“I’m ready to step out” – Kristen Veal on her new role
By Daniel Herborn | The Pick and Roll
A heady point guard with a rare understanding of the game, Kristen Veal looked every bit a future coach during her long and acclaimed playing career. She became the youngest player ever to play in the WNBA and became the WNBL’s all-time assist leader across her 372-game career. A move to carrying the clipboard seemed a natural fit.
Surprisingly, however, Veal initially did not have aspirations in this field.
“As a player, I never wanted to coach,” she shared. “I think deep down I realised its demands and the exposure of it. I could get critical because I wanted things to be a certain way, and I wanted us to achieve certain things, but I didn’t have the overarching perspective of what a coach does.”
Veal liked giving back and was always interested in skill development, so she began to drift into coaching roles. “That’s where it started with me. My mum was very passionate about that when we were in under 12s, and I generally had this huge respect for under 12s coaches. I think that’s probably the most important cog in the system.”
The once reluctant mentor became more interested in this side of the game with stints on the coaching staff of the Emerging Opals and World University Games. She also became head coach of the Basketball Australia Centre of Excellence (CoE) women’s team, worked as a technical assistant for the Opals at the recent World Cup and spent time as an assistant coach at the Capitals.
“I’ve definitely grown in love with it,” she says of the job. “For a long time, when I started coaching, I still felt like a player. Now, I genuinely feel like a coach.”
Ready for a new challenge
This season, Veal will be a WNBL head coach for the first time, taking the reins at the Capitals, where she won three titles as a player. It’s a challenge she feels ready to meet.
“It’s like I’ve done my uni degree, and I’m ready to step out into the real world,” she says by way of analogy. “I think there’s still going to be a level of adjustment to the pro realm. I fully expect that for the next year or two… but I’m ready for that growth and that change.”
She promises to be an open book with her players and hopes they will grow alongside her. “I relate and connect [with players] is through being genuine. I want my players to be open to ideas and open to growing, to be about each other, to believe in the team, the hard work and the toughness.”
Very much a pure point guard as a player, Veal was an unselfish floor general who saw getting teammates involved as her primary role and had the court vision and skill to make an offence sing. But she says the game has evolved in her time as a coach, with guards that float between the point and shooting guard positions now the norm.
“I was probably in the last generation of the pure point guards,” she reflects. “Now, you have to really search for pure point guards. We’ve got a lot of really dynamic, attacking, scoring combo guards that have that versatility.”
Veal wants to empower her players to make decisions rather than have them be overly reliant on set plays and structure. “The way I love to play is to see the [game] as a kind of chess match… and see what we can construct as a unit. I don’t know how I’d go these days with the coaches that want to play call a lot.”
The 41 year old instead wants to mould a team that can think on its feet, reading and reacting to the game as it unfolds and relying on creativity rather than robotically running plays. She’ll have the challenge of instilling this approach in a relatively inexperienced group that enters the season without the star power of WNBA player Brittney Sykes, former league MVP Kelsey Griffin and 400-game veteran Kelly Wilson. On the other hand, the squad includes some exciting youth, like livewire guard Jade Melbourne and 19 year old Shaneice Swain, long a standout at junior level.
Veal says the team’s leadership structure is a work in progress. “We jumped on a Zoom call the other day, and Britt [Smart] was probably the only confident voice in the group,” she says.
Still, she’s optimistic that leaders will emerge and seize the chance to be senior players. “We’ve got a lot of players that can step into opportunities. We’ve got some first-time WNBL players and some players that have been around but have been injured and probably haven’t made their mark on the WBL just yet. I think we’ll get a good sense of who’s going to lead to group this year as we go through preseason, whether that’s a couple of people or a bit more by committee.”
Capitals part of the fabric of Canberra
Veal grew up in Adelaide but has come to think of Canberra as a second home through her association with both the Capitals, where she won three titles as a player, and her time at the CoE as both player and coach. “I’ve probably lived in Canberra, on and off, the longest of any other state. I’ve got a sense of what the Capitals are about.”
Veal sees a deep connection between this team and the city. “Our group really reflects our basketball community, and Canberra as a city. That’s exciting for me to share. We get to uncover talent, put it on show and give opportunities to some special individuals.”
In her transition to coaching, Veal has found that long-term planning has been one of the more difficult aspects of the role to get across. As a player, she could simply go into each game wanting to win. This season, she has her sights on the finals but concedes the new group could take time to gel and grow. “Maybe this year is going to be a little bit more about redefining success, but I definitely know we have the talent and enthusiasm to make finals. And then you know what they say about finals, you just have to be there and then it’s anyone’s game.”
Beyond this season, Veal hopes to build continuity into the program and make Canberra a long-term destination for players rather than having the roster turn over every year. “Goz [Paul Gorris] did an amazing job almost going for the three-peat; players wanted to stay and build sustained success over multiple years. And Graffy [Carrie Graf] was the pioneer of that.”
Even further into the future, she has visions of a higher profile for the league she has been around for much of her life. “If you talk to Lauren [Jackson] or any of the big names from the league from the past 20 or 30 years, there’s an unwavering belief in our product. We understand the talent the women that play this game have, their dedication to their craft and how they’re role models in the community.
“I want more of Australia to see us and be impressed.”