile skills for 6–3 player
Hull committed in October, picking the Tar Heels over Boston College, DePaul, Marquette and Maryland.
“When I got to campus, it was kind of a no-brainer,” said Hull, who has a 3.88 GPA. “Everything around me, it felt like home, and the players were super, super nice and welcoming. And I just felt like I could really get along with them. Their academics are also really good. It’s one of the best public universities in the country. So, there was really no way to go wrong with Carolina.”
She visited the weekend Carolina was supposed to scrimmage South Carolina (it was canceled because of UNC injuries). She was in Chapel Hill for Carolina’s 61–59 loss to eventual Final Four team Virginia Tech while visiting her aunt and cousin who live in North Carolina.
Hull will be one of eight newcomers to the program: three other highly touted freshmen (five-star forward Ciera Toomey, four-star forward Rylee Grays and four-star point guard Reniya Kelly, also a Gatorade Player of the Year), three transfers (center Maria Gakdeng from Boston College and guards Indya Nivar from Stanford and Lexi Donarski Iowa State) and walk-on freshman guard Sydney Barker.
“We’ve been talking a lot recently, just because of all the stuff that we have to do just to get ready for our freshman year,” Hull said of interaction with her fellow incoming freshmen. “So, we’re all kind of just figuring everything out together. And it’s really nice. Also, like they’re very great girls.”
Despite losing five players (three to graduation and two who transferred), there promises to be plenty of competition for — and Hull says no promises of — playing time.
“She never guarantees people playing time,” Hull said of Banghart. “But she was basically saying if you work hard enough, if you show that you can do what we need to do, obviously you will get playing time.”
When she’s on the court, Hull expects to play a wing position like former Tar Heel Kennedy Todd-Williams, who is transferring to Ole Miss, while looking up to a veteran like senior Alyssa Ustby.
After being the tallest player on her high school team, it will be quite a contrast at UNC with six taller teammates — 6–2 senior Anya Poole, 6–3 Gakdeng, 6–3 Grays, 6–4 redshirt sophomore Teonni Key, 6–4 senior Alexandra Zelaya and 6–4 Toomey.
“When I went on my visit to UNC, I was like, ‘oh my gosh,’ ” Hull said. “It’s not that I didn’t expect it, but I didn’t really realize how much taller they are than me. It was a weird experience for me. It’ll be different, but definitely not anything bad. They have true posts on the team. Honestly, I’m not a true post. It’s just different.”
Judging from the arc of her basketball career, going back to a young age, Hull will be up for any challenges she faces at Carolina.
Here is Carolina’s projected roster with their class for next season listed.
|RS Soph.||Kayla McPherson||PG||5–8|
|RS Soph.||Teonni Key||F||6–4|
|Sophomore||Indya Nivar (Stanford)||G||5–10|
|Senior||Lexi Donarski (Iowa State)||G||6–0|
|Junior||Maria Gakdeng (Boston College)||C||6–3|
|ESPN rank||Incoming freshmen||Pos.||Height|
|30th||Reniya Kelly (4 star; Alabama POY)||PG||5–7|
|Laila Hull (Indiana POY)||W||6–1|
|90th||Rylee Grays (4 star Alabama POY)||F||6–3|
|4th||Ciera Toomey (5 star)||F||6–4|
|Sydney Barker (walk-on)||PG||5–7|
|Class of 2024|
|26th||Blanca Thomas (5 star)||C||6–5|
|Class of 2025|
|20th||Lanie Grant (5 star)||G||5–9|
|College careers over||Pos.||Height|
|Kennedy Todd-Williams (Ole Miss)||W||6–0|
|Destiny Adams (Rutgers)||F||6–3|
Top photo via @ZionsvilleGBB; shooting photo by M. Dubrian photo; defense photo by Thomas Herlt media