The 41st instalment of the WNBL, Australia’s longest-running elite women’s sporting competition, is underway and could well be the best yet with its all-Australian talent.
Coronavirus forced a five-month-long home-and-away season to be condensed into an action-packed 60 games in 40 days campaign played in Far North Queensland, and an early call was made that no internationals would be part of the league because of the pandemic.
The decision came after Canadian national team member and New York Liberty WNBA guard Kia Nurse became the first import to win the WNBL’s Most Valuable Player award.
Adelaide Lightning boom recruit Brianna Turner, of Phoenix Mercury, finished in second place.
With four games down in #WNBL20, basketball fans and keen, new eyeballs have already been treated to a highlights reel of our best players.
Cambage to provide an X-factor this season
After a two-season absence, superstar Liz Cambage returns to the competition and spearheads the talent-laden Southside Flyers, who reached the grand final series in their inaugural campaign last summer.
The 203cm centre took to the court on Thursday night in Townsville with her Australian Opals captain Jenna O’Hea and point guard Leilani Mitchell plus squad members Sara Blicavs and Bec Cole. The Flyers signalling their intentions with a 102-60 thrashing of Bendigo Spirit.
Southside’s depth has been further boosted with the additions of dual Olympian Rachel Jarry and Steph Blicavs, who has won gold (2018 Commonwealth Games) and silver (2017 FIBA Asia Cup) medals for the Opals.
Cambage is the best player on her national team, one of the very best in the world and her addition to any team from Melbourne to China or the WNBA propels them into championship contention.
Personally, it’s a hugely important move for Cambage, who didn’t play for eventual runner-up Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA this year.
She last played in February, helping the Australian Opals secure qualification to the Tokyo Olympics.
With the Games delayed until next year, Cambage’s Olympic preparation 2.0 launches with a WNBL campaign.
Cambage, Jarry and Nat Burton, who is suiting up for the Sydney Uni Flames, all competed at the 2016 Rio Olympics and return to the league this season after time away.
Rising star Ezi Magbegor steps out for the Melbourne Boomers fresh from last month winning a championship with Seattle Storm in her rookie WNBA season.
She turned 21 in the WNBA bubble and has returned home with valuable confidence, defining experiences and self-belief.
She registered a double-double in her opening WNBL game and will have a big say in whether the Boomers can win just their second championship next month.
Opals legends hail home-grown talent
In retirement, Australia’s greatest ever basketballer, Lauren Jackson, is now making a profound impact beyond the baseline as Basketball Australia’s head of women in basketball.
She believes the standard of the league is already rising to a new level with our best-of-the-best on home soil.
“Watching the first couple of games, I saw some youngsters, a couple from Perth Lynx including Taylah Burrows, and thought, ‘wow, that’s someone who will get a lot of minutes and a lot of experience out of this season’.
“And of course, we’ve got our best Australian players playing. We’ve got Lizzie [Cambage] back, Ezi [Magbegor] straight from winning a WNBA championship. Steph Talbot, if she continues to play how she did on the first night she could well win the MVP. She’s in a different role, she’s captain now and what she did [against Canberra] was so impressive.
“I’m really glad Nat Burton’s back in Australia playing. I forgot how tall she was, how athletic she was, and I saw some of her in pre-season in Canberra and I’m really excited to see how she’ll match up against some of the other bigs in the league,” she added.
The season tipped off in Mackay on Wednesday night and Rio Olympian Talbot, in her first game as Adelaide captain, produced a stunning 31 points and 13 rebounds against Canberra.
The classy guard is just one of two returning players and while the Lightning will thrive on her leadership, at the same time she adds another element to her game heading into an Olympic year.
Young players ready to make their mark
For the Capitals, young gun point guard Maddi Rocci continues to turn heads and conjured a team-high 21 points, 8 rebounds and 7 assists against the Lighting. At just 22, she is already a two-time championship player.
Things are heating up in Townsville with Fire coach Shannon Seebohm piecing together an exciting young roster oozing Opals of the future.
Shyla Heal, the 18-year-old daughter of Aussie basketball champion Shane, is making waves and is the total point guard package.
Michele Timms, the first Australian woman to be inducted into the FIBA Hall of Fame, this week heaped high praise on the junior Heal.
“I don’t want to put too much pressure on her, but I see a bit of her game in what my game used to be like,” she said.
“I can’t talk more highly of her. I just love everything she does.”
At 21 years old and measuring in at 193cm, Zitina Aokuso is back on court after recovering from an ACL injury and has a bright future.
She’s already part of the national squad and will learn plenty from matching up on the likes of fellow Opals bigs Cambage, Melbourne Boomer Cayla George and Canberra’s Marianna Tolo during the season.
On Saturday, archrivals Southside Flyers and Melbourne Boomers go head-to-head in the Melbourne derby, this time in Townsville, as WNBL returns to its traditional home on the ABC.
Two of our biggest, brightest stars, Cambage and Magbegor, will contest the jump ball and Australian women’s basketball doesn’t get any better than that.
ABC TV will broadcast two games of the WNBL each week, starting with tonight’s clash between the Melbourne Boomers and Southside Flyers from 5:00pm AEDT.
Megan Hustwaite has covered the WNBL for the past 12 seasons and is a member of the ABC commentary team.