Aaliyah Edwards admits she is a late bloomer on the basketball court.
To Canada Basketball, the 14-year-old Edwards is a budding star in its development program.
Edwards, finishing off her Grade 9 exams next week at Frontenac Secondary School, made her international debut for Canada Basketball at the FIBA U16 Women’s Americas Championship in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in early June.
"She was the youngest person on the roster, but to speak to her or to see her play, you would never know that," said Jodi Gram, head coach of the Canadian cadet team, which won the silver medal at the championship.
"Aaliyah started for us and played major minutes. She was a huge part and came up really big for us in some of our closer games. She is a pretty exciting kid to keep our eye on."
Canada dropped a 91-46 decision to the U.S. in the final, its only loss in five tournament games. Edwards scored four points in the final, giving her 42 over five games, for an average of 8.4 per game, tied for third highest on the team.
She was also third among Canadians in rebounds in the tournament with 27, or 5.4 per game, tied for the team lead in blocks (seven), tied for third in assists (eight) and was fourth in total time played (104 minutes).
It has been a remarkably quick rise in the sport for Aaliyah, who only started playing basketball seriously in the past couple of years. Before basketball, she has been, and continues to be, strong in track and field.
"No doubt I was a late bloomer," Edwards said, adding that she was spurred on "mostly by my brothers’ involvement in the sport."
"I just fell in love with it."
There has been heartache, too, around the sport. Aaliyah’s oldest brother, Jermaine, who was a mentor and coach for his sister, died in February.
"Jermaine and Aaliyah were very close and I think always will be," said mother Jackie Edwards, who along with Jermaine coached the Kingston Impact age-division team on which Aaliyah played.
"Jermaine, really, along with her other brother Jahmal have been instrumental in her love of the game. And also the work ethic and training habits that she has and has had to have to get where she is," Jackie said.
Gram said Aalyiah’s rising-star status has put her on the path to playing for the Canada’s senior women’s team in the future.
"It is so exciting to think she has really just started to play basketball seriously for two years," Gram said.
"She is multidimensional in terms of what she can do. Aaliyah brings length, athleticism, has good basketball IQ and good instincts."
Aaliyah, who made the Ontario Basketball youth team last year and is playing for the provincial team in a Montreal competition this weekend, cracked the national development team in May after a 10-day camp.
She survived two cuts along the way, finally receiving what mom Jackie termed "the glorious news" that she had made the team in late May.
Aaliyah said it was "a great experience" playing with the under-16 team.
"The training and tryout process was very intense, but I trained a lot and was ready for it," said Aaliyah, who was asked to play some new positions for Gram’s team. "Definitely there were some challenges. Just staying levelheaded and not getting beyond myself helped overcome that."
Jackie Edwards said it is her daughter’s ability to focus on the task at hand that serves her well.
"It is an attribute she has that allows her to gain the ground she has made in the last year and a half," Jackie said.
"How Aaliyah got on the radar [for Canada Basketball] is just how Aaliyah tends to get on any radar: very quietly and without much hurrah. She is a very low-key individual."
Aaliyah, having seen what the international basketball scene is about — "it was a huge atmosphere and eye-opening" — aspires for more.
"This was a huge accomplishment, the first step on the way to being on Team Canada," Aaliyah said.
"It has been quite a journey for the family since the loss of Jermaine. It is one that continues," Jackie said. "We are very thankful and grateful that Aaliyah has had this very positive experience so far.
"Having a coach mom, coach brothers and dad [Eddie] coach her in track, it is not an easy journey when parents and your siblings are also being your coaches. We appreciate her bringing us on the journey."
Jackie hinted that what lies ahead for Aaliyah may well go beyond attending Frontenac, where it has been "a wonderful experience" for her. However, the plans now are that Aaliyah will be taking Grade 10 at Frontenac.
"Family is really key for us, and I think it is obvious in terms of our involvement with our kids in terms of coaching. But also being able to let them go as well," Jackie said. "Aaliyah right now is being sought after by a lot of coaches."
Gram, who teaches at Bill Crothers High School in Unionville, said Aaliyah is a special player.
"She has a phenomenal training ethic and goal-orientated attitude. I do think she would be a senior national team prospect for sure," Gram said.
Jackie Edwards, who has a background in sports at the collegiate level in track and volleyball, is a very strong believer in seeing chidren follow their passion and use sports as a voice.
"Especially when you have a kid like mine that’s an introvert," Jackie said. "Aly uses sports as her voice sometimes and it’s great."
There are other times when mom sees the 14-year-old girl finding time to hang out with her friends.
"Her social network is not about only other athletes. It’s about the 14-year-old kids she has grown up with since kindergarten," Jackie said.
"When she came back from [the U16 championship], it brought a smile to my face to see her in the backyard jumping on the trampoline with her cat."