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Canadian rising star Aaliyah Edwards poised for WNBA draft spotlight

It’s been a whirlwind week for Kingston, Ont.’s Aaliyah Edwards. Last Friday she made her third appearance in the NCAA Women’s Final Four, where her UConn Huskies lost a heart-breaker to Caitlin Clark’s Iowa Hawkeyes.

Just a few days later, Edwards and her teammates were back in Storrs, Conn., to take graduation pictures together as some Huskies, including Edwards, won’t be able to partake in the traditional graduation ceremony. Edwards majored in communications and minored in human developmental and family studies.

However, she does have a valid reason for missing graduation: she’ll be in Brooklyn, New York, along with over a dozen top women’s college-aged basketball players at the WNBA draft, meaning the whirlwind will only continue and by graduation day she’ll be in the midst of a WNBA training camp.

On the whirlwind list for Edwards is finding an outfit to wear on national television and connecting with her talent agency. She’s even heard rumours that Monday’s draftees will have their faces scanned for the popular NBA 2K video game franchise. Finally, she’ll meet with potential suitors for the forward who averaged nearly a double-double per game in her senior year.

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“It’s been fun throughout the whole thing. Even though it’s been busy this week, it’s been fun,” she said.

The former Frontenac Secondary School student figures to play an important role in the draft. Edwards, by many accounts, should be a top-five pick. Various reputable WNBA mock drafts have the Huskies senior hearing her name called anywhere from fourth to seventh overall.

“I’m just going to live through the process,” Edwards said. “Stay excited, stay hyped and just stay ready for what’s to come.”

“Because it’s going to be super exciting this weekend, but the work really starts after my name is called.”

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This may be one of the biggest drafts in WNBA history. Not only is it loaded with talent, such as phenom Clark, but it’s also coming off the heels of the most watched NCAA women’s basketball season ever.

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The women’s March Madness tournament eclipsed the men’s tournament in terms of viewership. Nearly 15 million Americans watched UConn vs. Iowa, which is a long way from the empty arenas Edwards played in for her freshman year during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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“I started my first college game playing in front of cardboard cutouts of fans who volunteered to take a selfie and have a seat in Gampel Pavilion.”

“So I’m starting out coming from that to going to Cleveland, the Final Four, 15 million viewers. Like, what are we talking about? That’s amazing!”

Edwards knows it’s a special moment for the game and hopes to help keep momentum going into this summer’s WNBA season.

“I’m just seeing the growth, people advocating (for the game), people buying into what we’ve been trying to display, what those before us have been leading and working towards,” she said.

“So it’s finally getting recognized and it’s definitely going to continue to grow, there’s no stopping now.”

And it appears as though it could continue growing north of the border. Recently there have been reports about a push for an expansion team in Toronto. And while Edwards is just a few seasons too early to start her career in Canada, she’s excited at the prospect of playing at least some of her games on home soil.

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“When I went to the (exhibition) game in Toronto last season, I definitely could sense what it would actually be like if I played in front of this home crowd and I was here night in and night out,” she said excitedly.

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Edward’s experience at UConn, the most storied women’s basketball program, has set her up nicely to transition from college to the pros. The Huskies have graduated countless players to the WNBA, with Edwards being the latest name on a long list.

She’s already been in contact with many former Huskies, and Canadians who have graduated to the WNBA for advice on what to expect throughout the draft process, training camp and stepping onto the court for her first professional game.

“Lean on them just for some guidance throughout this whole process because it’s a quick turnaround,” Edwards said.

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But it’s not just her time at Connecticut that’s left her well-positioned to make the jump to ‘The W.’ Edwards has been part of the Canadian women’s national program since she was 16 years old and competed at the Tokyo Olympics as an 18-year-old. Six years of playing and competing against women who have been playing pro for a decade or longer has prepared her for Monday night when she hears her name called to the stage on national television.

“Initially I was just like a sponge. And I think my mindset is going to be the same thing. I’m going to be a rookie again. I’m going to go through the ropes, but also leaning on those who’ve come before me,” Edwards said.

“So I’m asking questions, how can I tap into their expertise?”

Where she goes will also determine the kind of role she takes on in her first season. Should she go fourth or sixth to Los Angeles or Washington, respectively, Edwards stands to take on a larger role, as both teams are rebuilding.

On the other hand, should she go to a team like Dallas or Minnesota, who are both coming off playoff seasons, she might have more of a complementary role as she learns from the team’s seasoned veterans.

Whichever team and scenario she ends up in, Edwards is grateful to have made it this far.

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“It’s going to be both mentally and physically demanding. I think that the two-week time period before training camp is really crucial,” she said.

“I’ve been training, getting my body ready just to handle the lifestyle of being pro and everything that comes with that.”

“I’m just excited to make an impact in any way I can for any franchise and be Aaliyah Edwards the best I could be.”

It’s been a long time since she’s spent a considerable amount of time in the Limestone City. Edwards left Kingston after her Grade 10 year at Frontenac Secondary School to play at Crestwood Preparatory College in Toronto.

After four more years away from home while in Connecticut, she admits there are things she misses most about her hometown, such as getting ice cream at Reid’s Dairy or coffee at Crave Coffee House after her workouts at nearby Royal Military College, and even walking along the various lakes near the city.

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“Just to take a step back from basketball, in terms of the mental and physical recovery,” she said.

But most of all, she misses being back at home, shooting baskets on the backyard court her dad built, away from the whirlwind of life.

“It makes you realize, ‘This is why I started playing. This is what continues to push me to play.’

“So Kingston is home for me.”

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