April 16, 2024 

Mystics get instant impact with UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards in WNBA Draft

Washington also adds Gonzaga's Kaylynne Truong and 19-year-old Belgian Nastja Claessens

As the clock zoomed closer to 11 p.m. on Monday, hours after the Washington Mystics had selected UConn forward Aaliyah Edwards with the No. 6 overall pick in the WNBA Draft, Edwards sat in a car and thought back to the moment college players dream of, hearing her name called. She described hugging her mom and thinking about her path from growing up in Canada to attending college in Connecticut and now heading to Washington as a pro.

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“It was like all those feels in one,” she told reporters, “and, you know, everyone loves a mama embrace, especially in a special moment like that.”

The Mystics staff, too, felt triumphant after getting Edwards, who they felt was the best fit in the draft to play alongside their current roster. After interviewing around 15 or 16 prospects, they considered trading up to the fourth or fifth pick to have a better chance of selecting Edwards. But they gambled that she’d still be available at No. 6, and it paid off.

“We just kind of crossed our fingers all day about whether we would get to this point,” general manager Mike Thibault told reporters on Monday night.

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As a senior this season, the 6’3 Edwards averaged 17.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.0 blocks per game for the Huskies. She led the BIG EAST in field goal percentage, making 59.3% of her shots, and ranked fifth in points per game and second in rebounds per game. Edwards was named to the All-BIG EAST First Team and was a consensus All-American.

She has also been on the Canadian senior national team since 2019. She was the youngest player on Canada’s 2020 Olympic team, and she averaged a near double-double at last summer’s FIBA AmeriCup to help Team Canada win a bronze medal.

For the Mystics, the 21-year-old Edwards will bolster a largely young frontcourt led by 23-year-old rising star Shakira Austin. Around them in training camp will be 23-year-olds Queen Egbo and Elissa Cunane and veterans Stefanie Dolson and Myisha Hines-Allen, giving the team a variety of playing styles and options.

Offensively, Edwards is an efficient scorer both in the paint and in the midrange, which will allow her to play with any of the other bigs on the roster. Eventually, the Mystics would like her to be comfortable shooting 3-pointers, so she can stretch the court even more.

“Each and every day, every opportunity I can, I work on my shot,” Edwards said, referencing how she added midrange shots into her arsenal. “… I think the biggest thing that I’ve been able to do this past couple of years is implement that into a game, and I’m having people respect my shot now. … And going into the league now, just got to make sure that carries over.”

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Edwards is also an elite rebounder, which is a major need for the Mystics after they ranked last in the league in total rebounding rate last season. On their April 8 draft board, The Next’s Em Adler, Hunter Cruse and Lincoln Shafer compared Edwards to former Minnesota Lynx forward Rebekkah Brunson, who ranks first in WNBA history in career offensive rebounds and eighth in career defensive rebounds.

Defensively, too, Edwards should be impactful right away on a Mystics team that, when healthy, has stifled opponents over the past few years. The Next’s draft experts called Edwards “the most versatile defender in the draft” because of her ability to defend one-on-one, in space and in different defensive schemes. And Thibault called her defense “already a ready-made fit for us.”

Thibault said Edwards will make the Mystics’ final roster, but her immediate playing time will depend on how she fits with the other frontcourt players and how quickly she adapts from playing mostly center at UConn this season to power forward in the WNBA.

“She’s a worker, and she’ll do the extra work,” Thibault said. “… I think [it’s] going to be a little bit more of an adjustment facing up more often maybe than she did in college. But she played a lot at the high post at UConn and was a great passer in their system. So it’s just … how quickly she can soak it up and learn what we want.”

Gonzaga guard Kaylynne Truong dribbles the ball with her left hand on the perimeter. A Texas defender is in a defensive stance with her arms stretched wide.
Gonzaga guard Kaylynne Truong (14) dribbles the ball in a Sweet 16 game against Texas at the Moda Center in Portland, Ore., on March 29, 2024. (Photo credit: Lydia Ely | The Next)

The Mystics also added depth and 3-point shooting at multiple positions in the later rounds of the draft. They selected Gonzaga point guard Kaylynne Truong in the second round at No. 21 overall and Belgian forward Nastja Claessens in the third round at No. 30. 

Truong played five seasons in Spokane, averaging 11.4 points, 5.8 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game this season. She is an excellent 3-point shooter, making 42% of her threes on more than six attempts per game over the past two seasons. She was named the WCC Player of the Year in 2023 and First Team All-WCC in 2024.

Thibault said Truong fit a need for the team as a player who can both shoot 3-pointers and run the point. Despite being a second-round pick in a league that often only rosters first-rounders, she’ll have a real pathway to make the team. That’s because the Mystics are light on point guard depth behind veteran Brittney Sykes, who can also play off the ball.

What sealed Thibault’s evaluation of Truong was watching her up close during the NCAA Tournament as he called Gonzaga’s first- and second-round games. Truong didn’t light up the scoreboard in those games, averaging 11.0 points, but she had a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and led her team to the Sweet 16.

Claessens is a 19-year-old forward who won’t join the Mystics this season, but the team now has her rights and can watch her develop over the next few years. She played with her senior national team — which is currently ranked sixth in the world — at the 2023 EuroBasket qualifiers and the 2024 Olympic Qualifying Tournament. She also plays for Castors Braine in Belgium’s top league and averaged 14.5 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.3 steals in eight league games this season.

With Castors Braine, Claessens showed an ability to step out and shoot, making 13-of-22 3-pointers in league games and 10-of-19 in five EuroCup games. She joins a growing list of Belgian players who have played for or been drafted by the Mystics under Thibault — most notably 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, but also 2019 WNBA champion Kim Mestdagh and current WNBA rookie Julie Vanloo.

“She will probably come in a year or two,” Thibault said. “She’s still kind of filling into her body. She’s a really young 19. … [We’ll] see where she is in a year from now. But a 6’1 wing player that can make threes is a really nice, valuable player to have the rights to.”

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Last season, when the Mystics were preparing for the draft, they looked up and down their roster and realized it was essentially complete. They managed that problem by trading away their first-round pick and having a relatively unimpactful draft.

This time around, things looked very different. The Mystics knew they needed to plug holes in their roster and add talent after point guard Natasha Cloud left in free agency, two-time WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne decided to take time away from basketball, veteran guard Kristi Toliver retired, and veteran forward Tianna Hawkins continues to weigh her options.

After selecting Edwards in particular, the Mystics celebrated because they felt they had moved the needle for the team this season. They had gotten the player they wanted and the fit they needed.

It was a night Edwards and Thibault both dreamed about in different ways, and they both held their breath during the opening picks. Then they could both exhale.

And late into the night, Thibault smiled from his seat at his press conference and Edwards smiled on her car ride, thinking about their future.

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Update (April 16, 6:30 p.m. ET): According to Mystics PR, Mike Thibault misspoke on Monday when he told reporters that Tianna Hawkins had retired. She is still weighing her options. This story has been updated.

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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