Canadians Abroad Roundup: Bridget Carleton is on the brink of something special

Chicago Sky's Diamond DeShields (1) hit a first-half jump shot over Minnesota Lynx and Canada Basketball forward Bridget Carleton (6) during a WNBA basketball game. (Jerry Holt/Star Tribune via AP)

The WNBA offseason can be a grind.

Between playing for a club team abroad in order to earn supplemental income, to committing to your national program and representing your country on the biggest stages, it takes a certain type of person to make it through an offseason unscathed. And it takes another type to enjoy it and excel.

Bridget Carleton has done just that.

The 21st pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft has come a long way from her hometown of Chatham, Ont. After averaging 21.7 points in her senior season at Iowa State, Carleton was drafted by the Connecticut Sun, who released her just four games into her WNBA. With only 144 spots in the WNBA, not even high draft picks are guaranteed a chance, so Carleton had to work her way back up the women’s basketball hierarchy.

The 25-year-old shooting guard signed a seven-day contract with the Minnesota Lynx, where she would ultimately play the next four seasons of her WNBA career – two of them alongside fellow Canadian Natalie Achonwa. Carleton turned herself into a solid 3-and-D player who, at 6-foot-1, has the height to knock down shots from deep and on the move and the length and quickness to guard multiple positions.

But Carleton has never averaged more than 6.6 points per game in her WNBA career, with humble career averages of 4.7 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists on 43/38/72 shooting splits across four seasons. She has always been a role player, but her impressive play this offseason might have changed all of that, with Carleton emerging as one of the best shooters in the world.

“My first moment with Bridget was last February in the World Cup qualification,” Team Canada head coach Victor Lapena said. “I remember that, during the practice she was good, but after our first game against Japan (a 86-79 loss), I had a conversation with her. I asked her: ‘What kind of player do you want to be? Do you just want to be a good player? Because that you are. Or do you want to be a great player? A player that is able to change games? A player that is able to decide many things during the game?’

“And she said, ‘Coach, I want to be that kind of player.’”

Carleton dropped 28 points on 11-12 shooting, 6-7 from three-point range, along with six rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block as Canada defeated Bosnia and Herzegovina the next game, earning Player of the Game honours and helping Canada secure a spot in the 2022 FIBA World Cup later that year.

“He has so much confidence in me, probably more confidence than I have in myself,” Carleton said about what helped her have national team success under Lapena. “He gives me that freedom to play how I need to play to be successful. And he believes in me, and I think that’s the biggest thing. He trusts me. He knows what I’m good at.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations and built our relationship, so I think the trust factor is huge there and that allows me to play free.”

Team Canada entered the 2022 FIBA World Cup as the No. 4 team in the world but was looking for a better result than their last international competition, when they failed to advance past the group stage at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. They did that and more, thanks in large part to Carleton, who was their best player at the tournament.

Carleton led a stacked Canadian team that included WNBA players Achonwa and Kia Nurse with team highs of 12.8 points, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks and 30.9 minutes per game, while shooting 35.6 per cent from three on 5.6 attempts. She helped Canada finish fourth in the tournament, defeating top-10 nations Serbia, France, Japan and Puerto Rico.

“It was crazy,” Carleton said of the World Cup. “First of all, because we played eight games in 10 days. That was a lot on all of us … but our team stayed healthy. We were hungry, obviously, with the new coach and new coaching staff. There’s a new added excitement around our team.

“We were disappointed with how the Olympics went the year before. So, we wanted to be able to prove ourselves at the international level again and prove that we deserve a high ranking … it just kind of came together how it was supposed to. It was really fun. It was a lot of work. It was exhausting, to say the least. But it was super fun. I think it’s something we can build on going forward.”

As Carleton was having fun successfully leading the now fifth-ranked Canadian national team as its primary scorer and best wing-defender, people on the outside were taking notice of the leap she was making individually.

As Lapena put it, “During the World Cup, man this was clear, no? She was amazing. In my opinion, she played the best basketball of her career.”

Several club teams came calling after the World Cup and, after taking a few weeks off to rest, Carleton joined Perfumerias Avenida in Salamanca, Spain, who play in first division of Spain in addition to the Euro League, the best competition outside of the WNBA, which pits all the best club teams across Europe against each other.

Carleton asked Lapena for his advice, and he recommended Perfumerias Avenida because “they demand a lot out of their foreign players” and the competition level is high. But Carleton still knew she was taking a risk, saying, “It’s hard when you sign overseas. You don’t really know what you’re signing up for. You just kind of sign a contract and go and you pack two suitcases and you’re committing four months of your life, five months of your life. So, it’s a risk. You never know what to expect. But I got lucky this year in a really good situation.”

Carleton has fit right in. In the first five Euro League games of her career, she is having an immense amount of success as she hangs her hat on defence and elite three-point shooting, averaging 11.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.8 assists and one steal on 47.4 shooting from two and 44.4 from three on 5.4 attempts per game.

“I’ve been really lucky. I’m surrounded by a lot of good teammates on every team I’m on, with the Lynx and in Canada and now in Spain. And I think all three coaching staffs have a lot of faith in me and confidence in me,” Carleton said of her recent success.

“And I’m 25 now. I’ve been a pro for four years. So, I think I’m at that time in my career where things are slowing down, I know my role, I know what I’m good at, and I’ve kind of established myself as a pro and I think that’s all starting to fall into place for me.”

Every Friday morning, Oren Weisfeld will highlight a story in the world of Canadian basketball. From NBA players to the national teams to NCAA and U SPORTS hoops, Oren will cover a wide variety of uniquely Canadian basketball topics. Be sure to check in weekly!.

More important than Carleton’s success, perhaps, is that she is learning different styles of play and what she needs to work on to unlock the best version of herself.

“The best teams from every country are playing in this league all over Europe, so the styles of play are so different every single game,” Carleton said. “This week, we played a team from France who were super physical and passionate … and then we played a team in Turkey a couple of weeks before that actually has a lot of Americans on their team, but they’re more finesse and about making the right play and were not as physical. So, it’s just so different game to game, which is fun.

“And you have to learn to adjust. And I think I learned a lot about myself as a player, including what I like and what I don’t like playing against, so what I need to get better at, basically.”

Carleton has loved living in Spain and travelling all over the continent for the first time in her life after playing abroad in Australia, Israel and France briefly during COVID. She has become a regular coffee drinker and admires the passion of the fan bases across Europe, as well as the way the Spanish play, saying that she enjoys the “flair of the game in Spain. I mean, people do some crazy moves. I’m like, ‘How do you even think to do that?’ It’s so creative, and they just make it work, which you don’t always see all the time in the WNBA.”

Carleton is realistic about her shortcomings, but at 25 years old with just four years of professional experience behind her, she is yet to reach anywhere near her potential. This offseason, however, has felt like her coming-out party.

Carleton is a restricted free agent in the WNBA, with the Lynx extending a qualifying offer to her this week. And while she won’t give away where she will be playing next season, her offseason has left her brimming with confidence and swagger, and she knows what type of role she wants to have going forward in the greatest women’s league on earth.

“I want to take a step in the WNBA,” Carleton said. “Not just being a role player, not just being three-and-D. Obviously, sticking to my three-and-D because that’s what I’m best at and that’s what I hang my hat on, but being more than just a role player and coming off the bench, averaging more minutes, more consistency.

“So, that’s what I’m hoping for this year, and I hope to continue to get better this offseason, so I’m ready for that.”

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