Aaliyah Edwards has next — and she's ahead of schedule
It’s hard to miss Aaliyah Edwards when she's on the court. With purple and yellow braids dyed in honour of her late hero Kobe Bryant, she stands out from a glance, but what really excites teammates and coaches is her physicality, how she makes her opponents feel her. At 6-foot-3 with great athleticism, she bruises her way to rebounds and easy shots at the rim. Her game is all about assertion. Even as a high schooler playing alongside WNBA professionals and players twice her age on Team Canada's senior team in 2019, she never looked much out of place.
Within the Canada Basketball program, Edwards is being groomed as a possible star for years to come. Lisa Thomaidis, Canada's head coach, feels the sky is her limit. In her first season with the University of Connecticut, the No. 1 team in the nation, she’s already emerging as a key rotational player and a building block for the program’s future. In the most literal sense, her impact is felt.
“I love how aggressive she is with UConn. She’s picking up a ton of offensive fouls,” Thomaidis laughs, “but that's okay, I love to see that. It just means she wants to get in there. She’s not afraid.”
Although she’s proven that she can hang and bang with the pros, talking to Edwards is just like talking to any other 18-year-old. She’s soft-spoken, a touch shy, and infectiously polite. With that said, part of being ahead of schedule as a young basketball star means that you grow up faster than the kids around you. For Edwards, the recruiting process from major NCAA programs was also the start of the process of opening up.
“I was a bit more introverted at first,” she admits with a smile as we spoke over Zoom. “But, by talking to so many coaches and so many athletes, you get to put yourself out there a lot.”
As ESPN's 23rd-ranked recruit in the class of 2020, Edwards had the attention of countless college coaches and recruiters. At UConn, she joins a Huskies women’s basketball program helmed by legendary coach Geno Auriemma with a rich history of success and alumni who have gone pro. When we think about Canadian women's basketball, we invariably think about one such alum, Kia Nurse, who Edwards has already played with on Team Canada.
Just 25 years old herself, Nurse has already won two NCAA championships at UConn as well as international gold with Canada. In 2018, she became the third Canadian player in WNBA history to reach the All-Star game. As the standard-bearer for women’s hoops in this country, she has made her wealth of knowledge available to players who are trying to accomplish — and hopefully surpass — what she already has. Nurse has been resource as much as teammate to Edwards.
“You can tell that she’s a curious person and wants to ask, How did you do this? and How did you get through this situation?” says Nurse. “For me, that’s always really exciting, because a lot of people are afraid to ask questions. They end up not learning as much. That’s something I really admire about her.”
On the topic of Edwards' future in basketball, Nurse and Thomaidis agree: This could be the start of something special.
“For her to play this with significant role with UConn right now and to be in our pool of athletes for the Olympics is a huge accomplishment in itself. What is she, 18 years old?” Thomaidis says. “There’s a great future ahead for her.”
When we talk about her hometown, Edwards' support system is a concept that comes up over and over again.
“Kingston’s a very small city,” she laughs. “My family and my friends are there. It was great to be part of that small-city community, because we look out for one another.”
Born to an athletic family, Edwards was involved in everything from soccer and track-and-field to ballet and tap dancing in her childhood before outgrowing each of those sports. Whatever her older brothers did, wherever they went, she would go and do the same. Her mother, Jackie, played collegiate volleyball for nearby Humber College. She was among Aaliyah’s first basketball coaches with the Kingston Impact, a local club team.
When her daughter called home with the news that she had made Team Canada for the first time, Jackie remembers being brought to tears of “complete joy and tremendous pride.” As the news rippled across the city, each of Aaliyah’s friends and teammates came by to congratulate the family.
“The entire city was elated for her,” Jackie says. “Just the whole community came behind her and celebrated. Most of the people that make the team tend to come from the larger cities, so for her to have made it out of little Kingston also added an extra little bit of celebration for us.”
With a population of just over 130,000 people, there was a point where Edwards had to move on from Kingston in order to access better training resources, infrastructure and competition elsewhere — not to mention exposure to opportunities such as the national team. In order to get her daughter where she needed to go, Jackie would drive two and a half hours to Toronto for 90-minute practices, and then get right back in the car to make the same drive home.
Every prep program in the province with a major basketball presence made Edwards an offer to play for their team. She settled upon Toronto’s Crestwood Preparatory College, a school with a strong academic background that has become known in recent years for its basketball exports including herself as well as top 2023 men’s recruit Elijah Fisher. Over the course of Edwards’ high school career, the Crestwood Lions went from underdogs in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association to undefeated champions in consecutive years.
“She’s fearless. It doesn’t matter who she’s up against. She competes and she wasn’t intimidated in the least.” — Lisa Thomaidis
When college recruiters came calling, Aaliyah's mother was the first line of defence. Jackie would answer the phone so that her daughter could focus on basketball and completing her high school diploma, even just having the peace of mind to finish homework.
“Listen, she’s in high school,” she told recruiters, who would call as early as 9 in the morning. “Where do you think she’s going to be? She’s in class!”
