May 31, 2024 

Rookie Aaliyah Edwards, Mystics’ ‘Duracell Bunny,’ makes WNBA transition look easy

The league’s third-youngest player brings energy, consistency amid Washington’s struggles

One early way that veteran Washington Mystics guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough could tell that Aaliyah Edwards wasn’t a typical rookie was in Edwards’ approach to locker room music.

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Most rookies defer, Walker-Kimbrough told The Next, when asked what they want to listen to. Not Edwards. She’ll tell whoever asks what she prefers, which ranges from ‘90s R&B to Drake and Future.

“I’m like, ‘OK, yeah, you do that! … Speak what you want!’” Walker-Kimbrough said.

That’s an example of how Edwards has maintained her confidence even as so much has changed in her life lately. Just two months ago, she was one of the oldest players at UConn, a veteran who led her team to three Final Fours and a national championship game appearance in her four seasons.

Now, the No. 6 overall pick in the 2024 WNBA Draft is the league’s third-youngest player, still more than a month shy of her 22nd birthday.

But through seven games with the Mystics, Edwards looks and carries herself more like a veteran than a rookie in a lot of ways — from how she acts around older teammates to how she’s performed in important minutes. 

“She’s acting like a pro already,” head coach Eric Thibault told reporters on May 12, before Edwards had played her first regular-season game. “So I don’t worry about her too much, to be honest.”

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As a senior at UConn, Edwards averaged 17.6 points, 9.2 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 30.3 minutes per game while shooting 59.3% from the field. The 6’3 forward from Canada was a consensus All-American last season and finished her career in the top eight in program history in total rebounds and double-doubles.

With the Mystics, she’s likewise been productive in her 20.9 minutes per game, averaging 6.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks. In only her third WNBA game, she got her first career start and nearly had a double-double with nine points and 11 rebounds.

Edwards currently ranks sixth in the WNBA in block percentage (4.9%). She also ranks among the top six rookies in points, rebounds, steals and blocks per game as well as field goal percentage, making her an early contender for the WNBA All-Rookie Team.

“You just go back to your roots,” Edwards told reporters before her second WNBA game on May 17. “… I’m just trying to focus on the things that have helped me make it to this moment. So my habits, my work habits, sticking to my routines … [and] staying true to who I am as a person, who I am as a player.”

Even in training camp, Edwards’ offensive instincts stuck out to Thibault. She knew when to cut and where to be, something Thibault credited to her time at UConn. Now playing her natural power forward position instead of splitting time at center like she did in college, Edwards also showed a few more post moves and attacked more quickly with the ball than Thibault had expected.

Defensively, the Mystics always believed Edwards would make an immediate impact. General manager Mike Thibault called her defense “a ready-made fit for us” on draft night, and both he and Eric Thibault spoke before Edwards had played a WNBA game about her mobility as a defender.

Washington Mystics forward <a rel=
Washington Mystics forward Aaliyah Edwards (left) leaps to contest a shot by Connecticut Sun forward/guard DeWanna Bonner during a game at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Conn., on May 17, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“It stood out as a big strength when we drafted her,” Eric Thibault said during training camp. “It was her ability to get out and hedge and trap the ball and get her feet out defensively on the perimeter. … She’s good in tight space; she can really move her feet. … She’s wired that way.”

Edwards made her WNBA debut less than seven minutes into the season opener against the New York Liberty, and her first defensive assignment was 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones. “She’s not afraid of any of it,” Eric Thibault said later.

Edwards got her first WNBA basket in the second half on a 16-foot baseline jumper. About 45 seconds later, guard Brittney Sykes got a steal, and Edwards took off running. Sykes found her for a layup on a 3-on-2 break, forcing New York to call a timeout and giving Sykes and Edwards time to celebrate.

“It was really fun,” Edwards said of her debut. “… My favorite moment was definitely the chest bump and celebration when [Sykes] dimed me with that pass. So I think I want more of that, and that’s really what I’m trying to bring to the team, just energy and competitiveness.”

Several nights later, Edwards found out she’d start the third game of the season against the Seattle Storm, stepping in for center/forward Shakira Austin, who is returning from hip surgery and sat out that game. Edwards said postgame that she wasn’t nervous, just like she hadn’t been before her debut, and that she focused mostly on bringing that energy to the team.

She got off to a fast start, with two points, five rebounds, a block, a steal and an assist in the first 5:30 of the game. Though she battled foul trouble after that and missed four layups, she was impactful, pulling down as many offensive rebounds (three) as the rest of her teammates combined.

“She’s finding her way,” Storm head coach and Canada assistant coach Noelle Quinn said of Edwards before the game. “I think the physicality that she has innately is really good for this team. And her ability to play the game with her mind, especially defensively, taking angles. She’s not the tallest, but the physicality can neutralize her matchups a lot of times.”

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In Edwards’ fourth game, she returned to a reserve role but reset her career high with 10 points on 5-for-7 shooting, plus three rebounds, three steals and two blocks, against the Los Angeles Sparks. In the last five minutes, with the Mystics down by seven, Edwards went on a personal 6-0 run to pull her team within a point. All six points were layups, but they came in different ways: driving from the elbow, stealing the ball on the perimeter and beating everyone downcourt, and converting a reverse layup through contact.

“She’s already one of our most mentally tough players,” Eric Thibault said postgame. “She’s steady. … When she has a question or she has something to offer, it’s usually spot on.”

Edwards struggled offensively in her next two games, shooting a combined 3-for-14 from the field. But she rebounded on Wednesday against the Atlanta Dream, producing six points on 3-for-5 shooting despite picking up three first-half fouls.

