Laeticia Amihere’s WNBA dream was cultivated by injury, loss and perseverance
South Carolina and Team Canada standout overcame family tragedy and two knee injuries to become one of the WNBA draft’s most intriguing prospects
When asked which three words have defined her basketball journey to date, Laeticia Amihere, a highly-regarded prospect in the upcoming WNBA draft, paused in thought before delivering a response.
Her first word: success. At just 21 years old, Amihere has competed on some of the sport’s biggest stages that many hoopers wait a lifetime to reach, such as the World Cup and the Olympics. She was a member of the South Carolina women’s basketball team that won multiple conference titles, made two Final Four appearances and won a national championship in 2022.
Amihere’s second word: perseverance. To get to this point, just hours away from hearing her name called by WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert in New York, Amihere has battled adversity, from sustaining multiple knee injuries that could have jeopardized her college career to endure the loss of two loved ones.
“My basketball career is one that I’ve had to persevere through a lot of different things to get to the point I am right now,” said Amihere.
Amihere’s final word: unique. Standing at 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Amihere is one of the most intriguing draft prospects in her class. South Carolina coach Dawn Staley calls her the most versatile player she’s ever coached. It’s Amihere’s versatility and upside as a professional that could lead to her being selected in the first round Monday night in the WNBA draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
To hear her name called and to experience walking across the stage to begin the next phase of her career would be the realization of a dream that Amihere has had ever since she picked up a basketball.
“It’s kind of the moment that defines your career. All the hard work you put in, it pays off and then you’re kind of reaping your harvest,” Amihere said. “I’m just superexcited for that moment.
“I think it’s just going to be really a part of my testimony.”
When Amihere was in the eighth grade, she’d taken an interest in learning how to dunk. As a teenager growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, where her parents had emigrated to from West Africa in search of better opportunities, Amihere was a late bloomer. She had just taken up basketball a few years before.
After practices, as the gym cleared, Amihere would assess her progress with another dunk attempt. She enjoyed the rattle of the rim and the attention that it brought as onlookers watched.
“I would just keep doing it and doing it just for fun and then it kind of became something that I was known for,” Amihere said.
Amihere drew national and international attention when, at the age 15, she threw down a dunk during an AAU tournament game in the United States. She become the first Canadian woman credited with dunking during a game.
It was also at age 15 that Amihere began playing for the Canadian national team. She was now playing at her highest possible level, internationally against other countries. It was during this period that Amihere began to understand where basketball could take her.
“I realized that this is something I want to do and this is something that can carry me a long way,” said Amihere, who would become the No. 10 recruit in the Class of 2019. She fielded offers from every corner of the United States, ultimately choosing to play at South Carolina.
Amihere, who recently closed out her career with the Gamecocks in the women’s Final Four, is a member of a South Carolina senior class that will go down as the most accomplished recruiting class in program history. They’re nicknamed “The Freshies” and include Aliyah Boston, Zia Cooke, Brea Beal, Olivia Thompson and Amihere. Together, the senior core lost only nine games in four years.
For a South Carolina team with levels of talent that extended well beyond its starting five, every player sacrificed personal production on the court for the betterment of the team. That sacrifice extended to Amihere, who came off the bench for South Carolina her entire career even though she could have been a starter at almost any other program.
Amihere said with a roster as deep as South Carolina’s, players focused on one or two aspects of the game where they could positively impact the team. For Amihere, that was her versatility. Her ability to play multiple positions on offense and defense effectively was a big asset for the Gamecocks.
“She’s the most versatile player that I’ve ever coached,” Staley said in March following a season’s-best performance from Amihere in which she had 17 points, 6 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 blocks in a win against Ole Miss. “She can play one [point guard] through five [center]. She welcomes all the roles that she’s given.”
While Amihere was able to showcase her versatility, particularly her defensive prowess for South Carolina during her career, she noted that there’s more to her offensive skills that she has yet to tap into.
“At the next level, I would definitely want to show more of my midrange game, just being able to score at different levels,” Amihere said. “I think that’s something I didn’t need to do at South Carolina, and I’m excited to just be able to showcase that a little more.”
Amihere’s position in the draft is a bit of an unknown, though there’s no question she’s one of the most interesting prospects in this year’s class. Her combination of size, length, athleticism and her skill set place her in a bit of a category of her own. In his latest mock draft, ESPN’s M.A. Voepel has Amihere slotted as the No. 8 pick in the first round.
On a pre-draft media conference call last week, Cheryl Reeve, coach of the Minnesota Lynx, which own five selections in the upcoming draft including picks No. 2, 12 and 16, praised Amihere’s ability. How that ability translates and is ultimately defined by Amihere at the next level is of particular interest.
“I think probably the consistent thing that she does in terms of her energy, the way she approaches the game, I think she gets a lot of credit for being a very smart player who can play multiple positions,” Reeve said on the call. “What the skill set actually is, I think she’s still defining, maybe, who that is going to be as a player. But, at minimum, I’ve seen her change games with her ability to be aggressive.”
The 2020 Tokyo Games were a pivotal moment for Amihere understanding the demands and sacrifices of being a pro basketball player. Most of the Canadian team roster consisted of pros, including current WNBA players Kia Nurse, Natalie Achonwa and Bridget Carleton. Amihere spent four months with her teammates migrating between various bubble environments due to the coronavirus pandemic, and each day she experienced the pro lifestyle.
“You woke up, went to eat, did weights, practiced, you’re prepping your body for the next day and then you’re going through tournaments,” Amihere said. “You’re really stuck with that team and grinding every single day and then you’re going overseas and all these different things.”
