Canadian WNBA trio shows pathway younger players can follow to top league

For the second straight year, Natalie Achonwa, Bridget Carleton and Kia Nurse are the only Canadians in the WNBA, which tips off its 2022 season on Friday.

Season begins Friday with Achonwa and Carleton returning to Lynx, Nurse still injured

Natalie Achonwa, seen above at Tokyo 2020, is one of just three Canadians on WNBA teams to begin the season. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

All Canadian eyes will be on Minnesota to start the WNBA season.

That's where two core members of the national team, Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton, will team up on the Lynx.

The third and final Canadian in the WNBA, Phoenix's Kia Nurse, is still recovering from a knee injury suffered in the playoffs last October.

For the second straight year, Achonwa, Carleton and Nurse are the only Canadians in the world's top women's basketball league, which tips off the 2022 season on Friday.

It's a low number for the FIBA's fourth-ranked women's basketball nation, though still comparable with No. 2 Spain and No. 5 Belgium.

But entry to the league is even more imperative for Canadians, who don't have a domestic league on which to fall back — and since the WNBA consists of just 12 teams of 12 players, making the league is no easy task.

Team Canada general manager Denise Dignard said the organization hopes to increase that number by focusing on the individual needs of players.

"For us, it's a work on and off the court from when they're younger," Dignard said. "But ultimately, for them, the responsibility becomes to focus on those things that are going to allow them to be able to be selected within a WNBA franchise."

Early in their careers, players are given individual performance plans which provide an outline for how to achieve their desired destination.

That plan is not always linear from high school to the NCAA to the WNBA.

"Just as important is your selection of your pro context as you continue to grow as a player so that, hey, if you're not picked up from an NCAA team, then after you're [done in the] NCAA, then [you can] continue to really zone in on the specific things you need to work on," Dignard said.

Reliable veteran

Achonwa, the 29-year-old from Toronto, enters her eighth season as the longest currently tenured Canadian WNBAer.

The three-time Olympian was a first-round pick out of Notre Dame in 2015, but she's also spent off-seasons playing in Italy, South Korea, China and France.

"Canada Basketball challenged our players to go overseas and play on the better teams and that's how we were able to get better as a whole was being able to, while we're apart, get better individually," she said.

It's a path now firmly established for young Canadians.

Carleton, the 24-year-old from Chatham, Ont., entering her fourth WNBA season, has also played in Australia, France and Israel. 

Dignard said that just being around Achonwa makes Carleton a better player.

"What really I admire about Natalie, as a veteran, is her wanting to make people around her better and to leave all that she can share and make sure that she leaves the program in a better space," Dignard said.

Carleton taking next step

Carleton, who was arguably Canada's best player at the Tokyo Olympics, enjoyed what was perhaps the best game of her career in February in a win over Bosnia and Herzegovina at a World Cup qualifying tournament in Japan.

Carleton recorded 28 points on 11-of-12 shooting while adding six rebounds, three assists and two steals as Canada clinched a spot in September's World Cup in Australia.

With the total number of teams lowered to 12 for the 2022 competition, and Canada playing its first games under new head coach Victor Lapeña and lead assistant Noelle Quinn, there was some potential of missing out entirely.

But the team caught a break when it automatically qualified after Belarus was forced to pull out over COVID-19, and Carleton helped stamp the ticket to Australia with her performance.

"For her, it's having the confidence and understanding the importance of her role on the team. And so just I think continuing to build on that is important and the trust that Victor has in her and her feeling that," Dignard said.

Canadian plans ahead of World Cup

Meanwhile, Dignard said the hope is for Nurse to get some WNBA action ahead of the World Cup.

She said Nurse did most of her off-season rehab work in Toronto, where she worked with Canada Basketball staff, before recently returning to the Mercury.

"I don't know the exact timeframe, but she's on a path to play later this season," Dignard said.

Last month, the WNBA draft passed without a Canadian selection. Carleton, picked 21st overall in 2019, remains the most recently drafted Canadian.

But three more could soon be on the way: Tokyo Olympians Laeticia Amihere (South Carolina), Aaliyah Edwards (Connecticut) and Shaina Pellington (Arizona) could all leave their NCAA teams to enter the draft in the next two years.

All three players are also eligible to play in Canada Basketball's inaugural 'Globl Jam,' a FIBA-recognized U23 tournament set to take place in Toronto in July.

Dignard said the national team may also hold a minicamp that weekend, since it coincides with the WNBA all-star break. 

Leaguewide storylines

Until then, the centre of the Canadian women's basketball universe will remain in Minnesota, where the expectations for Achonwa and Carleton are clear.

"To win a championship, that's always a goal every season," Achonwa said. "But it's really heightened this year with [seven-time all-star Sylvia Fowles' last season]."

Canadian fans may also want to keep tabs on the Seattle Storm, who are led by the national-team assistant Quinn in what could be WNBA legend Sue Bird's final year.

Meanwhile, Nurse's Mercury lost to Candace Parker and the Chicago Sky in the 2021 Finals. 

And though Phoenix has designs on another Finals run, its priority is securing a safe return for star centre Brittney Griner. Griner has been held in Russia for over two months, which the U.S. government declared on Tuesday to be a wrongful detention, meaning it will seek to negotiate a return instead of allowing the legal system to play out.

The WNBA also recently announced it would honour Griner with a floor decal on every court.

"We're really trying to just send a message of love and support to Brittney and that we're here for her, her WNBA family's in support of her, and that it's all going to work out and the work is being done," Achonwa said.

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