Could the fairytale Lauren Jackson comeback turn into reality?
Jackson is back in the Opals squad, and the storybook comeback to play at a home World Cup is gaining serious momentum. Could it really happen?
Image credit: FIBA
Lauren Jackson being named to the Australian Opals ahead of the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Sydney later this year, made headlines around the world. It’s been six years since Jackson retired from the sport due to debilitating knee injuries. Is Australia’s greatest ever basketball player capable of being a contributor against the very best players in the world?
Let’s get straight to the point: Lauren Jackson has absolutely nothing left to prove. She’s done it all in her career —if I started listing achievements we’d be here all day— and is already a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer, seen by many as the ultimate acknowledgement of greatness in the sport. But, if Jackson could help Australia return to the World Cup podium a year after a disastrous Tokyo Olympic campaign, it may just be the biggest accomplishment of her career.
With that in mind, there are genuine —and justified— question marks about just how much Jackson could contribute, so let’s dive in.
NBL1 East depth and quality
Lauren Jackson is the only member of the current Opals squad to not have played in the WNBL, WNBA or high level European basketball in the last 12 months. Don’t get it twisted: the NBL1 East is definitely not to the standard of any of those leagues.
It would be a different story if Jackson was playing in the NBL1 South o North conference against WNBL players, but the depth of talent in the NBL1 East is nothing to write home about, which raises fair questions about the numbers that Jackson is putting up for the Albury-Wodonga Bandits, which are incredible by the way.
Maybe it’s a case of you can only beat who you play, and Jackson always raised her game against the best competition in the world, so you’d be a brave person to bet against Jackson rising to the occasion —if her body allows— at the World Cup.
Whilst some of Jackson’s statlines jump out at you for the ridiculous double-doubles (41 points and 13 rebounds against the Inner West Bulls and 31 points and 24 rebounds against Manly Warringah), I’ve been intrigued by just how much time she spends on court each game. Granted there have been some big blowout wins for the Bandits which results in Jackson resting down the stretch, she has played 31+ minutes in three of her last four games, highlighting the fact that her body is coping well.
Obviously, the physicality at a World Cup is far greater than what she’s having to deal with at the NBL1 level, but the signs are there that she can play consistent minutes, and she still has a couple more months to prepare before the World Cup.
Averaging 32.6 points and 11.6 rebounds, Jackson has absolutely dominated NBL1 East play. More importantly if she’s to play a role for the Opals, there’s the fact that she’s shooting a very healthy 39% on triples. Having another big who can come off the bench and stretch the floor would be a dream for Sandy Brondello. The defenders in NBL1 East are nothing compared to what Jackson will be faced with at the World Cup, but you can’t deny her shot has been really solid.
The undeniable leadership Jackson would bring
The retirement of Jenna O’Hea can’t be underestimated. The former Opals captain has left a huge leadership void to fill and maybe, just maybe, that could be partly filled by Jackson.
Jackson is the ultimate competitor. I don’t see any other 41-year-old, Hall of Famers coming out of retirement to possibly play at the highest level after already completing everything there is to achieve. She’s making this comeback because of her competitive spirit and she truly feels like she has something left to give.
Every team Jackson has ever led out onto court walks taller with her in the lineup and with the Opals in somewhat of a leadership transition period —highlighted by a new three-player leadership group announced last week consisting of Sami Whitcomb, Steph Talbot and Tess Madgen— Jackson would be the perfect complement.
Those three are all tremendous leaders in their own right and typify exactly what the Opals are all about and what they’ll want to hang their hats on at the World Cup; hard work, toughness and pride in being an Opal. With all that Jackson has experienced in her career —including leading Australia to an incredible Gold medal at the 2006 FIBA Women’s World Cup— she will only add to the positive driving forces inside the locker room.
The ultimate insurance policy
When push comes to shove at major tournaments, the rotations become tighter and less players hit the court. Taking a look at the Tokyo Olympics for example, Brondello went with an eight or nine player rotation (excluding junk time) at most in the majority of games, and the 12th player on the roster rarely plays any critical minutes throughout a tournament.
Jackson wouldn’t be your average final selection. It would be the ultimate trump card to have a fit and firing GOAT on the bench, ready to contribute if her number is called. No one in their right mind is expecting Jackson to be the feature piece of the 2022 Opals, but having a Hall of Famer on the bench ready to play whatever role she is asked to play and be ready to go if injuries hit? Well you can’t ask for much more than that.
You also have to consider the balance between selecting a veteran with unmatched experience or injecting youth into the squad and providing a young player with an invaluable experience that will ultimately help them develop in the long run. Obviously, Jackson won’t be around for the next three or four World Cup or Olympic campaigns, but a young player on the rise very well could be and exposing them to the rigours of a World Cup at a young age could drive them, and the Opals program, forward into the future.
Can Jackson’s body keep up with the hectic World Cup schedule?
Just to qualify for the quarterfinals, every team will have to play five group games in six days and then a further three games in three days to get to the medal rounds. That’s a gruelling schedule to say the very least, and only the strongest and deepest teams will survive.
Jackson has worked tirelessly to get her body back to where she’s able to play in NBL1 East games, which have included back-to-backs, and so far she has held up well. One thing is for sure, it won’t be through a lack of preparation or hard work if Jackson’s body isn’t able to cope.
The best case scenario for the Opals if Jackson does get picked after strong play in camp and in warm up games would be to utilise her in small spurts and only when required. Use her wisely, especially early on in the tournament so she has the best chance to be cherry ripe in the all-important second week of play.
Tokyo Olympics highlighted need for another big that can truly contribute
Cayla George led the Opals in scoring (13 points) and rebounding (7.3) at the Tokyo Olympics. Ezi Magbegor has blossomed into the best shot-blocking defender in the WNBA this season and Marianna Tolo was the Opals’ saviour with 26 points and 17 rebounds against Puerto Rico to book a place in the quarterfinals in Tokyo.
Those three bigs have all proven themselves in recent times and will be key pillars of the Opals lineup at the World Cup, but another inside presence is needed. You can look at who might step up, and it’s clear that Anneli Maley absolutely deserves her spot not only in the team but entrenched in the rotation, but she’s an undersized big who, in international play, would be best suited to the power or small forward position.
Then, there’s Alanna Smith. Smith had a breakout 2021/22 WNBL season for the Adelaide Lightning, averaging 17.7 points and 9 rebounds per game, but she was unable to carry that form over to the WNBA and was cut by the Indiana Fever after nine games. She wasn’t a factor at the Tokyo Olympics, averaging just 6 minutes in two games played, but the potential is absolutely there, as she showcased in WNBL play last season. Brondello will have to decide if there is a role for Smith to play at the World Cup.
Jackson was the cornerstone of everything that the Opals did for basically her entire career. At age 41 she won’t be the focal point this time around, but I just keep coming back to the fact that 5-10 minutes (or more) of Lauren Jackson per game will give the Opals a different look and inject some energy into the team and home crowd. Her supreme skillset and basketball IQ was what helped set her apart from the rest of the world in her prime and even if she’s lost half a step and some athleticism, her presence alone makes those around her better and would create an unbelievable atmosphere in Sydney.
It all comes back to health for Lauren Jackson. It will be hard for Sandy Brondello and her staff to look past Jackson if she is indeed fit and feeling fresh when September rolls around. If there are any question marks at all surrounding her fitness, I think you have to go in a different direction, simply because of the brutal World Cup schedule.
Could the fairy tale story become a reality? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.
The Pick and Roll is an independent reader-supported publication. To receive new stories and support our coverage around Australian basketball, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.