BRIDGET CARLETON IS READY FOR HER CLOSEUP
By: Holly MacKenzie
In a year filled with uncertainty, Bridget Carleton made one thing abundantly clear: Her WNBA career is just beginning.
The 23-year-old Chatham, Ontario native, started out her year in Australia, finishing up her first season playing for Townsville Fire. From there, Carleton joined the Senior Women’s National Team in Belgium to help the program qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, before the sports world was turned upside down due to the Coronavirus pandemic.
Returning home to Chatham during the shutdown, Carleton got to work. Without access to a basketball court, she went outside her family home to get shots up. Without a gym to attend, she stayed outside to get cardio in by running. As for strength-training, she got her weightlifting done thanks to a pair of 20-pound dumbbells she found in her family’s basement.
“I made it work,” Carleton said. “I think [the time at home] did help me, it gave me time to relax and get a routine. My nutrition was more consistent than it ever had been because I wasn't traveling as much. I don't know, it was kind of a blessing in disguise for me.”
Another blessing in disguise was getting to return to the Minnesota Lynx this season. After spending the end of last WNBA season with the organization, having some familiarity helped to make bubble life easier.
“It was amazing being back with the Lynx,” Carleton said. “I got a good feel for the culture they had, the championship mindset, the players, the coaches, they all were really great. I was excited to get back this year. I wasn't expecting it to look how it looked in the bubble, I wasn’t expecting to play as much as I did, but taking advantage of opportunities, I really enjoyed myself.”
Also helping to make the WNBA bubble (or, “Wubble”) more enjoyable was Carleton’s Team Canada teammate Kayla Alexander, also with the Lynx this season. When the team first arrived in Florida, the two Canadians were even roommates for the beginning of the summer. While Carleton loved having a fellow Canadian on the team, she says all of her Lynx teammates made the summer bubble experience a great one.
“My teammates were really so awesome,” Carleton said. “Super helpful to be around and that was really helpful in the bubble. Overall it was great. It was really a lot of fun.”
Following Team Canada’s impressive tournament in Belgium, National Team head coach Lisa Thomaidis was confident that Carleton would enter the bubble ready to go and make the most of her opportunity.
“You look at someone like Bridget, COVID hit and she made herself a better player during that time,” Thomaidis said. “There’s something to be said for that. That takes a lot of grit and self determination and commitment to be able to do that in that time.”
In Carleton’s initial stint with the Lynx, on a seven-day contract with limited opportunity to show what she could do in game situations, Carleton focused on the things that she could control and the impression she wanted to leave with Minnesota in a short amount of time.
“[I knew I probably wouldn’t get a lot of in-game opportunity], so being a good teammate, being an energizer, working hard in practice, doing whatever I can to make a good impression, fit in and learn as much as I can [became the priority],” Carleton said of last season with the Lynx.
After that seven-day contract, Minnesota signed Carleton on for the rest of last season and into this season. It’s safe to say the first impression she made was a good one.
“Coming into this season, I think that [last year’s time together] helped their confidence in me,” she said. “They know what I can do in practice. Then having a good training camp and getting more and more minutes as the season went on, it was fun obviously. I think I've just grown so much in the past year.”
Rejoining the Lynx in the bubble, Carleton wasn’t just ready physically, but mentally as well.
“I think this past year, qualifying at the Olympics qualifier in Belgium, I kind of proved to myself [I belong], and I got that confidence that I needed to bring to the WNBA season,” Carleton said. “I played a lot in the qualifiers for Team Canada and I was feeling good, feeling excited, ready to go to training camp. I had a really good training camp in the bubble. It was only two weeks because everything was accelerated, but I think more than anything I just proved to myself I can play at this level and I belong at this level.”
Though Carleton’s minutes were limited in her time with the Lynx last season, the 2020 season saw an opportunity due to absences in the Lynx lineup that included Maya Moore sitting out her second consecutive season to fight for social justice issues and other teammates missing time due to injury. After starting her time in the bubble coming off the bench to log a minute of playing time in the first game of the season, 10 days later, Carleton found herself in Minnesota’s starting five, facing off against Kia Nurse and the New York Liberty.
Carleton had a career-high 25 points to go with seven rebounds, three assists and a steal in a 92-66 Lynx victory in her first career-start. She shot 11-for-16 from the floor and was perfect from beyond the arc, making all three of her three-point attempts, becoming just the third WNBA player to ever score 25 points and grab five rebounds in a starting debut.
“That game was awesome,” Carleton said.
Despite the lack of fans in attendance and the distance created by being in the bubble, Carleton said she still felt the love from fans at home thanks to social media. “My phone was blowing up after the game and the next day,” she said. “What’s also unique, being in the bubble and having the game I did, you see other teams and other coaches and they’re congratulating players just from around the league. It was a different thing that never would have happened in the middle of the season, so that was cool.”
While her family back home was watching, so was her Canada Basketball family as Thomaidis says she was “glued to the television” watching Carleton’s sophomore season in the bubble. “The more you watch and the more you see [Carleton] out there, her basketball IQ and her attention to detail with her fundamentals, those subtleties in her game really make her valuable,” Thomaidis said. “[They] make her someone that you can’t have off the floor. I think she brought that at the right time [for the Lynx] and she was able to ride the wave and see more and more success.”
Three weeks after her first start, Carleton set another career-best. This time, showing another aspect of her game as she dished 10 assists in 29 minutes in a Lynx loss against the Sparks. In addition to being a personal best for Carleton, 10 assists matched a career-high set by Moore, a mark that is second in Lynx franchise history. As the season went on, Carleton continued to show the various aspects of her game. In the abbreviated 22-game season, Carleton ended up starting 15 of 22 games, averaging 25.8 minutes per contest, the fourth-highest average on the team.
Though Carleton knew she had earned her spot and opportunity with the Lynx, it was during this sophomore season that things clicked.
“I think that’s the most important thing no matter what anyone else thinks,” Carelton said. “There’s always going to be people applauding you, or giving criticism, but I definitely proved to myself and around the league that I do deserve to be there.”
Carleton is reluctant to give herself too much praise when speaking about her own accomplishments. Still, it is obvious when she speaks of her sophomore season and experience within the WNBA bubble that she is proud of her summer effort. Watching from Saskatchewan, Thomaidis could see Carleton flourish as the summer went on.
“When she is confident in her abilities and her environment, she really plays better because she has that bit of security from a mental sense,” Thomaidis said. “I think that with some opportunity, seeing some success, being in her second year, that makes all the difference.”
Though Carleton went into the season wanting to prove her game, even before the WNBA’s season tipped off, the WNBA collective made it explicitly clear that there were much more important things than a basketball season at stake. As the WNBA dedicated the 2020 season to Breonna Taylor and the Say Her Name movement, personal goals gave way to united ones.
“Looking back, for sure, I think that’s the main thing I’ll remember,” Carleton said. “If you’re talking about the WNBA, you’re talking about the social justice issues that are going on and you’re talking about everything that’s going on in the world. It was so important for us as a league that this was the narrative beyond this season.”
While her career-highs garnered headlines and her summer efforts made a lasting impression around the league, what matters most to Carleton is knowing she used her platform for something bigger than any game.
“I think I'm most proud of being able to use my platform,” Carleton said. “Do my job, do my job well, but also stand up for what I believe in and what is right and also what our league believes in. I think that’s definitely what I’m most proud of.”
As Carleton spends this WNBA offseason in France, playing for Landerneau Bretagne Basket for the first time, she has plenty to be proud of, on and off the court.