Isabel Palmer: World Cup dreams dashed, but plenty to look forward to at Texas

If there is a player who can make a case for having the most up-and-down last 18 months or so, Isabel Palmer is certainly one.

Success on both the national and international stage was followed by an injury that kept her out of an Under 19 World Cup. In among all of that, the Newcastle product managed to find time to secure a scholarship to the University of Texas. The Pick and Roll caught up with Palmer to discuss a whirlwind couple of years, and what the future holds for the young starlet from the Hunter.

As is the case with most elite level recruits, Palmer found herself a highly sought after prospect very early in the piece, with coaches contacting the New South Wales Country star a full three years before she would even be able to step on a college court.

“It started the very end of Year 9,” Palmer explained. “It’s been going on for years, and to be honest I was glad it was over, because it gets pretty full-on.

“It really took off after the Under 16s Asia Cup, when we went to India that first time, so the end of 2017. That’s when it really started to kick off, and it was good to finally settle down once I reached my decision.

“I honestly don’t know the exact number [of schools recruiting], but by the end of it I just decided to visit three schools.”

With official visits locked in, Palmer’s decision looked to be a race in three. However, one school, South Florida, held a potential ace, one that the program itself had no hand in creating. Although a proud Australian, Palmer actually holds dual citizenship with the US, with much of her mother’s family still residing in Florida.

“So, Dad actually met Mum over here in college,” Palmer revealed. “So, all of Mum’s immediate family, some of my aunties and uncles, they all live in Florida. So, Mum, she’s from Puerto Rico but she grew up in the US. That’s why I have dual citizenship.

“I did consider USF, because that was a major factor. But it wasn’t going to be a determining factor in whether I went there or not, because any flight (in the US) is not too far. That’s where I’m heading for the holiday break.

“But I did consider it, because that would be a big upside to going to school there.

South Florida obviously held that one advantage, but as Palmer explained, the Novocastrian certainly had intentions of expanding her horizons with her college visits, heading to three vastly different locales with her visits.

“I went up to Philly to Villanova, because I was interested in the academic side of that, and I wanted really different schools to see what I actually wanted in a college,” Palmer explained.

“So, I went to a small private college up where it snows part of the year, then South Florida, which is a predominantly international team. They’ve only got three Americans on that team. So, all those girls compete in the World Cups and stuff for Spain, Denmark; it was an international team. And then obviously Texas, your traditional college, 52,000 kids.

“So, I really wanted to see what I wanted, because I honestly didn’t know. A few other schools were in the picture, like Indiana and Minnesota, but I decided to go to just one school up in the cold. I knew I didn’t really want to be up in the snow.”

History will record Palmer as becoming Texas’ second Australian commit in the 2019 class after national teammate Ashlee Hannan, with the pair reprising their connection from their time at the Centre of Excellence (CoE) in Canberra. Palmer is reluctant to say that having Hannan alongside her was a factor in moving to Texas, but is nonetheless grateful to have a fellow Australian alongside her.

“Look, I think coming here by myself, I’m independent and I would’ve been fine by myself,” Palmer explains. “But having her here, obviously it’s great to have someone who knows you, knows your culture, because obviously coming here, there’s a few barriers.

“Obviously, the cultures are pretty similar [between Australia and the US], but I don’t know, just having someone that you’ve kind of grown up with – I’ve lived with her for the past two years... it’s been great having her here.”

Having made her verbal commitment just before Christmas in 2018, Palmer had a couple of goals to achieve before making the move to college. The first: securing a first medal at an Australian Junior Championships after years of narrowly missing out with New South Wales Country. That opportunity would present itself in February of this year at the Under 20s tournament in Canberra, her first event in a combined New South Wales team.

“I really wanted to finish off one junior tournament at least top 3. Every single year at nationals we always got to the quarters, and besides my top-age year with NSW Country, we’d lost every other year, and we’d always get fourth place or less,” Palmer chuckles.

“And I know there was a bit of trash talking, and we were seen as the underdogs, we were ranked pretty low among other people’s opinions. But I knew how competitive we could be, and it showed.”

Palmer certainly isn’t underselling the competitive nature of that New South Wales team. After an opening night 41-point defeat to Victoria, the team in sky blue hit back to dominate Queensland the next morning. Eking out wins over Victoria A and Western Australia alongside comfortable victories over South Australia and ACT put New South Wales into the gold medal game. Here, they would once again face Victoria, falling to a 77-64 defeat but putting in a far improved performance to finish with silver.

“The deficit was, what, 13 points by the end of that [gold medal] game? So, I was proud of our group of girls.

“And I know, the Metro girls, we’d butted heads quite a bit coming up in juniors. So to be able to build that culture and unite the Country/Metro rivalry was pretty good to see. Especially when we have NITP and SPP. All those different camps had this unspoken rivalry and this kind of divide between each other, so it was really great.”

Not only would Palmer finish that tournament with a gold medal, she would also be awarded the Bob Staunton Medal as Player of the Tournament. However, it was the event mere hours before that medal presentation, as the gold medal game approached its already inevitable conclusion, that would have a far greater impact on the remainder of Palmer’s year. In particular, it would crucify her chances of achieving the second of those two goals: An Under 19 World Cup appearance and a potential medal to go with her 2018 Under 17 World Cup bronze. Eventually, the Gems would with silver following an overtime classic against the United States in the gold medal game, whilst Palmer was forced to watch back home in Australia.

