Discover more from The Pick and Roll
2023 WNBL Season Review: Part 2 - The next four
Despite missing out on Finals action, there's still plenty to recap when looking at the bottom half of the 2023 WNBL ladder.
While every teams wants to plays WNBL Finals basketball, only four can make the cut each season and that leaves the other half of the league stuck on the outside looking in.
Having recapped the top four last week, it’s now time to take a look at those teams that didn’t qualify for post-season basketball.
Image credit: Getty Images
A 7-0 start to the season had the Spirit absolutely flying, as the additions of Kelsey Griffin, Kelly Wilson, Alicia Froling and Abbey Wehrung were providing the goods, giving 2022 WNBL MVP Anneli Maley some much-needed help.
When the Spirit were firing on all cylinders early in the season, they looked every bit of a Championship contender. With new coach Kennedy Kereama having instilled a defensive-minded approach, the Spirit held their opponents to under 70 points per game through their seven-game winning streak to begin the season.
Signing Griffin grabbed the majority of the off-season headlines, but Froling and Wehrung were also massive for the Spirit. Froling’s ability to come back from a career-threatening wrist injury and play the best basketball of her career was a testament to her work ethic, while Wehrung’s defensive grit and three-point shooting kept the Spirit in many games throughout the season.
The Pick and Roll is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
The continued growth of Maley was another bright spot and although she didn’t have as many monster stat-line games as she did in her MVP season, she was a constant presence and force on both ends of the court.
Sitting in the box seat for a Finals spot, Bendigo lost their final six games of the season to fall outside of the top four as Perth stormed home. Compared to their stunning defensive work at the start of the season, the script completely flipped for the Spirit in their final six games, allowing their opponents to score a whopping 93 points per game.
An early February loss to the Boomers by 43 points, 115-72, was a lowlight of the season and the Spirit didn’t win another game after that.
There’s no doubt Griffin being sidelined for over a month through January and February made life that much harder for Bendigo and they were unable to cover her absence.
Maley is under contract heading into next season, having signed a three-year deal in 2022. She’s one of the faces of the league and with her heading to Chicago on a training camp deal, she’ll be doing everything within her power to make the Sky team and gain more WNBA experience after getting a short taste of it last season in Chicago.
If the Spirit are able to retain the likes of Wehrung and Froling, they’ll have a strong core around Maley, while re-signing Griffin would have to be a priority.
It will be interesting to see if Bendigo sign an import next season, having been the lone team without an import in 2022/23. Competing against teams that have multiple star imports while having none yourself heaps that much more pressure on the likes of Maley and Griffin, tasked with shouldering so much of the load on both ends.
When Shelley Gorman took over as coach of the Flames as the franchise parted ways with Shane Heal, Sydney became a different team. With Gorman leading the way, Tiana Mangakahia rose to a new level and the Flames played inspired basketball, highlighted by their rousing one-point win over Southside in front of 7,681 fans at John Cain Arena.
The Aussie duo of Keely Froling and Mangakahia was huge for the Flames and although the wins weren’t rolling in, the fight of those two could never be in question. Froling (18.5 points and 8.8 rebounds per game) continues to develop and she’s absolutely one of the best bigs in the country, who will stop at nothing to help her team.
Image credit: May Bailey
In her first season in the WNBL, Mangakahia’s passing brilliance was on full display as she dished out some highlight assists, while also proving to be a scoring threat, averaging 13.4 points per game.
There’s no doubt it was a messy season for the Flames as the Heal drama took over, and parting ways with a star player like Shyla Heal midway through the season was shocking.
The Flames just didn’t have the depth required to really challenge the upper echelon teams, while losing seven of their first eight games had them on the back foot right from the jump and they never recovered.
Their offence never found a groove as the Flames scored the least points of any team, averaging 73.6 points per game. Despite their defence being middle of the pack, it wasn’t enough to overcome their offensive shortcomings.
Shelley Gorman did a tremendous job as coach in desperate times. She got the best out of her players and having her return as coach in 2023/24 would provide great stability for the club after the most unstable year.
