- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
- Oops!Something went wrong.Please try again later.
UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma is always eager to see a jump in play among his sophomores. With a year in Storrs under their belts, second-year players fully know what to expect from Auriemma and his staff, and some have robust game experience not all freshmen can boast.
UConn sophomores don’t usually come back to campus as Olympians. But Aaliyah Edwards has always been one to stand out.
Edwards, a 6-foot-3 forward from Kingston, Ontario, returns fresh off her Olympic debut with Team Canada, where she was the youngest member of a team that went 1-2 and failed to advance out of group play. Nonetheless, the summer was an opportunity for her to hone her game alongside some of the world’s very best, an experience that she and Auriemma hope will translate into an elevated level of play this season.
“It was an amazing experience. I’m very grateful for it,” Edwards said. “I think what I took most out of it is just how to be professional. Being in that atmosphere with a whole bunch of elite athletes and their dedication and determination for the past four years just to get to that point — you can really see it in the way they talk, the way they move and the way they [are when] you’re around them. It was amazing to soak up that experience.”
Edwards, who turned 19 over the summer and had previously played with the senior Canadian national team, was familiar with her teammates, which included WNBA stars Natalie Achonwa, Bridget Carleton and former Husky Kia Nurse, along with several current U.S. college players. Running into the likes of Rudy Gobert, Pau Gasol and the U.S. women’s national team left her a bit more star struck and prompted her to realize, “I‘m among those athletes, and I can consider myself an Olympian as well.”
Edwards was training with Team Canada all summer and didn’t get to see her UConn teammates until the start of the school year. Watching from afar, her friends thought the whole thing was pretty cool, too.
“I mean, it’s Aaliyah, that’s our dawg,” said fellow sophomore Paige Bueckers, likely a future Olympian herself for Team USA. “It was fun to see her out there doing her thing. I mean, she’s an Olympian. To be teammates with an Olympian is a blessing.”
Auriemma said on the first day of preseason practice on Oct. 8 that, with limited practice time for teams in Tokyo, Edwards’ conditioning had to catch back up to UConn standards.
“But obviously there are things that Aaliyah can do that nobody else in our team can do and those things haven’t gone away,” he added.
Last year that was a physicality and intensity that seemed well beyond her years, plus an ability to rebound, play defense and run the floor. Her play earned her Big East Sixth Woman of the Year honors, and this week she was named to the conference’s preseason All-Big East team. Aside from averaging 10.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in 21.8 minutes, her 68.9 field goal percentage was best in the country among players attempting at least six shots per game. She blossomed during the beginning of the NCAA Tournament when she stepped up in the starting lineup in place of an injured Nika Mühl.
The biggest thing Auriemma wants to see from Edwards this season is something he says he wants all his posts to improve upon: hit shots outside of the paint.
According to CBB Analytics, nearly 88 percent of Edwards’ field goal attempts last season were taken at the rim or in the paint. She took two shots from the right baseline and a combined 21 from the elbows, shooting 39 percent from those three areas. She didn’t attempt a shot from anywhere else on the court.
”What she didn’t show us was, can she make enough shots from the perimeter to make people not stand there and not let us get to the basket or be easy for them to trap our ball handler because they don’t have to respect her ability to shoot the ball,” Auriemma said. “That goes for all our big guys too, not just Aaliyah, but I think that’s the next step for her.”
Edwards feels like she was able to work on that with Team Canada, where she said she played more out on the perimeter and had to defend guards more frequently.
“I definitely [learned to] be more versatile, and just my basketball IQ heightened a lot being among people who play overseas and in the WNBA,” Edwards added. “It just really helped me soak in all the information and add that to my game.”
But Edwards doesn’t just see her needed growth in pure x’s and o’s terms.
“I think just my confidence would be what I’ve really been working on in whatever I do — my outside shot, being inside, finishing, and-ones, all that type of stuff,” Edwards said. “I think just knowing how far I’ve grown over the summer and just bring that into the season [is important].”
One thing’s for sure: You can count on Edwards to bring the same aggression that set her apart as a freshman last year. Maybe even more so this season.
“Being with the national team, you’re playing with older girls, so they’re obviously going to be stronger than you, they’re going to be bigger than you, so you really have to go and battle out with them,” Edwards said. “So you could say that yeah, I probably got aggressive from being in that experience with them, but I feel great.”
Alexa Philippou can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org