“So, last 40 seconds of the whole tournament, I just got caught in an awkward position, causing some bone bruising and damage in my Lisfranc ligament in my foot. I got an MRI, but didn’t think much of it because structurally it was fine,” Palmer revealed.

“I tried to play a couple more months in the NBL1, I think it was about six weeks. Then when I got to that second [Gems World Cup training] camp, it just gave me a bit of a grief, and I just knew I couldn’t keep going the way I was going.”

Palmer was given every opportunity to prove her fitness in advance of the World Cup, but in the end, time and the need for surgery caught up with the dynamic combo guard. As devastating as the end result was, for Palmer, it highlighted the camaraderie between the entire cohort of players and also taught her a lot about her own body.

“I was trying to get out there, and in the first session I was trying to keep going. I had a collision with Agnes [Emma-Nnopu] and it just… it wasn’t good,” Palmer explains, pausing slightly to collect herself.

“I remember, they said you’re still a part of this squad until it’s definite that you’re getting surgery. I remember when I got told [that I needed surgery], the time to heal before the World Cup was just way too short, so it did suck a lot.”

“But it was nice to know that I was wanted that much. I went into surgery the second day of the last selection camp, so I was a part of it right to the end, and they’re a great bunch of girls. I got a few messages after the World Cup from that team. It made me a bit of emotional; it was good to know I was still a part of that.”

“I’m kind of grateful for it in a way, because it has challenged me. I wouldn’t wish any injuries on anyone, all these ACL injuries and everything happening at the moment. But in hindsight it has helped me, and it’s helped me understand my body a bit better. When I push through good pain, bad pain, and the differences. Hopefully that will help me down the line.”

However, although she can’t go back in time to change what happened at Under 20s, Palmer knows she can move forward, set new goals, and achieve those instead.

“I’m driven. After that Under 20s week, that was in February this year, I have this feeling I haven’t done much this whole year. I want to achieve something every year in basketball. So it would be good to get my college career rolling, whenever that begins. And then hopefully I can make the Uniroos (Emerging Opals) in a few years. We’re out of juniors now, so that’s the next goal, to try and make up for this.

“I’m pretty close (to full fitness), by the end of this month.”

In time for opening night of Texas’ season?

I don’t know, we’ll see. I’d be cutting it fine, but we’ll see.”

Texas has played second fiddle to a Baylor side featuring Australian star Kristy Wallace in the Big 12 in recent years, but until 2018/19’s first round NCAA Tournament exit, had been a major player on the national stage. The Longhorns reached the Elite Eight in 2016 in among three other Sweet Sixteen appearances, and are hungry to return to that level. Palmer is excited for what the team appears to be building.

“We just mesh well. Obviously, it took a few days, but I love the girls here. It’s awesome, we click really well, and I think that off-court, not just chemistry, but we look out for each other, and I think that just transfers onto the court.

“I know coach Karen [Aston], her whole philosophy is just about building a team that is hungry. Junkyard dogs, that scrap around, want to play defence, want to play for the team rather than play for yourself, and that’s going really well at the moment. We’re about to roll into a lot of scrimmages and practice matches. We’ll see how we go, but it’s looking good at the moment.”

Funnily enough, listening to Palmer describe her Texas team might remind one of your typical country team that one may face at an Australian Junior Championships, so it is little wonder that Palmer is slotting in so well with the team. But how does that transfer to her play on court?

“I know I’m going to be a combo guard, so I’ll roll in through the point position, and bring some energy through the shooting guard position when I need to knock down a few shots for the team.”

“I want to bring a little bit of that country culture to America. They’ve just got that drilled into them [in Texas], and that’s what [Aston] is trying to build.”

However, be it on the local, national, or international stage, Palmer is clearly driven by a desire to represent her home as often and as well as possible. That extends to her future, where even the mention of a potential Newcastle WNBL team down the track, which has been discussed recently, elicits a noticeable uptick in the tone of the proud Newcastle Hunters junior’s voice.

“I was just thinking about this a few days ago, like obviously I’d want to go as far as I can in college, get drafted, and see where that goes. But if Newcastle had a WNBL team that I could go back to, that would be amazing,” Palmer explains. “I remember always having to drive down to Sydney, I’d support the Flames like as a little kid, but I would always wish that there was just the local team. We had the Hunter Pirates around a decade ago, but to have a professional team back in Newcastle, especially a women’s team, that would be great.

“Like Hannah Young, Cass [Cassidy McLean], Lara [McSpadden], if we could all just come back. Because we honestly grew up just going through all the New South Wales pathways, so to all come back to the old stomping grounds in Broadmeadow, that would be great.”

Playing for a hometown team would be one thing, but every basketball player has their ultimate dream, a holy grail that they want to achieve. The term resonates in Australian cultural circles courtesy of the famous Hunters & Collectors, song, particularly in an AFL Grand Final context, but Palmer has her eyes fixed firmly on something far bigger than domestic success.

“My holy grail would be an Olympic appearance in the Opals team. Like, making the league in America would be big, but there’s just something about the Green and Gold jersey,” Palmer reveals. “That’s why it was so hard for me to miss out on that this year, and you know, makes me want it even more. Because that was my last junior thing, and I missed out, and it sucked.

“It was very hard to swallow that I got cut from that. So, to represent, especially at an Olympic Games, that would be the holy grail of basketball.”