Aussies in the WNBA: Training camp thoughts
WNBA training camp is underway and preseason games have begun. Where do the Australians stand within the league?
There was plenty of change for our Aussies in the WNBA over the offseason. Now that training camp is underway, it’s all about looking forward and seeing how each player can impact their respective team in the season ahead.
Training camp and preseason games are when push turns to shove for players as they look to impress, and gain playing time or lock down a roster spot for those on training camp only deals.
With eight Australians spread across the league, let’s take a look at where they stand with the regular season just around the corner.
Chicago Sky: Alanna Smith & Anneli Maley
Alanna Smith looks set to take her career to the next level after a tough couple of years. Injuries, missing out on a spot on the Opals squad for a home World Cup, and being waived by the Indiana Fever last season have been the disappointments for Smith in recent years, but now she looks ready to make some real noise in the WNBA.
Coming off an MVP season in Poland, Smith will be on the final roster for the Sky, after signing a one-year deal. As reported by James Kay of The Next, Sky coach James Wade confirmed late last month that Smith will be on the roster come opening night.
This presents a real opportunity for Smith to take her incredible form in Poland – where she averaged 21.5 points, 9.6 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 2.6 blocks and 2 steals per game - and continue that run in Chicago, where she will be battling it out for minutes against the likes of veterans Elizabeth Williams and Isabelle Harrison.
Ruthy Hebard will likely miss at least the start of the season as she recently gave birth to her first child, while Li Yuera was injured earlier in training camp and will miss considerable time. This means frontcourt depth has taken a hit in Chicago and Smith has the perfect opportunity to find a role and play her game.
She hasn’t had an opportunity quite like this in the WNBA. Previously buried on the bench behind superstars in Phoenix, Chicago will be relying on her presence on both ends of the court, as they look to bounce back after an offseason of change.
That questionable frontcourt depth doesn’t just play into Smith’s favour, but Anneli Maley also finds herself in a strong spot. Currently on a training camp deal, Maley will be one of those players looking to take advantage of the circumstances in Chicago.
There’s no doubt she impressed coach Wade last season when she played four games on a hardship contract as Chicago battled injuries, but when their stars returned, there just wasn’t room for Maley on the roster.
This time around, it’s different; there’s a couple of spots left on the roster and Maley continues to improve her game. Her effort and energy is second to none and that’s what has got her to where she is today.
In Chicago’s opening preseason game yesterday, Smith played just over 10 minutes in a 75-70 loss to Dallas, finishing with 6 points and 4 rebounds, and recorded the third-highest +/- on the team with +7. Maley didn’t see any court time, which isn’t a great sign for her hopes of making the final roster, but hopefully she gets a run tomorrow when the Sky face Kristy Wallace and the Fever.
Connecticut Sun: Bec Allen
Bec Allen hasn’t played since the World Cup, when she bravely played through broken ribs and a partially collapsed lung, but she arrives in Connecticut ready to make the most of a new opportunity.
After playing her entire WNBA career in New York, she was traded to Connecticut earlier this year and I love the fit. As I talked about in the below interview with Allen, she’s going to compliment the defensive weapons they already posses.
The opportunities coming Allen’s way with the Sun are genuinely exciting. Adding Allen into the mix alongside Brionna Jones, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, all of whom are strong defenders in their own right, will have Connecticut boasting defensive weapons across the board.”
After a torturous past 12 months dealing with concussion issues in the WNBA and the World Cup injury, I just hope we get to see Allen healthy and in full flight. When she’s at her best, she’s one of the best defenders in the world with her length causing havoc, while on offence, she’s just about as pure of a shooter there is in the league.
Las Vegas Aces: Cayla George
Cayla George arrives in Las Vegas fresh of winning the WNBL MVP and playing the best basketball of her career. The Aces are the defending champions and look every bit as formidable heading into this season, even with the super team that has been formed in New York by Sandy Brondello.
The Aces parted ways with forward Dearica Hamby, who was a key piece during their Championship run, as well as Theresa Plaisance and Iliana Rupert, who both played limited minutes off the bench. With those three no longer on the depth chart, George will have a real opportunity to earn backup minutes in a frontcourt that will be led by superstars A’ja Wilson and Candace Parker.
George’s versatility on offence will be key to her earning minutes. She’s a do-it-all forward who can step out and drain threes, go to work in the paint or even facilitate the offence from the top of the key.
Coach Becky Hammon completely changed Las Vegas’ offence last season and it paid dividends immediately. After years of Bill Laimbeer preaching two-pointers over triples, Hammon flipped the script last season and it unlocked the Aces’ offensive arsenal. With players having the licence to shoot threes, George (who shot 42% from deep for the Boomers) fits that type of system and will importantly stretch the floor, opening up lanes for teammates to work into.
