Year one under Shane Heal wasn't ideal for the rebuilding Flames, but their emerging talent did show glimpses. (Image: Sydney Flames/ Twitter; Design: Will Cuckson)

After just missing out on a playoff spot in 2020, the Sydney Flames took a step back in 2021/22 with a younger roster under head coach Shane Heal, finishing on the bottom of the ladder. It was a big year of development, can they continue to make strides in WNBL23?

Last season:

Eighth (four wins, 13 losses)

Season 2021/22 didn’t go the way newly appointed head coach Shane Heal would have wanted it to as his side finished on the bottom of the ladder.

It was a tough year for Sydney as its players battled with injuries and form, while some were unavailable throughout the season due to national duties.

The Flames had a rough start to the season, losing their first five games of the season before registering their first win of the season against the Bendigo Spirit.

The rebuilding side only won three more games for the year, but showed positive signs of progression throughout the season as the players got more familiar and comfortable with Heal’s aggressive, high-tempo style of play.

Sydney finished the season losing eight of its last 11 games, but Heal would have been impressed by his team’s performances as he got a look at what the group can be in seasons to come as it continued to gel and develop.

Despite their position on the ladder, the Flames showed they could take it to the best teams in the competition. However, they often found themselves fading out late in games against the more experienced teams.

In the last month of the season, Sydney went on a three-game win streak on the road. And although one of them came against Southside – who would finish only a spot higher than Sydney, the other two came against a playoff team – Perth, and a team fighting for a playoff spot – Bendigo.

Biggest in:

After having bad luck with their imports last season, the Sydney Flames will hope WNBA rising star Jocelyn Willoughby can reverse the trend in WNBL23. The 24-year-old is an exciting talent and will be a critical piece for the Flames.

The 187cm wing’s versatility will provide the Flames with the opportunity to run multiple lineups, as Willoughby can play the two or three spot. She is well regarded as a high IQ player and her physical presence will provide a lot on both ends of the floor.

Defensively, Willoughby prides herself on her aggressiveness and in stopping her opponent. On offence, opposing defences will have to respect her game as she is good at getting downhill, but she can also stretch the floor.

They will also have to watch out for her creativity, as she can also create for her teammates.

Willoughby was a star in college playing for the University of Virginia Cavaliers, averaging 13.2 points, 6.9 rebounds, 1.6 assists, and 1.4 steals per game in her four-year college career.

In 29 games in her senior year, Willoughby averaged 19.4 points on 45.8 per cent shooting, 7.5 rebounds, two assists, and 1.3 steals per game. After her stellar year, the New Jersey native was drafted with pick 10 in the 2020 WNBA draft by the Phoenix Mercury before being traded to the New York Liberty.

In her rookie WNBA season with the Liberty in 2020, Willoughby started in five of her 22 games and led the Liberty with a three-point percentage of 40 per cent. In 2021, she suffered a torn left Achilles during a pre-season scrimmage and didn’t play at all that season.

In the most recent WNBA season earlier this year, Willoughby scored a season-high 13 points in her first game in over two seasons, but only made 11 appearances as she battled with a quad injury during the season.

Biggest out:

After two years with the Flames, Lauren Mansfield has departed the team, returning to her home state of South Australia after signing a two-year deal with the Adelaide Lightning.

The 32-year-old was a co-captain of the Flames during her two years at Sydney, and leaves behind a wealth of experience that would be valuable to a young and emerging Flames squad.

The 170cm guard is among one of Australia’s best in the position, with the ability to alternate between the point and shooting guard spot.

In her first year with Sydney in 2020, the former Opal averaged 14 points, 4.4 assists, and a steal in 31.5 minutes per game. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see Mansfield on the court much last year, only playing seven games as a calf tendon tear cut her season short.

The loss of Mansfield is softened as the Flames have many options to form a formidable backcourt, with young gun Shyla Heal, signing Tiana Mangakahia and homegrown guard Vanessa Panousis – who returns to the Flames.

More WNBL Season Previews

WNBL 2022/23 Season Preview: Townsville Fire

WNBL 2022/23 Season Preview: Adelaide Lightning

WNBL 2022/23 Season Preview: Bendigo Spirit

Player to watch:

As aforementioned, the Flames have plenty of options to replace departing former co-captain Lauren Mansfield and one to keep an eye on this season is one of Australia’s brightest prospects – Tiana Mangakahia.

The former college star and Opals Asia Cup guard will form a frightening one-two punch with Shyla Heal, with the pair both able to play the point guard position. The 27-year-old is a true point guard, and will allow Heal to focus on scoring the ball should coach Shane Heal want to use her in that role.