Jackie Edwards has a story she likes to tell about her daughter — in fact, she was answering another of my questions entirely when she interrupted herself to share this story. Once, when they were at an ice cream shop in Kingston, a five-year-old girl came up to ask Aaliyah for a picture: “I want to be just like you when I grow up!”
The girl wasn’t a basketball player herself. It had nothing to do with that. Her dad was a referee at Aaliyah’s games, and Aaliyah would never pass by the stands without saying hi to the kids. Even this small gesture, it seems, had a profound impact on this particular girl. Aaliyah agreed to the photo, and for good measure, bought her an ice cream as well.
“Oh my gosh, you should’ve seen this little girl’s face,” says Jackie. “You would think she just met Santa himself!”
Aaliyah is a happy girl, a good girl, her mother says over and over again. What continues to ground her is who she does it for.
“Aaliyah just never really saw things like that as a big deal, except the impact it had on the city, or the impact it had on her school or her team.”
This is an especially exciting moment to follow Canadian women’s basketball. While Nurse leads the WNBA contingent, we're seeing a number of top players emerging from the Canadian pipeline at the NCAA level. South Carolina’s Laeticia Amihere was the tenth-ranked recruit in the 2019 high school class preceding Edwards, and two of Edwards’ former Crestwood teammates — Latasha Lattimore and Shayeann Day-Wilson — have committed to Syracuse for next season.
The national team is ranked fourth in the world going into the Olympics, with a legitimate chance to win gold in Tokyo this July. The team's talent pool comprises WNBA players such as Nurse, Natalie Achonwa, Kayla Alexander and Bridget Carleton; it also includes Edwards as well as a player who is twice as old as she is, 36-year-old Canada Basketball veteran Kim Gaucher.
“Because the national team has taken such a great effort to pursue our goals in terms of winning and in terms of putting our name out there as a country, that's inspired and motivated younger generations to follow in our footsteps,” says Edwards. “I think that as Canadians, we’ve done well, especially in the NCAA this year.”
It feels like Canadians are always looking for their next big thing in basketball, a homegrown star that can gain a share in the broader hoops consciousness. Take, for example, the hype that followed players from R.J. Barrett or Andrew Wiggins from high school to the NBA, or the excitement around emergent success stories such as Nurse, Jamal Murray or Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. There's the sense that the best is still to come, that Canadians are still expecting a more meaningful moment for their talent in the spotlight.
Going back to the days of Steve Nash’s MVP seasons or even of Vince Carter’s Toronto Raptors capturing the NBA zeitgeist, the arc of Canadian basketball has been building towards a mass breakthrough for a long time, and every step closer has a positive ripple effect. More resources go into growing the game — not just at the highest level, but also at the grassroots with programs like Crestwood.
“You’re surrounded by a great group of young women who are halfway through their basketball career. You know, many people on the senior team are what I aspire to be like a couple years down the road.” — Aaliyah Edwards
After her first season in the WNBA, Nurse founded her own AAU program, Kia Nurse Elite, to provide top Canadian girls' players with an opportunity to play against U.S. competition in front of NCAA scouts. She's taken a special interest in the next generation, and before Edwards ever played with Nurse on Team Canada, she played for Nurse's youth team.
“Obviously, I’ve seen her on TV, but that was the first time for us meeting. It was definitely like, wow, it’s Kia Nurse,” says Edwards. “If I need any help, if I hit her up, she’s always there to help me and put me in the right footsteps to be successful, because she’s been through it.”
“I’m paying attention to all these young kids because I’m sure they’ll be my teammates coming up forward,” Nurse laughs.
The more you talk to people in or around the institution of Canadian basketball, the more you notice the focus on paying it forward. For Edwards, the Canada Basketball program has been as much a second family as a resource. Although her teammates on the national team are far-flung across the globe playing for various professional teams, everyone stays in touch, and everyone makes sure that everyone else is taking proper care of themselves, their bodies and their mental health.
In the United States, where the national team has a much greater talent pool of WNBA players to select from, someone like Edwards would rarely get a chance to jump up into the senior team ahead of time. With her opportunity, she's shown that she belongs.
“We were down at AmeriCup in Puerto Rico [in 2019], playing a U.S. team with a bunch of WNBA players,” remembers Thomaidis. At the time, Edwards was 17 years old, sharing the same floor as WNBA MVPs Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles.
“We threw her out there. She’s fearless. It doesn’t matter who she’s up against. She competes and she wasn’t intimidated in the least.”
Edwards hasn’t been home since July, when she arrived in Connecticut for the first time. Because of the pandemic restrictions upon travelling, she hasn't been able to return to Kingston, even for the holidays. For now, calls on Zoom and FaceTime bridge the distance as much as possible.