Top of the agenda for the Flames would have to be focusing on the re-signing of Froling. She’s the heart and soul type of player every team needs and she would leave a massive hole if Sydney isn’t able to retain her.
When looking for import players, I’m sure the Flames would love to add a strong backcourt presence to pair alongside Mangakahia, who is contracted for next season.
Image credit: May Bailey
The three-game winning streak early in the season gave Adelaide fans something to cheer for, highlighted by a dominant 19-point win over Southside at home. In that game, the Lightning were the best version of themselves with what they would’ve hoped be their big three of Steph Talbot (12 points, 9 rebounds and 7 assists), Jacinta Monroe (22 points and 10 rebounds) and Kierstan Bell (23 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists) all performing well.
That big three never really eventuated though as Bell and Adelaide parted ways in December.
The emergence of Izzy Borlase was one of the great stories of the season as the rising star burst onto the scene with 25 points, 9 rebounds and 3 assists back in Round 1 against Southside. Borlase, just 18 years old, was a bright spot in an otherwise disappointing season for the Lightning as she claimed WNBL Sixth Woman of the Year and Breakout Player of the Year honours.
Winning just two of their final 15 games saw the Lightning drop out of Finals contention quickly as things fell apart.
The season-ending ACL injury to Steph Talbot in February was an awful sight to watch as she collapsed to the floor in Canberra. After starring for the Opals at the World Cup last year, it was a heartbreaking way for her season to end. An absolute star of the league, Talbot was named WNBL Defensive Player of the Year and I have no doubt she’ll be back better than ever after her recovery.
While you’d be a fool to rule out Talbot given her determination, it will be likely that she misses most, if not all, of the next WNBL season and that means Adelaide will be searching for a leader to replace her. It will be near impossible for the Lightning to find a replacement that offers as much as Talbot does, so it might have to be a case of covering her loss by committee.
Adelaide have needs at every position, so signing young Aussie talent will be key as well as getting their two import signings right.
It might seem crazy to some, but even though the Capitals only managed two wins for the season, there is genuine excitement surrounding the team. Jade Melbourne is only getting better and her late season form was exceptional, highlighted by her triple-double against Adelaide in January.
Despite the losses piling up, the fight of the Capitals was always on full display as the infectious energy and competitiveness of Melbourne ran through the rest of the group. The development of Shanice Swain was a bright spot as she led the Capitals in scoring with 14.5 points per game and really put her name up in lights ahead of the WNBA Draft.
Import Nicole Munger’s story of dominating the NBL1, signing mid-season with Canberra and then turning into one of their most important players is a credit to her determination and commitment. Munger is a workhorse, the type of player every coach would love to have, and she definitely became one of the best stories in the league.
I was really impressed by the import pairing of Munger and Rae Burrell, as both stuck to the task at hand and worked tirelessly on both ends of the court despite results often not going their way. A huge shoutout must also go to Kristen Veal, who in her first season as head coach, brought her team together despite a rough initiation and who’s players clearly loved playing for her.
Image credit: May Bailey
Losing their first 12 games of the season, Canberra was unable to generate any wins until mid-January when they finally got over the line at home against Bendigo. The Capitals just didn’t have the depth to compete against teams at times throughout the season as injuries took their toll, as did parting ways with import Dekeiya Cohen just four games into the season.
Locking in Jade Melbourne for a further two seasons is one of the biggest coups in the league. Just imagining the type of player Melbourne could be in two years makes my giddy. She’s not just a rising star anymore – even though she is only 20 years old – she’s a legitimate star of the league and Australian basketball. Heading to Seattle for her rookie WNBA season will only help Melbourne’s development, as will being around the Opals program.
Munger and Bec Pizzey have also re-signed for next season. I’m sure the Capitals will be looking to add another high-level import alongside Munger.
This story has been supported by the WNBL. Visit their official website wnbl.basketball for all the latest news, fixtures and to book tickets.