LAS VEGAS - It’s the second quarter of the Las Vegas Aces' showdown against the Washington Mystics, and for a brief moment, Liz Cambage suddenly looks like Liz Cambage once more.
The 27-year-old simply monsters LaToya Sanders, leaving her opponent displaced under the basket, before turning around for a silky jumphook. It’s the type of unstoppable play Cambage has been known for, the modus operandi that had her ranked second in WNBA Most Valuable Player voting last season.
But the truly joyful part right comes after.
As Cambage backpedals up the court, her trademark swag comes oozing out. Finger point and arm waving, Cambage’s energetic hollers can be audibly heard from courtside. Dominant, loud and rambunctious; this looks like the Cambage of old.
Although, in what has become an unfortunate reality for the athlete that led the WNBA in scoring last year, it was just a momentary glimpse on this night. The Aces are being run out of their Mandalay Bay home, trailing 36-51 before a 7.1 magnitude earthquake cut the game short. Their head coach, Bill Lambeir, labels the disappointing performance as frustrating.
Cambage, the team’s presumptive beacon, is effective, albeit at a level below her dominant best. The Australian Opals star suffered a setback with her troublesome Achilles in late 2018. It forced her out of the most recent Women’s Chinese Basketball Association season. While the financial realities of such a move have rightfully drawn attention, the simple on-court takeaway is that this ailment forced a pseudo reboot of her illustrious career.
A necessary bout of rest and recovery took precedence over the recent Australian summer, leaving Cambage devoid of conditioning when the WNBA season tipped off in May.
“I am just getting back into it,” Cambage told The Pick and Roll in Las Vegas last week. “I was out for ten months and my first training session was a week before the season started. I am getting my game fitness and my touch back as the games go along. The first few games were super frustrating. I was missing shots that are normally my bread and butter. It's all coming back, and it is just about being patient.”
Cambage may patiently be waiting for a return to full form, but she has already reclaimed her status as an upper echelon performer in the WNBA. Averaging 15.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game on a Las Vegas team that currently leads the Western Conference, she is a likely All-Star, having placed third in voting after the first round of balloting. Listen to Cambage speak, however, and you get the feeling this is only the beginning of her comeback to the basketball world. For an athlete that dominated the WNBL and WNBA in 2018, before leading Australia to a silver medal at the FIBA Women’s World Cup in Spain, there is still much to accomplish.
“[The rust] is very frustrating,” Cambage notes of the past few months, “especially when it's my go to moves, but that is what happens when you haven’t been on court for ten months so I’ve just got to go with it.”
A May trade brought Cambage to Las Vegas, and her arrival signalled the Aces' elevation from infant franchise to championship contender. The Aces remain a work in progress, with their conference leading record showing there potential that lies within, but they are firmly focused on hitting their straps after the All-Star break.
“We still know that we have so much further to go and work towards,” Cambage says. “It’s good to be where we are but we have so much work to do and so much more chemistry to find in our team.”
Cambage has found focus in Las Vegas. She lives on the world-renowned strip, but has forsaken the trappings of one of the nosiest cities on earth by focusing on basketball and working out. The unrelenting heat, as penetrating as it can be, is dry and more reminiscent of home than the humidity of her prior American home in Texas. That alone is working wonders, on and off the court -- “my hair absolutely loves it,” Cambage said through a smile. But basketball is taking precedence and there is plenty of to focus on.
The immediate challenge of a WNBA season is front and centre, while the significance of another national team campaign lingers over the horizon. The Opals will be looking to improve on last year’s second place finish at the World Cup, and upend the USA Women's National Team at the Tokyo Games next July. The thought of another international medal is firmly on Cambage’s mind.
“For me, a gold medal or just getting another medal at all at the Tokyo Olympics is my major goal,” Cambage says.
“These are all the stepping stones. Doing well in the WNBA. Just even playing in the WNBA develops your game and changes your game. I really wanted to be here. I really want to be here this year and next year working towards the Olympics.”