Shyla Heal returns to Australia to play under father Shane. (Photo: Chicago Sky)

The Sydney Uni Flames had an almost year in 2020. Can they push the top teams in WNBL22 and make a return to finals?

Last season: Fifth (Five wins, eight losses)

Like most teams who missed finals in the condensed 2020 WNBL season, the Sydney Uni Flames had a year to forget in far-north Queensland.

2022 will mark four years since they last competed in playoffs, going down in two games to the Townsville Fire after a strong year and finishing second.

Though they were on the end of a few hidings last season, they also came excruciatingly close to the top teams. They went down by three points to runner-up Townsville, five points to the UC Capitals, and four points to premiers Southside.

Turn those results around, and the Flames are knocking on the door of finals.

If they’re able to find more consistency in 2022, they can turn an ‘almost season’ into a genuine challenge for that all-so-sought-after top four spot.

Biggest in

Keely Froling joins the Flames fresh out of the Opals squad that won bronze in the Women’s Asia Cup.

Capable of playing as a four or five, she’ll bring scoring, boards, and a strong presence on both offence and defence in whatever role is asked of her.

The 25-year-old impressed massively against the Philippines with a double-double game, putting up 19 points and 13 rebounds as she helped lead the Opals to an enormous victory.

She’s a proven WNBL performer, averaging 9.4 points per game at 39.5 per cent and 5.8 rebounds. The 6’2″ athletic beast also showed just how hungry she can be when she gets going in the NBL1 for the Launceston Tornadoes.

Froling was also selected in Australia’s 3×3 team for the Olympic qualifiers, though they ultimately didn’t make it to Tokyo.

In a team chock full of depth for guards, signing a taller option who can work on both sides of the ball will add massively to the Flames line up.

Biggest out

The 2020 season’s rebound queen, Anneli Maley leaves a hole under the rim, with the Flames’ forward depth now looking a bit shaky in terms of experience.

She averaged a staggering 12.3 rebounds a game in her last WNBL campaign, nearly three more on average than second-placed Cayla George at Melbourne.

Froling will now be the most prolific WNBL rebounder on the Flames’ list, averaging 5.8 per game in 2020. Wooden spooners Bendigo will greatly appreciate her presence in the key.

Player to watch

The story of Shyla Heal is one that hasn’t been easy to swallow, but should leave the young star all the more determined to make an impact on return to Australia.

After spending three seasons in the WNBL with the Perth Lynx, Bendigo Spirit and Townsville Fire, the daughter of Australian basketball legend Shane Heal was drafted to WNBA side Chicago Sky with their first round pick.

Heal was infamously waived after just 31 minutes of game time across four matches, set to speaking out recently about the moment she was told she wouldn’t be continuing with the Sky ahead of their first away game of the WNBA season.

At just 20-years-old, the guard is already one of Australia’s most dazzling playmakers. She was top five in the competition in 2020 for points per game averaging 17.1, just behind a brigade of Opals in Liz Cambage, Lauren Nicholson, Steph Talbot and Katie-Rae Ebzery.

Heal also averaged 4.9 assists and 3.6 rebounds in her time at Townsville.

She’s got versatility across the court in her offensive abilities, both a renowned scorer but also an elite passer with strong vision. Heal was also named the Australian Youth Player of the Year in 2020.

No doubt with a chip on her shoulder and a point to prove, expect Heal to be one of the most exciting young guards to watch this season.

She’s known for the physicality she brings on court, and has developed her ball-handling skills to the elite level in stunning time.

More WNBL Season Previews

WNBL 2021/22 Season Preview: Adelaide Lightning

WNBL 2021/22 Season Preview: Perth Lynx

WNBL 2021/22 Season Preview: Bendigo Spirit

Starting five

PG: Lauren Mansfield

SG: Shyla Heal

SG: Rebecca Pizzey

PG: Kalani Purcell

C: Keely Froling

Full squad

Katie Deeble, Chelsea Dungee, Chyra Evans, Keely Froling, Shyla Heal, Emma Mahady, Lauren Mansfield, Funda Nakkasoglu, Rebecca Pizzey, Kalani Purcell, Kiera Rowe, Stephanie Watts, Sherrie Calleia (development), Morgan Yaeger (development)

Fixture highlights

Sydney will open its season against the UC Capitals at home on Sunday, December 5. It will be Flames’ fans first chance to watch Shyla Heal in person, and will see Keely Froling come up against her old team for the first time.

The Flames haven’t defeated the Melbourne Boomers since December 2018, and will get their first chance to do so at home in Round 4. They further haven’t beaten the Boomers at Qudos Bank Arena since the season before that, in October 2017.

Further adding to that storyline will be Kiwi Kalani Purcell, playing her first game against the Boomers since crossing over.

They won’t have to venture outside of NSW or the ACT until January 12, when they take on reigning premiers Southside.

In a quirk of fixturing, the Flames will get the opportunity to host 2020 finalists Melbourne at home twice, but have to face Southside, Townsville, and Canberra away twice.

They’ll play host to six double headers alongside NBL counterparts the Sydney Kings with two to kick off the season in December and the four others across January and February.

What to expect

While the loss of some serious talent could see the Flames hurtling back down the ladder, the youth movement could be the spark they need to propel straight back up.

What Shyla Heal has already been able to do as a teenager is simply phenomenal. Her addition, a year older and wiser and with American experience under her belt will add fire to the Flames.

Much has been of the pure power of the youngsters on the list. Sydney will boast three top 10 WNBA draft picks in Heal, Chelsea Dungee and Stephanie Watts. While all have been starved of opportunity in some way in the States, don’t expect them to make anything but the most of their time in Australia.

The depth of the guard group gives Shane Heal options to choose from as his one or two, and can look to the bench to shake things up on command.

Expect the Flames’ guards to load up on the assists with strong shooting options anywhere across the arc, or drive strongly to the rim and break through opposition defences.

On the flipside, there will be a lot of reliance on Froling and Purcell to add that bigger presence on defence and to rack up the boards. If teams can exploit that, the Flames may leak scores as they did at times in 2020.

The last word

After their ‘almost year’, the Flames might find themselves shocked by the improvement of everyone around them.

Teams below them have recruited strongly, while teams above them look as solid as ever. Such may be the nature of finishing just outside the top four, but it does leave the Flames in a proverbial no woman’s land.

If they can turn around the inconsistency of last season and take advantage of the x-factor recruits, Sydney Uni can break through. A tough schedule against last year’s finalists isn’t on their side, but taking on the challenge will be key.

A huge squad turnover could see anything happen. Whether they can develop chemistry quickly will be a key factor in the type of season the Flames have.

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