Canadian star Aaliyah Edwards proud to be part of a growing community of women’s basketball

Canadian star Aaliyah Edwards proud to be part of a growing community of women’s basketball

As the WNBA begins training camps this week, the excitement of new stars rising is in the air and on the court. The MedStar Performance Center in Washington, D.C. is the practice facility of the Washington Mystics and Canadian basketball star Aaliyah Edwards’s new team.

The celebrated forward, who played her college ball at the University of Connecticut under storied women’s coach Geno Auriemma, is being warmly welcomed her new city. She threw the first pitch at a Nationals MLB game and also helped lead cheers for the Washington Spirit, the local NWSL team.

Born in Kingston, Ont., Edwards was recently drafted sixth overall by the Mystics in the WNBA draft. And in just a few months, the 21-year-old will head to France with the women’s national team for the Paris Olympics. 

This is a big years for Edwards, from making it to the Final Four with UConn in one of the top-viewed college basketball games in history, to being a top draft pick for the WNBA, to representing Canada on sports’ biggest stage.

Edwards said that since her freshman year, she has felt the growth of women’s basketball, which she refers to as community. 

“I’m just so grateful to be a part of it and impacting it,” she said with her wide trademark grin. “I feel like I’m not only acknowledging those that came before me and just trying to keep pushing that way, pushing that momentum of bet on women, but also, you know, paving the way for those coming behind me.

“Because I’m kind of opening up new doors and opportunities for the next generation.” 

WATCH: Edwards on inspiring the next generation:

Aaliyah Edwards on getting drafted and inspiring the next generation

The Canadian forward was recently drafted 6th overall by the Washington Mystics.

Edwards speaks with so much humility, despite her accomplishments and being so recognizable because of her bright yellow braids and the face mask she wears when she plays. Edwards broke her nose in 2022 and has worn the mask ever since. It hasn’t affected her performance.

She averaged 17.6 points per game, 9 rebounds, made 74 per cent of her free throws, finishing her NCAA with more than 1,000 points. She’s tactical on defence and commits to the play and her team with such tremendous intensity and force. Those attributes and undeniable skills have put her on the map as she was named Most Improved Player and was a semifinalist in voting for the Naismith Player of the Year award.

Her might on the court coupled with the face equipment reminds one of a young Christine Sinclair, who similarly had to protect her face after breaking her nose. And like Sinclair, Edwards holds her country and her family close to her heart. 

During an interview at the draft, WNBA reporter Holly Rowe asked Edwards about what it means to her that Canada was cheering her on. Edwards emotionally acknowledged the efforts of her family, most particularly her mother who coached her. During her exchange with Rowe, which admittedly also had me in tears, Edwards said she was hopeful that in following in her footsteps, young players in Canada would make their own impact. I asked her about that moment.

“First of all, I’m not sure how many words I actually got out during my interview with Holly because I was crying and choking up through half of it,” she said with a laugh. “I said a little prayer, like, you know, God got me. I’m just appreciative of all the blessings he’s given me leading up to this point.

“And [when WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert] called my name, that’s when the tears went and the embrace with my family, each one of my family members, my teammates and also my college coaches there.”

Her UConn teammates, including Paige Bueckers and Nika Muhl, stood cheering and filmed her entire draft moment like proud parents. The moment went viral.

Edwards being so openly affected by the moment was touching.

“It was a lot of emotions, a lot of emotions for sure,” she said. “But I think it was … just relief. Like I’ve always dreamed of this moment of playing professional basketball and playing in the W. It was amazing.”

Edwards feels that to be a part of the basketball community in Canada and be an advocate for it is important and necessary. She is fully aware of her position as a role model and showing young Canadian ballers how greatness lives here, too. The only downside Edwards admits to while being away from Canada is missing ketchup-flavoured chips (not available in the U.S.) and real maple syrup — two staples of the Canadian diet.

“I’ve tried to put my UConn team onto that,” she said. “I definitely miss that the most since I’ve been here. I’m trying to convert some people, so we’ll see how that goes. “

National teammate Kia Nurse, a fellow UConn alum, said Edwards’s impact has been felt on the national team from a young age. She debuted on the senior team at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021. Nurse predicts that Edwards will be a part of the Canadian team for a while.

“For us to have success on the world stage we have to have our best players,” Nurse said. “And Aaliyah is a big part of our group.” 

As far as the expectations for these Olympics go, Edwards is ready to do whatever the team needs her to do. She had just completed her freshman year of college when she made her Olympic debut, but this time she feels more prepared in her mental game.

“My first Olympics, I was the youngest on the team, and I was kind of new to that whole play and in that whole Olympics environment,” she said. “I think now, understanding the process of actually qualifying for Olympics and going through all that with the senior women’s national team, I understand the stakes of what each game comes to.”

She plans to take her competitiveness and raise it to an Olympic level. Raising her game is something that Edwards does exceptionally well. 

But not everything has been seamless for Edwards. In March, she was named as an Adidas athlete and joined the ranks of PWHL player Sarah Nurse, who promotes the global sports brand. But being Canadian and on a student visa, it prevented Edwards from utilizing the “Name, Image and Likeness” agreement in the U.S.

As an international student, she was only permitted to benefit in a “passive way” from her agreement and that meant not being able to speak of it publically while in school, which can be confusing to navigate with an often relentless sports media asking questions.

Now, as a professional player, Edwards can actively promote being part of the Adidas brand, which will also amplify her popularity. Edwards feels it’s a sign that her circle is expanding and she “feels the love.” Being part of that elite group is like a sisterhood, she explained. She feels this next step aligns with her values and she’s proud because the other athletes are like-minded.

“Just to be surrounded by competitive, driven women … it’s just great for me,” she said.

Although she hasn’t had a chance to speak with Nurse face-to-face, Nurse did send her some messages. Edwards is cognizant of the ones who are already there, just ahead of her and how she can lean on them and ask questions for guidance.

“Not necessarily compare myself to,” she said, “but just kind of elevate to the level that they’re at.”

There’s no doubt Edwards is ready for the next chapter. Her family and community have poured into her and it shows. I can’t wait to see her star rise, hopefully with a hint of maple syrup attached.

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