21/02/2024

Lauren Jackson made her much-anticipated return to the WNBL. (Photo: Southside Flyers/Twitter)

Wednesday, November 1 marked the start of the 44th WNBL season, Australia’s longest running top-level women’s sport competition.

The Adelaide Lightning and Melbourne Boomers tipped it all off on Wednesday night.

There’s so many reasons to tune in throughout the summer across all eight teams, and The Inner Sanctum has compiled some of the most important here.

Return of the GOAT

Three-time WNBA MVP and the greatest Australian women’s basketballer of all-time Lauren Jackson is back in the league… again.

The 42-year-old made her grand return to the court in 2022 after being retired for six years, first with Albury-Wodonga in the NBL1 before gracing Melbourne’s south-east with the Southside Flyers.

With autograph and photo lines longer than the eye can see, Jackson-fever was well and truly alive. She even had her own tribute game hosted at John Cain Arena, taking on the Sydney Flames in front of over 7500 fans.

But in a cruel twist of fate, Jackson barely lasted a minute on court before going down with a season-ending Achilles injury. So as you may imagine, there’s a bit of unfinished business brewing around the GOAT and the Flyers, even more so given the Jackson-less Southside lost the grand final series to Townsville.

Jackson will be one of many players eyeing off next year’s Olympics in Paris, which would be her fifth Games. After a stunning FIBA Women’s World Cup in 2022, where she dropped 30 points in the third place game to help claim bronze for Australia, could she actually do it again?

Opals coach Sandy Brondello and every basketball fan in the country will be seeking that answer for the next four months.

All-new Boomers

There are a few squads that are looking rather different this season, and 2021-22 champions the Melbourne Boomers are one of them.

Some of the names in the outs column may have fans chewing their nails. League MVP Cayla George. Scoring leader Tiffany Mitchell. Blocks leader Olivia Nelson-Ododa. Not to mention experienced veterans in Tess Madgen, Mia Murray and Leilani Mitchell.

All-WNBL First Team guard Kristy Wallace also won’t be available until December after undergoing knee surgery, leaving the Boomers down one of the league’s premier ball-handlers.

This is not to say they haven’t added quality back the other day. Sara Blicavs, Monique Conti and Aimie Rocci have all made the move over from cross-town rivals Southside, adding a scoring punch and further rotations through the defensive mix.

Sydney captain Keely Froling also joins the Boomers. One of the best centres in the league, she averaged 18.1 points and 8.8 rebounds last season, and will be a huge presence in the side’s front court.

Jordin Canada is a huge coup as an import signing, with the American point guard fresh off earning a place in the WNBA All-Defensive team with the LA Sparks.

Make no mistake, there is a load of talent in this squad. Expect them to take a few weeks to gel together though, which could be the difference between making or missing finals for Melbourne.

Can Townsville run it back?

Townsville has seemed to be the perennial underdog of the past three seasons, but with a fourth championship under its belt, that is no longer.

‘The hunter becomes the hunted’ is certainly cliche, but in this case, it is apt. With another strong squad at coach Shannon Seebohm’s disposal, the Fire will be the benchmark.

Lauren Nicholson is probably the biggest local loss, but Opals mainstay Sami Whitcomb will take a starting guard spot in stride. She’s enjoyed strong recent campaigns with the national team, for the Perth Lynx and Seattle Storm, and has the potential to be All-WNBL First Team quality again.

Tianna Hawkins’ injury will be the big story to follow. The Fire announced very quietly that the star import would miss the whole season due to injury, with a replacement player still yet to be named.

While the likes of Zitina Aokuso, Steph Reid and new-addition Alice Kunek will produce more than enough on court, her loss will be felt.

Will aggressive Flames off-season pay off?

The Sydney Flames had a tumultuous 2022-23, both on the court and off it. Coach Shane Heal was let go amidst claims of bullying, with daughter Shyla following suit and leaving for Townsville.

But the club has made a statement of intent, signing multiple Opals and big names to make a serious tilt at a championship this season.

Cayla George and Tess Madgen have arrived from the Melbourne Boomers, with Lauren Nicholson joining from Townsville and Shaneice Swain from the UC Capitals. There’s more than a few accolades between those four signings.

While American Paige Bradley is a bit more of a speculative signing, spending most of her recent career in the NZNBL and NBL1, fellow import Didi Richards brings WNBA experience.

With a massively accomplished new coach in Guy Molloy, could it be enough to take the Flames from basketcase to genuine title threat?

Time for the Caps to bounce back

The UC Capitals had a 2022-23 to forget, recording just two wins. This was the least by any club (excluding the shortened 2020) in four years.

It was a disappointing capitulation from a proud club that was consistently competing in finals year after year, but this season is the time to regain that pride.

The Capitals never quite clicked on the court, hurt even further by another ACL injury to young rising star Gemma Potter. A refreshed squad will hopefully provide coach Kristen Veal with brighter prospects this season.

Alex Sharp and Monica Okoye are the big name additions. Sharp has been busy plying her sharpshooting in Perth for the past three years after returning from college, while Olympic silver medallist Okoye is one of the most exciting young imports joining the league this season.

Throw in Jade Melbourne returning with her first WNBA season under her belt and Nicole Munger fresh off an NBL1 season dropping video game numbers every week, and the Capitals’ rise will be nothing but fun viewing.

Has Bendigo offset the loss of Anneli Maley?

2021-22 MVP Anneli Maley has been the lifeblood of the Bendigo Spirit for the past two seasons, but has moved on for the greener (or redder, in this case) pastures of the Perth Lynx.

It’s a huge move for a team that’s just lost its mainstay centre in Lauren Scherf, as she journeys over to Europe, and two of its highest volume scorers in Sami Whitcomb and Alex Sharp.

The bigger question than how Maley adds to Perth is what she leaves behind in Bendigo.

The Spirit got frustratingly close again to breaking their eight-year finals drought last season, and the worry may be that the loss of the Opal may be too much to cover.

But they still have their leaders in Alicia Froling and league veterans Kelly Wilson and Kelsey Griffin, while Alex Wilson has just come off a career-best NBL1 season in South Australia.

And more importantly, the Spirit have their first imports in three seasons with the signings of former WNBA players Mehryn Kraker and Ruth Davis.

Could this finally be Bendigo’s time in the spotlight?

Young talent set to shine in Adelaide

The Adelaide Lightning are a difficult team to get a read of this season. They still have veterans Lauren Mansfield and Steph Talbot leading the line, while they seem to have pulled off a major recruiting coup with their imports.

Jocelyn Willoughby makes the move over from Sydney, where she averaged 15.1 points and 1.6 steals per game, while they welcome Brianna Turner back to the league, after she averaged a double-double and finished runner-up in the MVP voting in 2019-20.

Capable of playing at the four or the five, Turner will be one of the most talented bigs in the WNBL this season.

But beyond this group, the Lightning are one of the youngest sides across the league. Fans should be excited by this, with the likes of Izzy Borlase, Issie Bourne, Ella Batish and Brooke Basham some of the future faces of Australian basketball.

Borlase in particular, royalty in South Australia, had possibly the best debut season the club could have asked for, after winning the Sixth Woman of the Year award. The 19-year-old averaged 13.5 points last season and joined the Opals for the FIBA Asia Cup.

Whether they have the depth to make a push into finals is yet to be seen, but there’s no doubt the Lightning will be an exciting group to follow this season.

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