She missed her first shot against Atlanta, but just 15 seconds later, she got the ball back and showed no hesitation. As the shot clock wound down, she drove on 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, faked a spin move and hit a hook shot over Charles.

Washington Mystics forward Aaliyah Edwards shoots a right-handed hook shot. Atlanta Dream center <a rel=
Washington Mystics forward Aaliyah Edwards (24) shoots a hook shot over Atlanta Dream center Tina Charles during a game at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Though Edwards said on May 17 that her goal for her rookie year is to be 1% better at the end of the season than she was at the beginning, she seems to have already eclipsed that goal.

“She’s really improving every day,” Austin told reporters after the game against the Sparks. “… I think she’s going to continue to just skyrocket and improve and really be a great piece for us.”

Edwards’ experience with the Canadian national team has eased her transition to the professional level. She has been on the senior national team since 2019 and was the youngest player on Canada’s 2020 Olympic team.

“I’ve always been the youngest,” Edwards said before her WNBA debut. “So just being surrounded by vets and just learning and being a sponge and just being OK with being uncomfortable, I think that’s what helped me with this training camp.”

Quinn added that competing internationally makes players think about the game differently. International competition can be extremely physical, and players have to know scouting reports and game plans in more detail rather than relying on athleticism as a separator. All of that experience gave Edwards a preview of what the jump from college to the pros would be like.

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Another reason Edwards has been successful early on is because she makes adjustments quickly, even on the smallest details. Veteran forward Myisha Hines-Allen recalled that on the first day of training camp, Edwards saw director of performance Sarah Walls bend her knee slightly to deepen a quadriceps stretch, and now Edwards includes that knee bend every day when she warms up.

“She just picks up on things so fast … [like] small adjustments on screens or pick-and-rolls or asking me what I’ve seen on defense,” Walker-Kimbrough added. “She’s just like, not just a sponge, but she grabs it so quickly and applies it in real time.”

Eric Thibault saw that ability pay off in a game in late May. Pregame, he’d talked to the players about a tactical change he might make midgame on pick-and-roll coverages. In a huddle during the game, Edwards asked him whether he wanted to make that change. He did, and she not only executed it but also forced a few turnovers from it.

“I’m like, That’s not bad for a rookie right there,” he said days later, “just to, one, have the recall, and then be able to execute in big situations. That’s pretty rare.”

Though the Mystics have been frustrated with their 0-7 start to the season, Edwards has stood out as a bright spot. She quickly earned her teammates’ respect with how hard she plays, her communication on the court, her willingness to be physical, and her confidence. Eric Thibault often raves about her, even after losses, and she is clearly a key piece of the franchise’s present and future.

Washington Mystics forward Aaliyah Edwards stands directly in front of an Atlanta Dream player. Both players have their heads tilted upward as they watch the flight of the ball.
Washington Mystics forward Aaliyah Edwards (front) prepares to rebound the ball in a game against the Atlanta Dream at the Entertainment and Sports Arena in Washington, D.C., on May 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Going forward, Edwards’ rebounding could be especially important for the Mystics, who rank last in the WNBA in total rebounding rate and rebounds per game. Some of her success on the glass is about timing and positioning, but it also has a lot to do with the relentlessness she plays with on every possession.

“If that ball goes up, I know she’s gonna be flying through the paint to go get it,” assistant coach Ashlee McGee told The Next during training camp. “That’s been one of the … most fun things that I’ve noticed about her.”

“Aaliyah’s our Duracell Bunny. … Her battery just never dies, man,” point guard Julie Vanloo told reporters on May 21. “She brings so much energy on that floor and both ends of the floor. She’s so fearless.”

That effort has kept the Mystics in some games this season. The flip side of the coin, though, is that Edwards has also been prone to fouls. She is averaging 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes, sixth-most among players who have played at least 80 minutes this season. 

Edwards has also been inconsistent as a finisher early in her Mystics career — a common weakness for rookies as they adjust to the speed of the WNBA. She has made just 48% of her layups as a pro compared with 68% as a college senior, according to Synergy. Her efficiency on layups, measured by points per shot, ranks in the 30th percentile in the WNBA, compared with the 96th percentile of the NCAA last season. She is also shooting just 47% from the free-throw line, well below the 74% she shot from there in college.

“She’s a little undersized, so she’s just trying to figure out how to finish at the rim around length — when she can take her time, when she needs to go a little quicker,” Eric Thibault said after Edwards shot just 1-for-6 against the Phoenix Mercury on May 23. “… [She’s] trying to figure out how to use her strength and her footwork to get cleaner looks. That’s something that can develop with time.”

Most of Edwards’ offensive struggles have come in the first quarter as she adjusts to new opponents and different coverages. In first quarters, she is shooting just 30% from the field, compared with 54% thereafter.

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Those weaknesses are all areas that will likely improve simply with more experience — and if that happens, it’ll be tough to keep Edwards off the floor. She has already been on the court in the final minutes of four of the past five games, and it’s possible she could become a consistent starter at some point this season.

“Aaliyah’s an example for every young player that comes in the league [with] just how she is in the locker room [and] on the court,” said Julie Vanloo, who is also a rookie but, at age 31, is 10 years older than Edwards. “It’s 100% — like, top. She’s great.”

Wing Karlie Samuelson calls Vanloo the “veteran rookie,” based on her years of overseas and national team experience before coming to the WNBA. And perhaps Edwards should be the “rookie veteran,” the young player who is so composed and professional that it seems like she’s been around much longer.

The Next’s Natalie Heavren contributed reporting for this story.

Written by Jenn Hatfield

Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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