The pair are recently coming off an NBL1 North campaign with the Northside Wizards, so will already know how one another plays. In 20 games this season, Mangakahia averaged 29.5 points, 7.6 assists, and 6.7 rebounds.

Mangakahia was a promising young talent in college playing for Syracuse, and looked to be on the rise as a WNBA draft prospect.

Her performances in her first two seasons in Orange were so spectacular, she earned a selection in the preliminary Opals squad for the Tokyo Olympics. She was also being touted as a top eight WNBA draft pick, but all of that was taken away as the then 24-year-old was diagnosed with stage three breast cancer.

After missing the entire 2019-20 season while recovering, Mangakahia returned to training with Syracuse nearly a year after her diagnosis.

In her final at Syracuse, Mangakahia led college basketball in assists (7.2 per game). She also finished as the ACC’s all-time leader in career assists per game. She finished her Syracuse career averaging 15.8 points and 8.7 assists per game.

Mangakahia finished her college career as a two-time Nancy Lieberman Point Guard Award top five finalist, and a two-time WBCA All-America Honorable Mention.

Another player to look for will be Keely Froling. The 26-year-old will be Sydney’s sole captain this season, and will play a huge role on and off the court.

Although Froling was already one of the Flames’ best players last season, there is no reason she can’t announce herself as a star of the league if she isn’t already. She averaged 16.3 points last season and will once again be one of the main focal points of Sydney’s offence.

With the departure of Mansfield, Froling’s leadership will be crucial and valuable as she leads a young and upcoming roster. She won’t have to do it alone, as she will be surrounded by Vanessa Panousis, Jocelyn Willoughby, and Kalani Purcell in the Flames leadership group.

Starting five:

The Inner Sanctum’s predicted starting five for the Sydney Flames. (Design: Will Cuckson)

Full squad:

Emma Clarke, Hannah Sjerven (import), Jocelyn Willoughby (import), Kalani Purcell, Keely Froling, Kiera Rowe, Madelyn Allen, Shyla Heal, Tiana Mangakahia, Vanessa Panousis, Indiah Bowyer*, Lilly Rotunno*

Ins: Emma Clark (Perth Lynx), Hannah Sjerven (Minnesota Lynx), Indiah Bowyer (Logan Thunder), Jocelyn Willoughby (New York Liberty), Lilly Rotunno (Gold Coast Rollers), Madelyn Allen (South District Spartans), Tiana Mangakahia (Dynamo Moscow), Vanessa Panousis (Sutherland Sharks)

Outs: Chelsea Dungee, Chyra Evans (Michigan Wolverines, college), Emma Mahady, Funda Nakkasoglu, Katie Deeble (Wake Forest Demon Deacons, college), Lauren Mansfield (Adelaide Lightning), Maria Blazejewski, Morgan Yaeger (Townsville Fire), Rebecca Pizzey (Canberra Capitals), Rennia Davis, Shaquille Shaw, Sherrie Calleia (Canberra Capitals)

*development player

Fixture highlights:

With no game in Round 1 for Sydney, it will have to wait until November 12 to play its first game of the season, as it faces Bendigo away.

Six of Sydney’s first seven games of the season are on the road, with three trips to Victoria, to face the Bendigo Spirit (twice) and Southside Flyers. A trip to Perth and Adelaide will break it up, followed by travelling to Canberra.

Like they did last season, the Flames will play host to four double-headers alongside NBL counterparts the Sydney Kings, with two in the first month and a half of the season in December and two others across January.

The Flames play their first home game at their new home – the Quaycentre, against the Boomers on Friday, December 16.

What to expect:

Last season, the Flames played an aggressive style of basketball, similar to what coach Shane Heal played under when he was playing. This style rattled opposition teams at times, but Sydney’s lack of overall structure was its undoing.

The Flames ranked fifth for points against in 2021/22, conceding 76 points per game. Heal has already come out and said his team will be defensively minded, and the roster he has assembled over the past two seasons illustrates that.

Last season, Kiera Rowe and Kalani Purcell were contenders for defensive player of the year, and expect them to have a similar impact this season on the defensive end.

The Flames also added Jocelyn Willoughby – who prides herself on defensive aggressiveness and getting big stops.

Sydney had problems scoring the ball last season, only averaging 66 points per game, but it should be greater equipped this season should its imports stay healthy and fit in with the core group.

The last word:

It’s been seven years since the Flames made the playoffs, and they may have to wait another season for that to eventuate as their emerging youngsters continue to develop and gel as a group.

With Sydney still in the early stages of its rebuild, it is expected that it may again finish in the lower half of the table.

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