In three games for Canada, Amihere averaged 4.7 points, 4.0 rebounds and 1 steal in 13.6 minutes of play.
“I think that was really when I was able to be like, ‘OK, this is what it’s going to take and this is the type of talent that I’m going to be playing against and what I need to do to ensure that I stay at that level.’ ”
To watch Amihere compete on the floor is to watch a player who hoops without fear – undeterred no matter how big, tall or skilled the opponent who stands in her way. Last summer’s FIBA World Cup semifinal, when Canada played the United States, serves as an example. The U.S. team had All-Star players who included A’ja Wilson, who had just come off a WNBA championship season in which she was named league MVP.
Midway through the second quarter, Amihere received the ball in the right corner of the floor. After selling a pump fake against Breanna Stewart, Amihere drove toward the basket where Wilson sat in the paint. As Wilson began to rotate over, Amihere didn’t change course, instead taking the ball right at the reigning WNBA Defensive Player of the Year (Wilson won the battle). Following the game, Wilson tweeted “LA really tried to dunk on me.” Amihere finished the game with a team-high 8 points along with 3 rebounds and 1 block.
“She has no fear,” said Reeve, who coached the U.S. national team. “She’s ambitious in the way that she chooses to attack defenders and has a natural confidence there.”
Amihere hoops like a player who wants to soak up every moment she has on the floor and is grateful for every additional minute she is able to play. She competes with that heightened level of passion because she knows what it feels like to have the sport taken away from her.
In October 2017, while competing for her high school King’s Christian Collegiate, Amihere suffered an ACL tear to her left knee. It’d be just over a year later – months after recovering from her first injury – when she’d suffer another ACL tear, this time in her right knee, while training with the Canadian national team.
“After you get injured, you kind of have a different lens and you kind of approach basketball in a different way,” Amihere said. “Previously, I missed six months of basketball and I was begging to be on the court. Now that I’m on the court and have an opportunity, I’m going to make the most of it.”
That desire to make the most of every moment is what Amihere strives to apply off the court. It’s a lesson that she learned from her aunt, Olga Lambert, who died last October of breast cancer. Amihere said Lambert, who was initially diagnosed in 2008, would commute long distances after her chemotherapy treatments to take Amihere to and from basketball practices.
“She was someone that always motivated me,” Amihere said. “She really wanted the best for me.”
News of Lambert’s death followed what had already been one of the toughest periods in Amihere’s life. Earlier in the year, she had undergone knee scope procedures on both knees which left her unable to train or even walk during the summer. Then in late August, weeks before she was scheduled to play in the FIBA World Cup as a part of Team Canada, Amihere’s oldest brother, Kofi, died at the age of 30.
“This year has been extremely tough for me,” Amihere said. “I feel like it was a moment where I was just on the go all the time and I wasn’t really able to just sit down and take in everything that’s been going on.”
Amihere’s brothers are the reason she even started playing basketball. Kofi, the eldest sibling, played first, followed by Amihere’s second brother, Benson. Amihere’s brothers would play pickup games in the family’s driveway and Amihere used to be the water girl, a role she held with pride.
“I’d run into the house and get water or get some snacks for them,” Amihere said. “I would follow them around even though they didn’t want me to. I’d ask to play.”
Amihere relied on her circle as she continued on with her Canadian team to Australia. She constantly had friends, family and supporters in her phone checking in on her, not a day passing without someone messaging her. Amihere also leaned on her faith, something of great importance to both Amihere and her family.
Amihere loves basketball and what the sport has been able to bring her, but her added motivation to get in the gym every day is the debt she believes she owes those who helped her start in the sport and supported her.
“When I don’t want to do it, I know there are people who have sacrificed a lot for me to be in this position,” Amihere said.
As someone so deeply impacted by others, Amihere has already placed a large emphasis on being able to impact others. Last summer, she founded Back to the Motherland, a nonprofit that aims to create opportunities for others in underserved communities. The inspiration for the nonprofit’s creation stemmed from Amihere’s experience. When Amihere wanted to compete on a travel basketball team shortly after she took up the sport, she couldn’t afford to pay the team fees. A coach, Kenny Manning, waived the fees so Amihere could play.
“That’s kind of what took off my career,” Amihere said. “Sometimes you just need that one person to believe in you and to give you that opportunity. That was what he gave me and that’s what I want to give to other people as well.”
Last July, Amihere traveled to the Ivory Coast where she hosted a basketball clinic, donated athletic resources and participated in sessions that educated students about nutrition, physical health and hygiene. Later that month, she hosted an all-girls camp in Canada to address the attrition rate of girls in sports.
“I really want to dive deep into the connections that I make with the people that I’m trying to impact,” Amihere said. “It’s not only trying to impact them by running camps, but also by being a great role model for them and somebody that they can look up to and reach out to.”
On draft day, Amihere will be joined in New York by her parents and her brother Benson, who couldn’t be prouder of his little sister and what she has both accomplished and overcome.
“Just beyond basketball, [I’m] just so proud of the person that she is and the strides that she’s made to get to this point,” said Benson, whom Amihere calls her toughest critic but also one of her biggest fans. “It will be worth going through all that adversity, going through those injuries. It’s going to be huge.”
As important as the draft is for Amihere, to be able to celebrate the moment with her family, which has endured despite irreplaceable loss, is part of what she looks forward to most.
“The last year has been really hard for us,” Amihere said. “Just to be together, [to] be able to soak in that moment, together … to have a win as a family is going to be so exciting.”