24/04/2024

Australian Opal Cayla George (Image: WNBL/Design by Madeline Irwin)

After signing with the Las Vegas Aces as a free agent prior to the 2023 season, Australian Cayla George and the Aces are three wins away from a WNBA Championship.

For George, the decision to sign with the Aces and go to Vegas was not one she took lightly.

“I feel like they’re really setting the bar with supporting women,” George told The Inner Sanctum.

“And particularly for me with a baby as well, they welcomed my whole family. Pearl’s a part of the group really.

“The training facility, and to be coached by Becky Hammon who’s if not the best coach in the world, one of.

“To be able to play with players like A’ja (Wilson), Chelsea (Gray), and Kelsey (Plum), to learn from these girls, and to try and get a bit of scouting for the Olympics next year,” George said with a chuckle.

“It was a decision I didn’t take lightly because I had to move everyone over because I couldn’t take Pearl away from Kailou for six months and I couldn’t do it by myself with her, and I’m not coming over here without her.

“So for Kailou to do that for me was really great as well.”

2023 marked her fourth year in the WNBA, and George said she was perfectly content prior to signing with the Aces of not coming back.

“I was already quite content with my first three years here, ‘15, ‘17, ‘18, I was really content. I gave it a taste. Cool. I’m happy to be at home, do my house renos, play for the Dolphins, do Opals prep, be with my dogs and my family.

“I had no desire to really come back and when they reached out… I really had to sit and think. It was a big family decision. I’ve got no regrets at all.”

Being one of the most dominant teams in the WNBA, the Aces have routinely been referred to by fans and media as a “superteam”, along with their opponents in the finals, the New York Liberty.

Internally, the Aces are looking at that discussion as outside noise.

“All season long, we’ve never ever referred to ourselves as a superteam. Other people can put that label on us. Other people can say what they want outside of our circle, and we don’t really pay no mind to that.

“If we did, we’d be in a bit of trouble cause there’s a lot of stuff being spoken when you get to this level and this platform people have a lot of opinions. On individuals, on teams, whatever.

“If you get distracted by that, you’re probably going to have a bit of trouble.”

George said they have worked incredibly hard all season to play the Aces brand of basketball to get the job done.

As a result, the side has earned home court advantage for its match-up against the Liberty, and despite their being players like Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, and Jonquel Jones on the other side, she is most looking forward to coming up against the coach. 

“I’m most looking forward to going up against Sandy (Brondello). I’ve been coached by her a lot, so I kind of know her style a little bit.

“Obviously, New York’s a different team to the Opals, but I kind of know how she likes to play.

“So if I do get an opportunity, having a bit of an advantage is knowing what Sandy likes to do, but obviously not in her time outs, she’s probably got other stuff up her sleeve like any smart coach does.

“It’s always nice to have a fellow Australian, whether it be a player or a coach, on the opposing team. We’re a passionate people, and to see a fellow Opal brings my eyeballs to sweat a little bit, just because I love seeing my fellow Aussies.

“I’d love to see all Aussies succeed, but unfortunately one of us won’t for these playoffs.”

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One criticism that has been levied at the Aces is Hammon consistently playing and relying on her starting five, and not resting them in blowout games.

“Becky has made it pretty clear from the start it’s not about the score as much as it’s the style and how we play.

“I think as long as the style is the Aces brand, like, she wants the Aces brand all the time, so if that means she keeps her starters out [on the floor], she keeps her starters out there.

“That has led to less opportunities at time, but whatever role is necessary, we’re here in the playoffs and the same thing applies.”

George acknowledges it has not been easy for her to adjust, but she also knows it is about the team and the greater opportunity.

“It hasn’t been easy, coming from the season I had in the WNBL, but this is a whole different league, and it’s definitely built my resilience.

“I am looking forward to coming home and playing for the Flames, but right now I’m just trying to stay present and be here to support, to play a couple of minutes to give A’ja a rest, or Kiah (Stokes), or whoever.

“Whatever I need to do, just staying ready for that, and relishing in this opportunity. I don’t know if I’ll be back here again.

“I don’t know what the future holds and I’m just trying to stay really present and enjoy the ride.”

Having to adjust her mentality was also a challenge.

“It’s not been easy on my mentals, just with a different role, but I like to stay ready so that I don’t have to worry about getting ready, and staying really professional.

“If that means I help this team out with being the best cheering and towel waving, you know, I’m still a part of is just as much as a starter because I’ve been here for all the trainings and the travel and supporting.

“I’m trying to do everything I can to help us be as successful as possible with whatever role I need, which I feel is a very Australian mindset.

“I think that’s what they love about me to, they love what I bring culturally, and I was just trying to add to this group in a way that they needed.

“I don’t need to come in full dose Cayla George because they’ve already got a set core here.

“They’ve all welcomed me with open arms.”

For George, despite getting to play and train day in and day out with absolute superstars of the WNBA, it is more about what happens away from the court that matters for her.

“Coming in, I was like, this is really exciting, a little nervous, a little anxious, but then also excited to get to know them on a teammate level and a personal level.

“As much as I still see them as superstars and I’ve been able to witness incredible things this season from all the superstars, my entire team, they’re actually just really genuine beautiful people.

“And like A’ja, for the superstar that she is, is just the most humble person you’ll ever meet.

“They’re just so beautiful, as humans first, and then you just watch what they’re able to do on the court, and the impact they can have on court.

“But the impact I care about is what they do off the court more, and they’re just really incredible humans that really care, and it’s been a real honour to get to know them on this level.”

Much like the discussions about a superteam, there have been many discussions about the Aces going back to back, and again, it is something the side does not talk about.

“We don’t speak about the back-to-back quest. It’s not what we speak about.

“It’s just a part of the journey, and how you get there, the steps that are in place, and as cliche as it sounds, that’s how it is.

“You can’t get too far ahead of yourself. You’ve got to embrace the journey, and I think we’ve done a good job of staying poised and focused to get us to this point.

“We didn’t really talk about the play-off game until the play-offs hit and we were against Chicago.

“Now that’s the next step, we’ve made the play-offs, we’ve got the number one seed, great, that’s a gold tick, and we kind of just go down the goal list and now we’re here.

“Now we’re talking about the big show.”

Even though the team is taking it step by step, George has definitely been thinking about winning the Championship and getting a ring. 

“How could you not think about something as big as that?

“As an athlete, I feel, and something that’s been really successful for me in my career, is visualisation. Before each game you visualise yourself doing well, or visualise things to find success, see the ball go through the hoop.

“I’ve definitely visualised success for us as a group, and why would we go in thinking otherwise to be honest.”

It is something that Hammon has encouraged.

“Becky made a good point this morning, ‘If it’s not already done in your head, how can you execute it in real life?’

“I think that’s a really great way to put it.”

The WNBA Finals begin on Sunday, October 8 at 12pm PT (Monday, October 9 at 6am AEDT) in Las Vegas.

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