Seattle Storm: Ezi Magbegor, Jade Melbourne & Sami Whitcomb
When you lose the two cornerstones of your franchise in the same offseason, some serious work is required to retool your roster. That’s exactly what Seattle was faced with when Sue Bird retired, and Breanna Stewart left for the bright lights of New York.
What Seattle did was re-sign Ezi Magbegor, bring back Sami Whitcomb and add Kia Nurse to the backcourt, alongside superstar Jewell Loyd. Oh, and the arrival of Jade Melbourne is sure to bring a smile to the Storm faithful.
For the three Aussies in Seattle, they all face significant individual seasons, for differing reasons.
For Magbegor, she has been overshadowed by others in the first three years of her WNBA career and whilst she has shown great potential over that stretch, now is the time for her to truly announce herself as a star of the league. Known for her tremendous defence —she was named in the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team last season— I want to see more from her on offence in 2023.
She’ll be asked to do more and have plenty of spotlight, especially with Tina Charles no longer on the roster. I hope we see a return to Magbegor being more assertive on offence, as she was before the Storm signed Charles.
Prior to Charles signing in late June, Magbegor attempted at least 10 shots per game in 8 of 15 games. In the final 18 games of the season, Magbegor didn’t have one game where she attempted 10 or more shots. There’s no doubt the addition of Charles threw Magbegor’s rhythm off last season, but now as the key frontcourt piece, Magbegor will have the chance to be the true focal point of Seattle’s frontcourt, and I can’t wait.
Whitcomb is back with the Storm, after helping the team win the 2020 championship. She arrives in Seattle a very different player to the one she was back in 2020. Since then, she’s developed her game into being a true combo guard, proving to be much more than just a shooter and lockdown defender.
The question will be, can she find the right mix of handling the ball and shooting? With the likes of Nurse and Loyd alongside her in the backcourt, I think Seattle will be doing it by committee when it comes to facilitating the offence. All three are capable of sharing the ball handling load and they’ll also be required to score in order to keep the scoreboard ticking after losing key pieces in the offseason.
Although I didn’t mention Jade Melbourne as one of the three primary ball-handlers for Seattle, I can’t wait to watch her rookie season unfold. While she hasn’t made the final roster yet, I believe she’s ready to have an impact in the WNBA.
Being a rookie guard in the WNBA is a tough task, with so many extraordinary guards in the league, but if Melbourne is able to bring her signature energy and speed, I believe she’ll quickly earn the trust of her teammates and coach Noelle Quinn.
Melbourne showed great development playing with Canberra this past WNBL season, and I was most impressed by her ability to really lead her team and find the correct mix between all-out attack and also slowing things down when necessary and running the right play.
She’s developed her point guard skills tremendously over the past 12-18 months and finds herself on a Seattle roster that has strong guard depth, but perhaps not a pure point guard as Sue Bird had been since 2002.
Indiana Fever: Kristy Wallace
All focus will be on Aliyah Boston this coming season in Indiana, but —and I know I may be slightly biased on this subject— the addition of Kristy Wallace is going to provide plenty of positives for the Fever.
Yes, the Fever have a logjam at both guard positions with an array of capable guards both young and veteran, but Wallace will have the opportunity to really solidify herself in the rotation, with a team that clearly rates her after trading veteran guard Danielle Robinson in exchange for Wallace over the offseason.
As Wallace has found consistency with her body after years of injury struggles, the last two years have seen her take her game to the next level. Coming off a brilliant WNBL season with the Melbourne Boomers, where she averaged 16 points, 5.5 assists and 5 rebounds, Wallace will be ready to prove herself at a new team.
As I spoke about earlier, the Fever have guards, guards and more guards. The two veteran guards on the roster are Erica Wheeler (2019 All-Star Game MVP) and Kelsey Mitchell, while the remaining majority are either rookies or heading into their second WNBA season, highlighted by 2023 #7 pick Grace Berger, and 2022 draft picks Lexie Hull and Destanni Henderson.
There will be plenty of competition for playing time in the backcourt, but anyone who has watched Wallace step foot on a basketball court knows that she lives for competition.
After being drafted by the Los Angeles Sparks last month, rising star Shaneice Swain won’t be with the Sparks this season, instead opting to stay in Australia to develop her game.
Steph Talbot, who signed a two-year deal with Los Angeles in free agency, also will not be on the roster this year. Her contract was suspended for the season, due to the ACL injury she sustained playing for the Adelaide Lightning in February.