Meet the WNBA’s Oldest Rookie

Having played in nine other countries before a shot with the Mystics, 31-year-old Julie Vanloo isn’t your typical newcomer.
“I’m new to the league, but I carry a bag with a lot of experience," the 31-year-old Vanloo said during her first week in the WNBA.
“I’m new to the league, but I carry a bag with a lot of experience," the 31-year-old Vanloo said during her first week in the WNBA. / Stephen Gosling/NBAE/Getty Images

The Washington Mystics’ first bucket on Sunday was a rookie connection.

With a defender close on her, Washington guard Julie Vanloo found Aaliyah Edwards, who faked and then drove to the basket. The pair are the only rookies on this roster. Both made their first career start last weekend against the Seattle Storm after seeing action from the bench in the opening games of the season, and like any rookie teammates, they are linked by learning the nuances of a new league together. But their list of shared experiences stops about there.

The 21-year-old Edwards was drafted in the first round last month out of UConn. A decade her senior, Vanloo took a much less direct path to the WNBA. She has spent years collecting professional experiences across the world, playing first in her native Belgium, then anywhere else she could. But that never included a shot in the United States with the WNBA. It was the ultimate goal, but as the years wore on, Vanloo came to assume it would never come. She figured her chances of cracking the league might have expired when she turned 30. But she has been thrilled to prove herself wrong this year. A long-awaited training camp invite became a roster spot and now has turned into real minutes.

This season’s loaded rookie class has been hailed as potentially revolutionary for the WNBA. This group smashed viewership records in college, and there is real hope that now, their star power might translate to the league. That pressure means this season has carried an unusually heavy focus on rookies: Caitlin Clark, Angel Reese, Cameron Brink and more. But the group has stories beyond those of the most popular college stars.

Meet 31-year-old Vanloo: the oldest newcomer in the league.

The word “rookie” may feel inadequate for a player with her track record. Vanloo logged more than a decade playing all over Europe, where she was often teammates with Americans from the WNBA, many of whom traditionally go overseas in the winter to supplement their salaries. She has played in leagues from France to Italy to Russia to Australia to Spain to Turkey. She has plenty of national team experience, too, including helping Belgium to its first FIBA Women’s Eurobasket championship in 2023. (And when Team USA survived a scare from Belgium at an Olympic qualifier in February—only squeaking out a win, 81–79—the team’s leading scorer was Vanloo.) Fans who pay attention to the international game may have known her name for years.

As had the Mystics. “We have been following Julie’s international career for some time,” Washington general manager Mike Thibault said in the press release announcing her invite to training camp back in February. He meant it: The Mystics have long watched the Belgian national team. Washington drafted Emma Meesseman from Belgium in 2013, and she became a fixture on the roster, eventually being named WNBA Finals MVP when the Mystics won a championship in ’19. But watching Meesseman play internationally often meant noticing Vanloo, too. The front office had taken note of her development as a player over the years, watching the guard improve her court vision, balance her scoring threat and become a more aggressive defender. And with the Mystics now in a rebuilding period—most of that championship squad is gone—there were opportunities to experiment with new players at training camp this year. That included Vanloo.

“I never thought that I would get even one minute in the WNBA,” Vanloo says. “If you’d asked me just a couple of years ago, I would have said, ‘Yes, it’s a dream, but I don’t know if that’s still possible.’ I just never gave up.”

The 5' 8' Vanloo made her name on her crafty passing. Her varied professional experience means she’s accustomed to learning a system and developing chemistry quickly, and she’s done that so far in the U.S., too. Vanloo entered Tuesday averaging 5.7 assists per game—good for top 10 in the WNBA. The Mystics had been hoping to find an experienced point guard who could back up Brittney Sykes. They just ended up getting that veteran mindset from a rookie. Kind of.

“A veteran rookie,” Mystics guard Karlie Samuelson called her teammate in a press conference last week.

“That’s exactly how I feel,” Vanloo piped in. “I’m new to the league, but I carry a bag with a lot of experience… I’ve been watching this league for a long time, I’ve been watching players, I’ve been following like a fan. And now I’m playing in it. I’ve been watching, so I’d be ready, and I was so ready to come here.”

This kind of arc is not unheard of for international players in the WNBA. But it usually doesn’t take quite so long. According to Across the Timeline, only five players older than Vanloo have made their debut in the league over the last 20 years.

Washington didn’t plan to lean on Vanloo so much, so early. But when Sykes went down with an ankle injury Friday against the Sun—she is currently day-to-day—the natural choice for a replacement was Vanloo. She recorded 12 points, eight assists and four rebounds stepping in off the bench, and she made her first start two days later. The Mystics hadn’t expected this. But they can’t say they were surprised.

“To me, it’s part of the thing of being an older rookie,” says Mystics coach Eric Thibault. “You’ve got a lot of body of work that we’ve been able to see over the years.”

Vanloo still has adjustments to make; the physicality of the league is more pronounced than it was anywhere in Europe, for one, and she’ll have to find new ways to contend with this kind of length and athleticism. The coaching staff has also been encouraging her to shoot more: “They know I’m a pass-first point guard, and they’ve just been telling me, Don’t hide your scoring ability.” But they’ve still liked much of what they’ve seen so far. “She’s not afraid,” Thibault says. “So if you want to try to be physical with somebody like that, and hard hedge and all that, she’s smart enough to get the ball out quickly and let her teammates make a play.”

She’s put up highlights beyond her passing, too. The flair she has on her assists can translate to her baskets. The Nos. 2, 3 and 4 deepest made shots this season belong to long-range phenom Clark. But the No. 1? That’s all Vanloo—and it was her first career basket.

She’s used to figuring out a new league on the fly. (The U.S. is the 10th country she has played in.) But a first-year player is a first-year player. And even with all her experience, Vanloo has still been surprised by a few things about life in the WNBA.                                                        

Male practice squads. (These are standard in the U.S., but in Europe, it’s less common for women to practice against men.) Busier schedules. (Never had she been asked to show up quite so early on game days.) Multiple weightlifting sessions each week. (When she brings up this one, Vanloo proudly flexes and points to her bicep, grinning as she declares they’re clearly working.) And the volume.

“There’s a lot of noise,” she says. “Literally.”

That includes more crowded gyms, more elaborate pregame routines and more attention from the media. It’s been an adjustment. But she’s realized she loves it.

“I don’t want to have it any other way,” Vanloo says. “I like how much attention we get as women.”

Before each game, she takes a moment during the national anthem to think about where she is playing, how she got here, what she wants to do with this chance. Vanloo was extremely nervous before the season opener, she says. Now? She’s just having fun.

“I just close my eyes and say, ‘Julie, enjoy this moment,’” she says. “‘Just play your game, have fun, smile, that’s when you’re at your best…’ I’m trying to live in the moment.”


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Emma Baccellieri

EMMA BACCELLIERI

Emma Baccellieri is a staff writer who focuses on baseball and women's sports for Sports Illustrated. She previously wrote for Baseball Prospectus and Deadspin; and has appeared on BBC News, PBS NewsHour and MLB Network. Emma has been honored with multiple awards from the Society of American Baseball Research, including: SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in historical analysis (2022), McFarland-SABR Baseball Research Award (2020) and SABR Analytics Conference Research Award in contemporary commentary (2018). A graduate from Duke University, she’s also a member of the Baseball Writers Association of America.