From sixth woman of the year to starter - Zitina Aokuso is playing an important role for Townsville. (Photo: Townsville Fire/Facebook)

The rise of Zitina Aokuso from 2020's Sixth Woman of the Year to one of the WNBL's best bigs has left her former coaches and teammates awestruck.

Zitina Aokuso is quietly developing as one of Australia’s best bigs. She has a pretty impressive resume for a 23-year-old – she is a WNBL Champion (2017/18), WNBL Sixth Woman of the Year in 2020, and an Asia Cup bronze medalist with the Opals in 2021.

However, her career has not always been smooth sailing, and she has had to overcome some significant challenges. 

It’s an incredible story of resilience by Aokuso, who was touted as the ‘next big prospect’ in Australian women’s basketball after a video of her dunking at the age of 17 went viral.

Former Townsville head coach, Claudia Brassard spoke to The Inner Sanctum recalling the hype around Aokuso at such a young age.

“I remember when Z [Zitina] agreed to come play for us and we were all so excited by her signing, as we knew she was going to be a star in the league and her ceiling was so high,” the coach said.

In her rookie year, Brassard focused on teaching Aokuso the fundamentals it takes to compete at the highest level.

“Initially we focused on her footwork and shooting touch, while also supporting and educating her on what it takes to be a pro athlete – how much sleep she needed, nutrition, recovery, hydration, mental toughness.

“She had the tough job of defending the best in the league her whole rookie season. She took some good hits, but always battled hard.”

Aokuso celebrating the championship in 2017/18 in her first year in the league. (Photo: Townsville Fire/Facebook)

Aokuso’s introduction to the league was in a championship season, playing and learning from experienced players including one of the WNBL’s greatest of all time- six-time WNBL MVP Suzy Batkovic. 

Batkovic recalls when Aokuso first entered the league.

“When Z first came to us she was this young athletic kid with raw talent,” Batkovic told The Inner Sanctum.

“Watching her grow and develop has been great and fun to watch. She has improved so much and she is continuing to improve and take her game to the next level.”

Aokuso was lucky to learn from the five-time WNBL champion, who put the time and effort into teaching her how to play the centre position in the WNBL. 

“Suzy [Batkovic] always made sure to teach and mentor her,” Brassard recalled. 

After commencing in the league in 2017/18 and winning a championship, Aokuso suffered a serious ACL injury and missed the entire 2019/20 WNBL season.

She returned to the WNBL last year with a vengeance, earning herself the Sixth Woman of the Year award – playing every game averaging 9.6 points and 5.5 rebounds in 20.5 minutes off the bench.

So far this WNBL season, Aokuso has started every game. She is averaging a career high in points per game (12.5) and  rebounds (7.3). But you need to look beyond her numbers at her mental strength and player development in the last two years to really appreciate her rise. 

Batkovic acknowledged Aokuso’s change in work ethic since she entered the WNBL. 

“Over the years she has learnt that you have to keep putting in the hard work to get the return,” her former teammate said.

It is evident in the way Aokuso is approaching her basketball, that she understands the positive impact she can have on the game. 

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“She has definitely grown in confidence as a player and that self doubt isn’t as visible,” Brassard reflected, having watched her Aokuso’s rise from afar after stepping down as Townsville coach in 2019.

“She’s been working hard on her body and she is capable of bumping and competing with the bigger bodies, but also has a nice soft touch around the rim.

“Her understanding of the game has grown in leaps and bounds.”

Aokuso in 2022

Aokuso’s game against the Boomers on Saturday, January 22 – a huge comeback win by the Fire after being down 20 in the first half – was quite possibly her coming of age game. 

She was competing against fellow Opals squad member and WNBA centre, Ezi Magbegor. With Opals coach Sandy Brondello in the stands, she didn’t back down from the challenge and went toe to toe with Magbegor in the paint. 