From her first visit to UConn, Edwards could see the family atmosphere shared among her future teammates. Players begin each day with testing, then a few hours of practice — famously rigorous sessions, under coach Auriemma — finished off by strength and conditioning work. In her downtime, Edwards is re-reading Tim Grover's Relentless and her teammates have taken to cooking for each other, although so far, she's had no willing takers for her vegetarian recipes. Instead, everyone has been basking in the relative wonders of owning an air fryer in college residence.
January 9 against Providence, Edwards was named to the starting lineup for the first time. It became the first great memory of her college career.
“I’m a freshman starting in a great program like UConn. It was exciting!” she says. “I’m attacking it like I’m on the national team, but instead of having Canada across my chest, it’s UConn.”
As a key reserve for her team, Edwards earned sixth woman honours in the Big East with averages of 10.2 points on a conference-best .680 field goal percentage to go with 5.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks. Her best performance of the season came in a domineering game against Butler, when she crammed 24 points, 14 rebounds and three blocks into just 26 minutes off the bench. Eight of those rebounds came on the offensive glass, leading to easy buckets; she finished with a 9-of-10 shooting line from the field. That was peak Aaliyah Edwards, a player that takes a brute-force approach to basketball and makes the game really look as simple as just wanting it more.
“She’s physical, obviously something that UConn needed going into this season. She’s not afraid to get to the rebound battle and she’ll give you a ton of energy,” says Nurse.
Unlike in men’s college basketball, where the best players have a lucrative financial opportunity to leave for the NBA after a single season, the women’s side is more of a slow burn. Players stay in school for longer, with elongated college careers. It’s uncommon for first-year players such as Edwards to become immediate factors for their team, but this year’s UConn team is different.
Six players left the program last year, including WNBA Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield and first-round pick Megan Walker, and the Huskies have replaced them with one of the top-ranked freshman classes in the nation. It’s something of a refresh for the team, as well as an opportunity for these freshmen to take the wheel from the jump.
Among Edwards’ teammates is the No. 1 recruit from the 2020 class, point guard phenom Paige Bueckers. Even in her first year, Bueckers has been an electrifying presence in college hoops, leading the Huskies in many statistical categories including points and assists. She's a spiritual star of the YouTube mixtape era, with a wicked crossover package to go with a predilection for no-look passes.
Playing with a player like that makes life easier and much more fun for everyone else, such as Canadians with great polish as inside finishers. “She’ll look to hit you with that dime,” says Edwards, beaming. “Off the pick-and-roll, that’s our game.”
Including others such as No. 25 recruit Mir McLean and next year’s No. 1 Azzi Fudd, UConn has a young core that could be the start of its next dynasty. The program has a documented history of greatness and probably goes down as college basketball’s most dominant team of the past decade. From 2013 to 2016 — which we now know as the Breanna Stewart era — the Huskies won four straight NCAA championships, coinciding with a 111-game winning streak spanning three seasons.
Those teams were littered with future pros: Stewart, Nurse, Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson, Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier, just to name a few. Edwards is trying to become next in that lineage, and playing for Auriemma at UConn is as good a place to be as anywhere else to manifest your hoop dreams.
“If you can handle it there, you can handle pretty much anything in the basketball world,” says Nurse. “By the time you come out of that program, everything that you do in terms of practices and going to different teams and new teammates, you’re able to handle. They’ve put you in those situations to make sure that whatever you do at UConn is probably harder than anything you will find in your professional leagues.”
Right now, Edwards is working on her 17-footer and developing an outside game to complement her paint presence. As a player raised in the Candace Parker era of basketball, she would be the first to tell you that playmaking and perimeter versatility are key traits for the modern big and important building blocks for her success down the line. She still clings to advice passed on from Nurse, repeated almost like an inner mantra.
“Don’t get outside of myself. Stay true to myself, and who I am as a player and as a person. Just trust and be confident in myself.”
While many of her goals in basketball are long-term, such as an Olympic medal or a fruitful pro career in the WNBA, one such goal — winning a NCAA championship — is feasible as early as this year. With a 24-1 record, the young Huskies are entering this year's tournament as a No. 1 seed.
Maybe it should be no surprise, since the recurring theme of Edwards’ basketball career to this point has been of grading out ahead of the curve. While many other first-year university students are just now learning how to live away from their parents for the first time, Jackie Edwards noticed that her daughter became independent around when she was 15 years old through her exposure to older basketball players. She's been taking care of herself, her body and her nutrition, for years already.
“I believe I have prepared Aaliyah enough for her to do those things on her own. If she’s not grown enough to do those things on her own, then she’s not grown enough to play on the team,” Jackie says.
From playing on Team Canada, Edwards has been alongside professionals who have already done what she hopes to do one day. That these are her peers this early on is a good sign that she'll be able to reach her goals, and perhaps in time, go even further. There's a structural element to excellence, an osmosis effect to having your heroes as teammates, that she's experienced firsthand.
“You’re surrounded by a great group of young women who are halfway through their basketball career. You know, many people on the senior team are what I aspire to be like a couple years down the road,” says Edwards.
“It’s just great to see that amount of excellence surrounding me. Like, I could be a part of that.”