Kiwi Hotshot Eyes the Bigtime

Kiwi women are riding the crest of a wave in US college basketball. As MARC HINTON reports, that could soon see New Zealand’s WNBA drought come to a welcome end.

In 23 years of the WNBA just one New Zealander has made it into the rarefied air of the world’s greatest women’s basketball league. That was Megan Compain all the way back in the inaugural season of this showcase of women’s hoops in 1997.

But that could soon be about to change if highly regarded Washington State University mentor Kamie Ethridge is any judge. And you better believe this 56-year-old former collegiate all-American at the University of Texas at Austin, 1988 Olympic gold medallist and now highly respected coach knows her stuff.

Ethridge’s best player on her Washington State team making some real noise in the loaded Pac-12 conference of division one NCAA hoops in the US just happens to be New Zealand’s premier young player, Charlisse Leger-Walker.

Walker, who first played for the Tall Ferns as a 16-year-old, was having herself a sensational freshman (first-year) season with the Cougars in one of American women’s college hoops most loaded conferences. Entering the last week of the regular season the 19-year-old from Hamilton was averaging 19.7 points, 5.4 rebounds and 3.3 assists and leads the entire Pac-12 in scoring, total points, field goals made, free-throws made, 3-pointers made and steals. No freshman has ever led this conference in scoring in its history.

Ethridge anticipates having Leger-Walker around for a few more years yet to build her programme around, but has no doubts that the New Zealander will one day find herself in the WNBA where she will get to showcase her abilities among the very best players on the planet.

“Charlisse has the quickness, the IQ, the skillset, the playmaking ability … and she can guard as well,” said Ethridge who went all the way to New Zealand (twice) and Mongolia to scout the young Kiwi. “Some day we’re going to watch her play in the WNBA, and not only play, but I think she’ll be a great player in the league.”

Leger-Walker, for her part, isn’t getting ahead of herself. She has goals at the collegiate level she wants to tick off and a game that can still be honed among the intensity and competiveness of the university game.

“I’m just super humbled and proud to be part of a team that’s proving to be better than everyone thought,” she says from Pullman, Washington. “Just coming over here and having a sense of purpose, and something to really focus on has been really good for me. I’m loving it. Every game in this league is so tough. But that’s why I came here – to see where I stood among the very best athletes”.

Of course, though, this daughter of Tall Ferns great Leanne Walker, and a student of the New Zealand game, knows the story of Megan Compain only too well and would love to end the long wait for another Kiwi to play in the WNBA.

“It’s become more of a reality, seeing the pathway a bit more clearly,” she says. “It’s a huge goal and a really hard thing to do. But I’m on the right path to get there.”

Leger-Walker is not the only Kiwi on the right path in the American college game. Even on a landscape pared back a little by the Covid virus, there are still 17 Kiwi women playing division one hoops. Some of them at a very high level.

Leger-Walker’s sister, Krystal, is having the best season of her career alongside her sibling as a starter at WSU (10.3 points a game and 4.8 assists). Amiee Book (California State Fullerton), Kendall Heremaia (Fordham) and Akiene-Tera Reed (Virginia Commonwealth University) are all also starting for quality teams, and performing at an elite level.

Book was averaging 14.9 points and nearly 5 rebounds a game at Fullerton as the season drew to a close, Heremia wasn’t far back of that (12.6 points, 6.9 rebounds) and Reed is also delivering for VCU, with 12.1 points, 4.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists. All shape as future Tall Ferns.

Throw in younger performers such as Tayla Dalton (St Mary’s), Helen Matthews (Wofford College), Emme Shearer (Portland), Kaylee Smiler (BYU) and Charlotte Whittaker (Colorado), who have had impressive cameos as they look to establish themselves at the collegiate level, and it’s been arguably New Zealand’s most impactful season at this level.

There are some big things in the pipeline for New Zealand women’s basketball. It’s as well. There is a wave of talent hungry for opportunities.