Over the last year, Aaliyah Edwards has gotten an elite basketball education. First, she arrived for her freshman season at UConn under the tutelage of Geno Auriemma — the most successful college basketball coach ever — and his staff.
After the Huskies’ campaign came to an end, Edwards spent most of the summer with the Canadian national team and went to the Tokyo Olympics, where she played with and against some of the best basketball players in the world.
The Olympics were a particularly invaluable experience for Edwards, who got to watch how professional basketball players operate despite being only one year into her collegiate career.
“I think what I took the most out of it is just how to be professional,” Edwards said. “Being in that atmosphere, it’s 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 and the way they move... It was just amazing just to soak up that experience and just to live it.”
The Olympics offer a unique environment compared to other global basketball tournaments. It’s a collection of the greatest athletic talent from every corner of the globe and during her time in the Olympic Village, Edwards couldn’t help but be awestruck.
“I met Rudy Gobert, I saw some of the USA women’s team, Pau Gasol, so it was great to see different athletes and just ask them a few questions,” she said. “I didn’t want to make it an interview or anything but it was great just to be among those athletes I see on TV or that I’ve known about and who has already probably won Olympic medals, so it was just great to be in that atmosphere and just to be like ‘I’m among those athletes that I can consider myself an Olympian as well.”
The Olympics were probably different than Edwards dreamed of when she first broke into the senior Canadian national team in 2019. Because of the pandemic, the team had to be in a bubble for most of the games, which limited how much they could do in Tokyo. While they still got some sightseeing in, the restrictions and protocols were strict.
Edwards also barely saw the court. She played 31 seconds total as Canada got bounced in the group stage after entering the Olympics with hopes of medaling for the first time ever.
Even though she didn’t factor in much in Tokyo, that wasn’t Edwards’ only national team experience over the summer. In June, she played a more prominent role in the 2021 AmeriCup in which Canada finished fourth. While that was not only an important experience at the international stage for her, Canada also used Edwards in a different role than the one she played at UConn.
Instead of being a physical, low-post presence that excelled on the glass — the type of player she was as a freshman with the Huskies — Canada used Edwards as a wing, which meant shooting 3s, driving to the rim, and defending small, quicker players.
“In the summer, I got the chance to be more of a perimeter player,” she said. “Guarding guards and working on different skills.”
While she hit jumpers from the elbow as the season wore on, Edwards was mostly glued to the low post as a freshman — illustrated by the fact that she led the nation with a 68.9 field goal percentage and didn’t take a single 3-pointer.
Edwards excelled in that role — she was named the Big East’s Sixth Woman of the Year and made the league’s all-freshman team — but Geno Auriemma believes Edwards will take off when she can combine the two aspects of her game.
“Can she make enough shots from the perimeter to make people [come out and defend so they don’t] stand in there and not let us get to the basket,” Auriemma asked. “I think that’s the next step for her.”
For now, the sophomore needs to have smaller aims. As the former coach of Team USA, Auriemma knows national teams don’t spend all that much time on the practice court due to the limited time together and frequency of the games.
“The entire time that they were in Japan, I don’t know that there was a lot of practice time,” he said prior to UConn’s first practice. “So you’re still rusty when you get back here and you’re certainly not in the kind of conditioning that you need to be.”
Still, Edwards’ experience in Tokyo will prove to be beneficial in the long run, even if her fitness proves to be a minor setback. She might not have played much but that still doesn’t take away the fact that she’s an Olympian forever — something her teammates are more than happy to celebrate.
“I mean, that’s our dawg,” Paige Bueckers said. “Whenever she’s playing, I’m tuned in. It was fun to see her out there doing her thing. I mean, she’s an Olympian. So to be a teammate with an Olympian is a blessing.”