How past and present WNBL players are shining in the WNBA

June 10, 2023 | WNBL news

By Hayley Wildes | The Pick and Roll

Image credit: Michelle Couling Photography

As the saying goes, the proof is in the pudding.

For the WNBL, the talent within the league is undisputed, both from the standpoint of Australian players and imports. You need to look no further than those currently plying their trade in the WNBA that have WNBL experience. There are 32 players in the WNBA this season, whom have also suited up in the Australian league at some point throughout their respective careers.

All over the WNBA, there are team rosters with players who played in the WNBL, showcasing the strength of the Australian league within the landscape of global basketball.

Australians making their mark in the WNBA

All Australians currently in the WNBA have played in the WNBL, with Kristy Wallace (Melbourne), Cayla George (Sydney) and Jade Melbourne (Canberra) already signed on for next season.

What a day it was on Wednesday for the Aussies in the WNBA! There were season and equal career-highs in scoring performances, a bucket to send a game to overtime, and some flame throwing from beyond the arc — and everything else in between.

Alanna Smith’s career-best form continued when she led Chicago to an overtime win over Indiana. Not only did she stuff the stat sheet with 18 points (7/9 FG), five assists, five rebounds, two steals and two blocks, Smith saved the day for the Sky when she drained a layup as time expired to even the scores and send the game to overtime. Chicago eventually came away with the 108-103 win.

Despite coming up short, Wallace did all she could to try to help Indiana eke out a win, but Smith’s clutch bucket was too much to overcome. Wallace poured in a season-high 16 points, to go along with three rebounds and three assists in 28 minutes of action.

Ezi Magbegor has recorded three double-doubles in the last four games and helped lead Seattle to their first win of the season — and Jade Melbourne’s first win in the WNBA — against Los Angeles in a nail-biting 66-63 win. Magbegor is taking her game to the next level this season and has hit 3/4 triples in the last two games, highlighting her willingness to expand her game out to the perimeter.

Magbegor’s defensive prowess has been on show for some time, but if she’s able to knockdown a triple or two every game, she becomes a menace on both ends of the court and will make things easier for her teammates by stretching the floor and opening up driving lanes.

Bec Allen has had some great moments throughout the season with Connecticut, but she put it all together on Wednesday against Las Vegas and nearly dragged the Sun to a barnstorming comeback win. The Aces eventually held on for a 90-84 win, but Allen caught fire in the second half draining six triples, including going 4/4 in the fourth quarter, to finish with a team-high 22 points and 5 rebounds in just 21 minutes.

Alanna Smith has grabbed her third WNBA opportunity with both hands and is carving out an important role with Chicago. Playing the best basketball of her WNBA career, Smith is proving to be exactly what the Sky needs in a versatile big.

Averaging 25.7 minutes per game, Smith is putting up impressive stats across the board and is fitting in seamlessly with her new team. Averaging 10.1 points, 5.1 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game, Smith’s skillset and ability to stretch the floor by working inside or outside, make her a valuable commodity in James Wade’s rotation.

Through eight games, Smith boasts the best plus/minus, +4.6, on the Sky roster for players who have played at least half of the games. She also has the best three-point shooting percentage, 47.8%, further highlighting her importance to the team.

With four games scoring over 15 points, Smith has been a reliable offensive option for Chicago, pouring in 18 points (7/7 shooting), six rebounds and three assists against a loaded New York team last weekend. In a win over Dallas late last month, Smith put together perhaps the most complete game of her career when she posted 14 points, 12 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in 28 minutes.

Jade Melbourne’s rookie WNBA season is already picking up steam and she produced the best game of her young WNBA career on the weekend against Los Angeles. The Storm fell agonisingly short, 92-85, in that game, but Melbourne had clutch moments and drained a monster triple to drag Seattle right back into the game late in the fourth. In 21 minutes, she recorded 10 points, five rebounds and two assists.

Sami Whitcomb’s best game of the season so far was against her former team, New York, when she drained three triples on her way to 11 points. Her minutes are down this season as the Storm continues to experiment with finding an optimal guard rotation, but she’s continued to fight hard on defence and remains a constant threat from outside the arc.

Cayla George has had some strong moments for the 7-1 Aces and has looked at home back in the WNBA. Whilst her minutes are limited, she’s clearly been instructed to utilise the weapon that is her three-point shooting. Not afraid to launch them from deep, George has hit a few triples in four outings for the Aces so far.

WNBL23 imports putting in the work

Tiffany Mitchell (Minnesota), Olivia Nelson-Ododa (Connecticut), Kierstan Bell (Las Vegas), Karlie Samuelson (Los Angeles), Tianna Hawkins (Washington), Kayla Thornton and Jocelyn Willoughby (New York).

Last season’s WNBL imports are playing vital roles across the WNBA. Some are on genuine championship contenders; while others are doing all they can to help their teams chalk up early season wins.

