The New Zealand basketball phenom just led her US college team to its first-ever conference championship. Now the national tournament awaits – and could a spot in the WNBA draft be next?
In 2017 The Spinoff profiled 16-year-old New Zealand basketball player Charlisse Leger-Walker. At the time, she was tearing up high school and age-grade representative basketball and had just become the youngest ever member of the Tall Ferns. In the profile, Madeleine Chapman declared the Year 11 student at St Peter’s College in Cambridge “the best school-aged basketball player New Zealand has ever seen.” Now, she could be about to become the best New Zealand basketball player the WNBA has ever seen.
Leger-Walker led St Peter’s to four consecutive national championships, earning MVP honours each time. She even led her school to a fifth-placed finish at the high school world championships, where she was named one of the top five players at the tournament. At her first Commonwealth Games in 2018, she helped lead New Zealand to a bronze medal. In 2019, Leger-Walker earned the Tall Ferns their first-ever medal at a FIBA World Cup – winning silver at the under-18 3×3 world championship. There she was named one of the three best performers in the whole competition. 2021 saw her finish second on the Tall Ferns in scoring and assists at the FIBA Women’s Basketball Asia Cup.
These days the 5’10” guard is a junior (aka in her third year) at Washington State University, and is considered one of the best college players in the USA. Washington State plays in the Pac-12 conference, acknowledged as one of the top competitions in the country. Throughout her college career, Leger-Walker has averaged roughly 18 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals per game. This season has, statistically speaking, been her best yet, bumping her rebound and assists numbers up by one while shooting career-best marks from the field, including 36% from three and 83% from the free throw line.
Her trophy shelf has continued to grow during her time in the US. Her freshman (first year) awards included: 2020-21 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, All-American honourable mention, 2020-21 All-Pac-12 Team, 2020-21 All-Pac-12 Freshman Team and she was named the 17th best player on ESPN’s Top-25 Players list for the 2021-22 season. Her sophomore (second year) prizes included 2021-22 All-Pac-12 Team, finalist for the national shooting guard of the year award, and to prove her talents extend beyond the basketball court, she was also named to the 2022 Pac-12 winter academic honour roll.
A few weeks ago Leger-Walker led the Washington State Cougars to win the Pac-12 championship tournament, making history as the lowest-ever ranked team to win. Following her tournament run, which included a game-winning three against highly-ranked Utah, she was named the player of the competition and, for the third year in a row, was named to the all-Pac-12 team. Her efforts garnered praise from Golden State Warriors shooting guard and Washington State alum Klay Thompson, who told Leger-Walker, “hopefully your jersey is in the rafters one day as well.” If her jersey number were to be retired and raised to the rafters, she would become only the third Cougars player ever – and the first female – to receive the accolade. After leading Washington State to their first-ever female Pac-12 championship in any sport, Leger-Walker deserves to be enshrined in Cougars’ history.
The team’s next challenge is their biggest yet – the NCAA tournament, more commonly known as “March Madness”. They’ve reached the tournament with Leger-Walker in the team before, but have never gone into it this highly regarded. Washington State enters the first round of the knockout competition as the fifth-seeded favourites to beat Florida Gulf Coast, seeded 12th. The game tips off at 7.30am Sunday NZ time. (Unfortunately it’s not scheduled to be shown on New Zealand television.)
One more challenge looms large over Leger-Walker. She could forfeit her last year of college basketball to put her hat in the ring for WNBA selection later this year. According to Stuff’s Marc Hinton, she is yet to make a decision, but her coach Kamie Ethridge is hopeful that she will become just the second New Zealander to reach the WNBA (after Megan Compain back in 1997). A strong showing at the NCAA tournament will only boost Leger-Walker’s already rising stock among WNBA franchises.
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