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Australia's stars on the Opals draw for the 2022 FIBA Women's World Cup
The Opals' opponents have been unveiled and The Pick and Roll was on the ground to get the first takes from Australia past and present stars.
At swish harbourside venue Doltone House, Sydney’s torrential rain paused for a moment, and spirits were high for the FIBA Women’s Basketball World Cup draw.
Opals legend Michele Timms had the honour of drawing the teams, leaving Australia with pool opponents of France, Serbia, Japan, Nigeria and Canada in Group B.
At a panel discussion after the teams were sorted into two pools, Four-time Olympian Shane Heal had a tongue-in-cheek dig at Timms for her efforts, suggesting she could have secured Australia an easier passage.
Talking to The Pick and Roll, however, Timms was upbeat about how the draw unfolded for Australia. “I reckon it’s great,” she said of the Opals’ schedule. “I think we’ll finish in the top four for sure, and that’s all you’ve got to do. Going through the process is going to harden the girls, and they’ll be really ready for the important one, the Quarter Final.”
Basketball Hall of Fame inductee Lauren Jackson had the same mindset. “It’s a tough draw, but like any tournament, [the Opals] are going to have to go through the best to be the best. But it’s going to be a really, really tough tournament for them.”
Tokyo Olympics silver medalists and Asia Cup champions Japan will be Australia’s final Group B game. 20 year old Opals guard Shyla Heal says they’ll be formidable again. “The last couple of years, they’ve got so much better. They have a different style of play than most teams at the World Cup; they’re fast and shoot a lot of threes. They’ll definitely be tough, but we’re looking forward to playing them.”
Father Shane felt perimeter defence would be at a premium against Japan. “Being able to contain their penetration is very tough. Obviously, the Opals are a lot taller, so being able to contain them off the pick and roll is hard. It’s something that was very poor at the Olympics but looked much better in the qualifiers. But they’re just on a different level with how quick and small they are.”
Timms, meanwhile, believes Japan’s form has waned in recent times. “You know what? I wasn’t as impressed with Japan as I was in Tokyo, watching these World Cup qualifiers. They didn’t gel the same.” Still, she believes that star forward Ramu Tokashiki’s return to international level could elevate Japan once she is fully re-integrated into the team’s systems.
Timms also sees another Group B team, Canada, as a real danger, with or without former WNBL MVP Kia Nurse, who is recovering from a torn ACL. She is especially impressed with how they’ve shaped up under new Head Coach Victor Lapeña. “They’ve been really aggressive, and they’re playing less structured… they’re playing a better brand of basketball for sure. They’re more free, not as locked into the Princeton Offence.”
Serbia, who recently downed Australia at home in a World Cup qualifying clash, are yet another high quality opponent waiting for Australia in Pool B. Shyla Heal says the Opals learned a lot from that encounter. “Defensively, they were very strong, and the Opals, including myself, have a lot to work on. But we’ll take it in stride.”
The Sydney Uni Flames star says that loss showed Australia they needed to take their defensive pressure up a notch. “As a group, we need to get better with pressuring bringing the ball up, and getting in passing lanes.”
Speaking about the Belgrade qualifying tournament as a whole, Timms explained that the Opals remain a work in progress as they navigate this new post-Cambage era. “Things haven’t happened for us yet. We know the direction we want to go, but it’s going to take time…We’ve got a number of games ahead of us that are going to help in making the sort of defence we need a habit. We can play that kind of defence for half a game, but it’s not consistent yet.”
In terms of Opals players set to influence results, Jackson nominated Ezi Magbegor as being a “massive factor” in how Australia perform. “She’s going to be huge for Australia. She’s just so smooth that you don’t even notice when she’s taking over a game… I’ve got no problem saying that because I think she’s ready for the challenge.”
Heal senior, meanwhile, is an unabashed Steph Talbot fan and believes her calmness and experience will be critical. “For me, she is a gun. She probably isn’t someone who comes out with big statements and beating her chest, but gee, she just oozes leadership to me.”
Jackson also makes the point that a World Cup isn’t decided on talent alone. “I think there’s a lot of talent in Australia at the moment, and I think there’s a lot of opportunity to do things differently. But in the same breath, how the team comes together and the chemistry of those girls is what’s really going to matter.” She loves what she’s seen of Sami Whitcomb’s leadership. “Her intensity, her focus - she can do it all. I’m clearly a fan.”
Timms believes that the Opals will play up to 15 games in the lead-up to the World Cup and says it’s not too late for players currently outside the squad to stake their claim. She has one particular player in mind.
“I would take Anneli Maley. She’s a possession animal, and there’s no reason why she wouldn’t be a possession animal internationally. That can be infectious – (she’s got a) dynamic quality that I like in a team. I’d just love to see Anneli in the green and gold.”
Aside from the X’s and O’s and the specifics of who will be part of the Opals squad, many of the guests at the event emphasized the World Cup’s potential impact on the sport going forward.
“I think it solidifies women’s basketball in Australian sports culture,” says Jackson. “1994 (FIBA World Championship for Women) took women’s basketball to the next level in Australia, and I think that’s going to happen again. Women’s basketball has been here for many, many years, but we’ve come a long way these last five or ten years.”
Proud girl dad Shane Heal sees great things coming out of the event. “I sat next to two young rep basketballers (at the draw), and you could see the excitement on their faces,” he enthused. “Young kids will get to see it and take up the sport, or they’ll start pursuing it more seriously. It’s huge for Sydney, and at the Flames, we want to use this as a springboard for what we plan on doing next year, which will be a whole other level up from this year.
For Shyla Heal, having the potential opportunity to play at a World Cup at home is nothing but upside. “I don’t feel any pressure at all. Any time you play for the Opals, you feel a lot of pride, but it’s just even more special at home. We can’t wait.”