At one stage in the game Magbegor scored easily against Aokuso, which she appeared to take personally, as she went down the other end and took revenge with a back to the basket hook shot inside the paint. She finished the game with 17 points at an incredible 77.8 per cent from the field in 30 minutes of play. 

What is most impressive about Aokuso’s development is her competitiveness and hunger for the contest. Previously she could be criticised for fading away in games, which happens to young players, but in the last two years she has stayed engaged for longer and has become a real presence inside the paint. 

She enjoys playing back to the basket in the low block – using her strength to gain position then dribbling to the middle of the paint and planting her foot for a hook shot over her opponent. She can finish either hand and either side of the floor.

Her footwork has improved, and she is now able to take contact whilst finishing one on one. Her defence has improved – focusing on becoming physically stronger, she is now able to defend against the best bigs in the league.

Aokuso finishing in the paint over Canberra’s Mikaela Ruef. (Photo: Townsville Fire/Facebook)

Aokuso has enhanced her basketball IQ, playing to her strengths and within the boundaries of her role. Not only is she a scoring threat, but she is a great team player, setting solid screens for her shooters and creating driving lanes for others.

Brassard believes current Townsville head coach Shannon Seebohm has played a significant role in Aokuso’s recent development, stating “I would credit Shannon with [developing] her basketball IQ”.

Known primarily as a low post player, she has a really nice shooting action and is confident in making the mid range shot, especially when working on the elbow in the pinch-post action or in the short corner. 

Although she has only attempted one three point shot this season, with nice shooting mechanics, she does have the capability to hit from long range.

At this stage in her career, her shot, although mechanically sound, is slow, and she needs time and space to get it off. This is an element of the game in the WNBL that has become really important – not just the ability for forwards and centres to stretch the floor and score from beyond the arc, but to shoot quickly under pressure.

It’s a skill that Boomers forward and fellow Opal squad member, Cayla George has added to her outside shot with such damaging effect this season.

Aokuso’s other strength on the floor is her length, and one area of her game that has developed is her ability to put the ball to the floor, especially from the elbow.

With her long step, she is just one dribble to the basket when she catches on the foul line. With an array of shooters in the Fire’s lineup, such as Lauren Nicholson and Mia Murray, her ability to move the ball and find open players has become important to her side’s offensive structure.

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Aokuso’s new role as a starter and increased minutes on the floor is a representation of her maturity as a player –  as she is now staying engaged for longer, which is so important for a centre.

The elite centres in the competition are able to stay ‘locked in’ physically and mentally the whole game, and fight through fatigue. Players like Magbegor, George, and Lauren Scherf are all having outstanding WNBL seasons, proving how important they are to their team’s success. 

Batkovic, who is one of the best bigs ever to play in the WNBL, believes Aokuso is relishing in her new role as a starter.

“She’s a big with a rant of skills. She’s seeing that in her role now, it’s growing and she’s growing”..

Aokuso’s success as a starter so far this season is testament to not only her development, but her unselfishness on the court and focus she has for her teammates and team success.

“She’s a good teammate and cares for her teammates, that makes her even better, “ Batkovic said. 

During the 2021 off-season, Aokuso played for the Melbourne Tigers in the NBL1 South conference. Coming into the season with confidence, she averaged a double-double a game (15 points and 11 rebounds) as well as four assists in a season that was called off early due to COVID.

Her development has not gone unnoticed, as she was recently rewarded with a spot in the 16 player Opals camp to be held in Sydney from January 31 to February 4.

Aokuso will be hoping that her form can stack up against the likes of Magbegor, George, Darcee Garbin and Abby Bishop and earn her a spot in the final 12 – heading to Serbia for the World Cup qualifying tournament in mid-February.

Aokuso’s experience with dealing with the pressure of high expectations, developing resilience through injury, and challenging herself to be the best player she can be has seen her rise from bench player to starter for a proud successful club.

Her rise is significant and her development cannot be understated. She will continue to be an important player for Townsville’s tilt at the championship and who knows – quite possibly a chance to represent her country in the green and gold once more.

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