Before she had even graduated from high school, Aaliyah Edwards was on the court alongside WNBA professionals and players twice her age on the Canadian senior women’s national team. While her peers were competing in the U19 or U18 divisions, Edwards got the call to play with Team Canada proper.

When you watch Edwards play, she looks like she belongs. You can't miss her, with purple-and-yellow braids dyed in honour of her late hero Kobe Bryant. Teammates and coaches rave about her athleticism. At 6-foot-3, and in her first season at the University of Connecticut, Edwards is emerging as a viable rim protector with the foot-speed to guard in space, as well as a polished inside finisher. She’s a bruiser, a throwback big playing the paint with an assertive physicality.

Although she’s proved 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 She’s soft-spoken, a touch withdrawn, and infectiously polite. Part of being a young basketball star means that you have to grow up faster than the kids next to you, and Edwards found herself opening up during her recruiting process.

“I was a bit more introverted at first, but by talking to so many coaches and so many athletes, you get to put yourself out there a lot,” she admits with a slight smile crossing her face as we spoke over Zoom.

There were many coaches vying for Edwards’ attention. She was ESPN’s 23rd-ranked recruit in the class of 2020 and the rare high school player with senior international experience on her resume.

She was drawn to UConn because the Huskies women’s basketball program headed by legendary coach Geno Auriemma has a rich history of success and a long list of alumni who have gone pro. That list includes Kia Nurse, who became the third Canadian player to play in a WNBA All-Star game in 2018 and has played with Edwards on Team Canada.

Nurse has become something of a mentor for Edwards, offering advice as someone who has gone through the things that Edwards is experiencing right now as well and launched the pro career Edwards hopes is in her future. If the search for knowledge starts from asking the right questions, then Edwards is on the right path.

“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? 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,” says Nurse.

There might not be anybody better to answer these questions than Nurse. With the WNBA accolades, two NCAA championships at UConn and international gold, she sets the standard for young Canadian women in basketball. Edwards could be the next Canadian hoops star, and she’s well along the path already.

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“Kingston’s a very small city,” laughs Edwards about her hometown. “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.”

Family, community and her support system are concepts that come up over and over again in conversation with Edwards. Born to an athletic family, Edwards participated in everything from soccer to track-and-field to ballet and tap dancing in her childhood, eventually outgrowing each sport. She would follow her older brothers around constantly, going where they would go and doing what they would do. Her mother, Jackie, played collegiate volleyball for nearby Humber College, and was among Aaliyah’s first basketball coaches with the Kingston Impact, a local club team.

When Aaliyah called home to break the news that she had made Team Canada for the first time, Jackie remembers being brought to tears of — in her own words — complete joy and tremendous pride. Aaliyah’s friends and teammates came by to congratulate the family.

“When it was announced, the entire city was elated for her,” she 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 reached a point where Edwards had to leave Kingston for bigger cities in order to access better training resources, facilities and competition — not to mention exposure to opportunities such as Team Canada.

In order to get Aaliyah to her various practices, Jackie drove two and a half hours to Toronto for training sessions that would run for an hour and a half, and then get right back in the car to make the same drive back home to Kingston.

Every prep program in the province with a major basketball presence offered Aaliyah a chance to play for their team. She chose Toronto’s Crestwood Preparatory College, a school with a strong academic background that has also 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 progressed from underdogs in the Ontario Scholastic Basketball Association to undefeated champions in consecutive years.

Eventually, when the college recruiters came calling for Aaliyah, her mother was the first line of defence. Jackie would answer the phone so that her daughter could focus on basketball, finishing her high school diploma and even just having the peace of mind to do her homework.

“Listen, she’s in high school. It’s 9 o’clock in the morning,” she would tell dogged recruiters. “Where do you think she’s going to be? She’s in class!”

Among Jackie Edwards' favourite stories to tell about her daughter is the time when they were at a local ice cream shop in Kingston together. A five-year-old girl came up to ask Aaliyah for a picture.

“I want to be just like you when I grow up,” she told Aaliyah. She 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 kids in the stands without saying “Hey, what’s up, how you doing?” She agreed to the photo and bought the girl an ice cream for good measure.

“Oh my gosh, you should’ve seen this little girl’s face,” says Jackie. “You would think she just met Santa himself.”

Above all, Aaliyah — a happy girl, a good girl, her mother says over and over again — remains grounded.