It would be remiss to start with anyone other than Tiffany Mitchell. The former Melbourne Boomer helped her Minnesota Lynx team finally grab their first win of the season against the Washington Mystics over the weekend. With scores level after Washington made a last ditched comeback attempt, it all came down to Mitchell, who was able to recover after initially getting her shot blocked by Brittney Sykes —who had hit the game-tying triple seconds earlier— and sink the game-winning layup with just seconds left on the clock.

It was a just reward for Mitchell, who has been a solid performer for the Lynx despite their 1-6 record. She’s averaging 12 points, 3.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, while shooting a very healthy career-high 45.5% from deep.

Mitchell’s three-point shooting has improved out of sight in the last two seasons. Having never shot over 30% on threes prior to the 2022 season, she is shooting 40.5% since the start of last season. A lot of that comes down to better decision making and not forcing shots. She’s being more selective in her three-point shooting, and it’s paying dividends.

Townsville’s championship-winning import pairing of Karlie Samuelson and Tianna Hawkins has gone straight to work in the WNBA. Samuelson has experienced a rollercoaster start to the season, but to her credit, her fantastic play left Los Angeles with no other option but to sign her for the remainder of the season. After initially signing a training camp deal, Samuelson was waived prior to the season opener, before then being signed to a hardship contract. On that hardship contract, Samuelson was a vital piece of the Sparks offence, averaging 11 points in her first three games of the season.

Officially, she was released by Los Angeles earlier this week, but that was a mere formality in order to be able to sign her for the remainder of the season, with her hard work and dedication clearly paying off.

2023 WNBL Grand Final MVP, Hawkins hasn’t quite found her groove with Washington yet, averaging 4.2 points and 3.7 rebounds in 12 minutes per game, but as the season progresses, the Mystics will need players to stand up and I’ve got no doubt she will be ready to answer the call when her number is called.

Olivia Nelson-Ododa and Kierstan Bell are both in their sophomore WNBA seasons after suiting up for Melbourne and Adelaide, respectively, in WNBL23. Nelson-Ododa is finding her feet with her new team, Connecticut, playing alongside Bec Allen. Averaging 11 minutes per game, Nelson-Ododa has posted 2.7 points and 2.4 rebounds per game.

Bell has yet to lock down a regular rotation role down on a loaded Las Vegas outfit. She played a season-high 15 minutes in Las Vegas’ 93-65 rout over Los Angeles in the third game of the season, recording four points, four rebounds and two blocks.

Kayla Thornton and Jocelyn Willoughby were vital pieces for Southside and Sydney, respectively, last season and now are playing alongside each other on Sandy Brondello’s New York squad, a roster boasting unbelievable depth and star power, highlighted by Breanna Stewart, Sabrina Ionescu, Jonquel Jones and Courtney Vandersloot, just to name a few.

Image credit: Michelle Couling Photography

Thornton is playing key minutes for the Liberty. While her stats don’t jump out at you (6.8 points and 4 rebounds per game), her play is about much more than the box score. She’s the type of blue collar worker that fits perfectly in a superstar-filled roster as she battles all day for boards, defends at a high level and is efficient on offence.

It should also be noted that Canberra import Rae Burrell suited up for one game in a Sparks uniform on a hardship contract, before being released a day later.

Past WNBL imports now in the WNBA

Monique Billings, Nia Coffey (Atlanta), Marina Mabrey, Courtney Williams (Chicago), Jackie Young (Las Vegas), Lindsay Allen, Rachael Banham, Bridget Carleton (Minnesota), Betnijah Laney (New York), Sophie Cunningham, Sug Sutton, Brianna Turner (Phoenix), Mercedes Russell, Kia Nurse (Seattle), Ariel Atkins, Natasha Cloud, Brittney Sykes (Washington).

As the above list suggests, there are genuine WNBA stars whose journeys all include stops in the WNBL, many of whom have gone from strength to strength since spending time in Australia.

When Jackie Young and Marina Mabrey paired up in Perth for the 2021/22 season, they were a dynamic duo, and both have only grown as players since. Young is a genuine star of the WNBA, and after winning Most Improved Player of the Year last season and an All-Star nod for the first time, she’s taken her game to the next level, tearing teams apart with 22 points, 4.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2 steals per game.

Mabrey made the move from Dallas to Chicago this season and is proving her worth to her new team, averaging 16.7 points, four rebounds and four assists per game. She’s a ferocious competitor as we all saw when she was with Perth, and has been key in helping Chicago get off to a strong start this season.

The likes of Natasha Cloud and Brittney Sykes in Washington, both of whom will be front and centre of any Mystics run towards the postseason, Betnijah Laney, who is somewhat of an under the radar superstar in New York, Courtney Williams, who is doing a little bit of everything for Chicago, all plied their trade in the WNBL not too long ago.

There’s no doubt that the sheer number of players in the WNBA that have also played in the WNBL proves the strength of the Australian league.