With the first quarter of a thrilling WNBL season already in the books, early leaders are emerging as potential MVP candidates. One of them, Alison Schwagmeyer-Belger of the Perth Lynx, is on pace to shatter the numbers she put up in her sophomore season. Through six games, she ranks sixth in points per game (17.8) and third in minutes per game (36.5).
She’s close to matching her total three pointers from last year, and more efficiently so — 16 out of 36 this season (44.4%), as opposed to 23-68 previously (33.8%). She has absolutely come alive on the boards, corralling 7.2 rebounds per game, up from 4.6 just a year ago.
More than that, though, she has proven to be the heart and soul of the team, setting the tone with her energy and determination. Along with Katie Ebzery (the league leader in minutes per game at 37.6), Schwagmeyer-Belger has been a fixture on the floor for the Lynx.
However, despite their gruelling efforts and an influx of promising offseason acquisitions, Perth has not always been able to translate that into the win column. They sit fifth on the ladder with a 2-4 record, though they could just as easily be 5-1 — three of those losses came in overtime, with the scrappy Lynx falling short in the end.
"We had a rough bit of a go there in the middle," Schwagmeyer-Belger told the Pick and Roll. "We had three overtime games that we dropped, so it’s always hard mentally because you’re right there in the game. It’d be nice to get a couple of those.
"But I think that you can always turn that into positive, it really made us look and see what we needed to work on. We studied film, and we’re just plugging away at those little things that maybe caused us to drop those games in OT, and I think it’s making us better."
For the Lynx, one of the key things to address moving forward will be consistency and an ability to close out those tight games.
"We get ahead — in all of those games, we go into the fourth quarter actually with the lead," Schwagmeyer-Belger continued. "So for us, it’s just sticking to the plan of Perth basketball and what we want it to be: pressure and high tempo.
"I think in the fourth quarter we maybe dropped our pressure and our tempo a bit, and it made teams a bit more comfortable going into that fourth quarter, so we just want to make sure we’re keeping our tempo, keeping our pressure up the whole game instead of just three quarters, I think that’ll help us a lot.
"Obviously too, we worked on some ball movement and offensive spacing, that’ll help us a bit, too."
Part of the Lynx's turnaround could stem from the strength of their developmental system. This season saw a trio of homegrown talent make the main roster, with Nes'eya Williams already beginning to find her way into the rotation.
"It's really cool, we've got three younger girls from Perth," Schwagmeyer-Belger said. "I think that it's a massive learning curve for them, just getting used to the style of play, of the tempo, and just being focused all the time. Trying not to take plays off and possessions off mentally and physically, and they’ve been super receptive.
"Even from the start of preseason to now, oh my gosh, it’s night and day to how they’re training, so it’s really cool to see."
Certainly, they have strong role models to help shape their development. In previous years, Schwagmeyer-Belger has turned down contracts with European teams in order to remain in Australia and challenge elite competition. She has moulded herself into a passionate leader who works diligently on her craft, and her strong start to the season has been testament to that.
"Definitely hard work and preparation," she explained as the cause for her success so far. "You always want to work as hard as you can to be ready for opportunities that come your way.
"The funny thing is, I think people sometimes think like, ‘I’ll start working hard or I’ll get prepared once the opportunity comes’, but that’s not the case. Success often comes when you’ve prepared before the opportunity comes.
"All summer I was just working really hard, and I think that’s another thing — if you just put your head down and work hard, when the opportunity arises, you’ll be ready for it, you know what I mean?"
Schwagmeyer-Belger has the results to show for it, too, as she has been dominating the basketball scene in Western Australia for a few years now. She was the WSBL's 2018 Grand Final MVP as a member of the Lakeside Lightning, capping off two consecutive WSBL All-Star Five honors and three straight league MVP awards.
"It's helped, definitely," she said of her time in the WSBL. "I think, though, that the tempo and the talent level in the WNBL is higher, and so it's definitely helped in areas, but I think last year being my first real season in the WNBL, I got a feel for it.
"I got a better feel for it this year — what I need to bring."
Looking ahead, Schwagmeyer-Belger is confident of her team's ability to improve, and cites familiarity as being a key factor. An untimely ankle injury to import Imani McGee-Stafford has proven a major setback, while Ariel Atkins, fresh off a WNBA championship with the Washington Mystics, has been recovering from a back injury sustained during the playoff run.
"We had a core group of four players come back [from last season], and that's not even including the younger girls that were DP's last year, so technically we have seven people coming back," Schwagmeyer-Belger explained. "It's good having that core group that we have, because then, when you get new players in like Marena [Whittle], Nad [Payne], Ariel and Imani, we can show them how it works, and they can kind of fit in, rather than having to reteach everything all over again.
"It’ll be really cool, us getting our full team back, Imani coming back in, and Ariel’s still getting comfortable with us; she’s only played two games so far with us.
"Our schedule’s actually getting a lot bigger, now that we’re having double headers. We’ve been pretty lucky the last three weeks to have singles. I think the more games we’re playing, Ariel will get a bit more comfortable, and Imani coming back in after her injury.
"We’re all just playing really well together at this point, and we’re still learning how each other play, which is kind of a cool thing, because I think from here it’s only going to get better and better for each player individually on our team."
Perth will be back in action on Friday the 22nd against the Sydney Uni Flames. Be sure to check out the full WNBL schedule here!