“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.”

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This is an especially interesting moment to follow Canadian women’s basketball. While Nurse leads the WNBA contingent, there are also a number of top recruits 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 Canadian women are ranked fourth in the world going into the Olympics, and Edwards is dreaming of a podium finish.

It feels like Canadian fans are always looking for their next big thing in basketball — their next chance to gain a share in the NBA mainstream. Take, for example, the hype that followed players like R.J. Barrett or Andrew Wiggins from high school to the NBA. Players like Nurse, Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander are beneficiaries of the same gaze right now, and for those looking forward, the hope is that players such as Edwards can continue to stoke the national credibility.

If you go 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 prep basketball programs like Crestwood.

After her first season in the WNBA, Nurse founded her own AAU program, Kia Nurse Elite, to get top Canadian girls’ basketball players against U.S. competition in front of U.S. college scouts. Before Edwards’ first time playing with Nurse as a teammate at Canada training camp, she was playing for Nurse’s AAU team.

“Obviously, I’ve seen her on TV, but that was the first time, 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 it has been a resource. Although her teammates on the national team are far-flung across the globe playing for various 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 professionals to choose from, a player such as Edwards would rarely get a chance to jump up into the senior team ahead of time.

“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.

“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.”

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Edwards hasn’t been back to Kingston since arriving in Connecticut for the first time in late July last year. The pandemic has made it difficult for her to go home without the mandatory quarantine disrupting her basketball schedule, and right now, she wants to be locked in and mentally present with the team.

At UConn, the Huskies share a makeshift family atmosphere that Edwards noticed from her first visit to the school. 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 and treatment.

Although some of the Huskies’ games have been called off as a result of the NCAA’s health protocols, including a much-anticipated January 7 matchup against then-No. 6 Baylor, Edwards has still been able to shine in her first season.

Just a few days before we spoke, she was named to the starting lineup for the first time in her college career in a January 9 game against Providence. Her experience with Team Canada has eased the transition to playing against older competition in college, but make no mistake, Edwards remembers her first start as one of the first great moments of her college career.

“I’m a freshman starting in a great program like UConn!” she says. “It was exciting. I’m attacking it like I’m on the national team, but instead of having Canada across my chest, it’s UConn.”

Later, Edwards’ second game in the starting lineup would also be her best performance to date. In an early February game against St. Johns, she scored 22 points on just 11 shots while pulling in nine rebounds, playing all but five minutes of the game. For the season, Edwards has averages of 9.4 points on 67.1 percent shooting to go with 4.4 rebounds and 0.9 blocks.

Unlike in men’s college basketball, where many top players have the lucrative financial opportunity to leave for the NBA after a single season in school, players on the women’s side tend to stay in school for longer. It’s unusual for freshman 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, replaced by 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 as a freshman, Bueckers has been an electrifying presence in college hoops, leading the Huskies in many statistical categories including points and assists. Her handles and her passing are mixtape-ready, and it feels like she’s having fun for no reason when she’s chaining wicked crossovers or behind-the-back dribbles into no-look passes.

“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 just 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 — or, 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 including Stewart, Nurse, Morgan Tuck, Moriah Jefferson, Gabby Williams and Napheesa Collier among others, and Edwards is trying to become next in the lineage. 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.”

 

Canadian Edwards scores career-high 22 points in UConn's victory

Kingston, Ontario native Aaliyah Edwards scored a career-high 22 points and also added a game-high nine rebounds as No. 3 UConn beat St. John's to improve to 12-1 on the season.

At the time of my conversation with Edwards, UConn was undefeated through its first seven games of the season with a No. 3 rank in the nation. Although many of her goals in basketball are long-term, winning a NCAA championship is feasible as soon as this year.

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. Right now, many first-year university students are learning how to live away from their parents for the first time and how to feed and take care of themselves, but Jackie Edwards has noticed that her daughter has been independent since she was 15 years old, and especially since making the senior women’s national team.

“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,” says Jackie.

From her Team Canada experience, Edwards has been around the professionals who have accomplished some of her career goals already. Perhaps in time, she can be a part of that same framework to support the next Aaliyah Edwards.

“You’re surrounded by a great group of young women who are halfway through their basketball career and are what I aspire to be like a couple years down the road,” says Aaliyah.

“It’s just great to see that amount of excellence surrounding me. Like, I could be a part of that.”