When the WNBA came to Canada for an exhibition last Saturday, it was hailed in part as an opportunity to show young girls that their basketball dreams are possible.
“If I were to go to a game in Canada, especially just being able to see people that look like me, that I could potentially fill their shoes one day, I would have had those dreams for myself,” said Bridget Carleton, the Chatham, Ont., native who was the lone Canadian to play in the game at Scotiabank Arena.
“And it really wasn’t until like my senior year of college where I thought, ‘Oh, maybe I can play in the WNBA.'”
Kia Nurse, of Hamilton, Ont., signed with the Seattle Storm in free agency after two years with the Phoenix Mercury. Rookie Laeticia Amihere, of Mississauga, Ont., is the newcomer, having been picked eighth overall by the Atlanta Dream in the 2023 draft.
Natalie Achonwa, of Guelph, Ont., is under contract with the Lynx but currently away from the team after recently giving birth to her son.
All four played key roles at the World Cup in September when Canada placed fourth for its best finish at a major tournament since 1986.
WATCH | Canada drops bronze-medal game at World Cup:
Confidence key for Carleton
Carleton, the 25-year-old who was named a tournament all-star, said it was a “big step” for her.
“I think I’ve continued to get better and better and work as hard as I can to be the best player I can be for the Lynx this summer and for the national team heading into the next Olympic cycle, the next Olympics,” she said. “But yeah, I’m feeling confident and ready to take a step, definitely with this team, and being the best version of myself”
Cheryl Reeve, the head coach and president of the Lynx, said that confidence is key for the Canadian. She said she’s joked with Carleton that she should pretend she’s in the Canada Basketball environment even in Minnesota.
Carleton led Canada with 12.8 points in over 30 minutes per game at the World Cup, compared to 4.3 points in 16.8 minutes per game last season with the Lynx.
“That’s exactly the next step, gaining that confidence that you’re not a reserve player in terms of, you might be coming off the bench, but the expectation for you is to perform while you’re in there. You’re not deferring all the time. To kind of take the bull by the horns and establish an identity offensively,” Reeve said.
WATCH | Carleton discusses playing in Toronto:
Nurse back after injury
While Carleton’s emergence as a key player for Canada came slowly, Nurse has been a focal point since her breakout at the 2015 Pan Am Games in Toronto.
The 27-year-old missed the last WNBA season with a knee injury, but she returned in time for the World Cup where she looked spry.
Nurse finished second on team scoring with 11 points per game despite playing nearly 11 minutes fewer on average that Carleton.
Noelle Quinn, the Storm’s head coach and lead assistant for Team Canada, said being with Nurse at the World Cup allowed her to go to management and vouch for her signing in free agency.
“It was refreshing to see that she’s so coachable and she has passion for the game and she has such a high IQ,” Quinn said in a press conference on Wednesday.
“I saw her improvement every single day in the way that she works and how she was with her teammates so to be in that environment with her was very helpful in knowing and learning who she was as a person.”
Quinn said she expects Nurse to help fill the leadership role that was vacated with the off-season departures of Sue Bird to retirement and Breanna Stewart to New York. From a basketball perspective, she said she would be reliant on Nurse’s shot creation and shooting abilities, while challenging her to defend other team’s top players.
Winning on Amihere’s mind
Amihere, meanwhile, was the first in what should be a string of Canadians selected near the top of the draft. UConn’s Aaliyah Edwards will be eligible for selection in 2024.
But even though she’s yet to play in the WNBA, Amihere owns plenty of experience, having played alongside Carleton and Nurse at the 2021 Olympics and World Cup. She was also credited as the first Canadian woman to dunk in a game when she accomplished the feat at 15 years old.
Amihere spent four years under coach Dawn Staley’s tutelage at South Carolina, where she reached the Final Four three straight times.
Amihere is known as a versatile player on both ends of the floor, but she said defence is her “passion.”
“I’m lengthy, I disrupt and I’m going to go after it. That’s something that I can promise to Atlanta: Whether it’s a night that I get a couple minutes or a lot of minutes, I’m going to go out there and give it my all,” she said.
A dramatic off-season full of player movement saw the league landscape dramatically altered and tilted toward two ‘super teams.’
The reigning champion Las Vegas Aces added former MVP Candace Parker to their already-stacked roster, while the New York Liberty brought in two ex-MVPs with Stewart and Jonquel Jones.
The Liberty and Aces are now far and away the betting favourites to win the title in the 2023 season, which will feature a record 40 regular-season games per team.
Still, there’s a reason they play all those games. For Canada’s Carleton, Nurse and Amihere, it’s about taking that next step.