Players to watch in the 2023 WNBL Finals

March 7, 2023 | WNBL news

By Hayley Wildes | The Pick and Roll

The WNBL Finals are here and all four Championship contenders have superstar players that could potentially turn a series on its head. With that in mind, each team will feel that they have a real chance of progressing through to the Grand Final series.

The Finals tip off tomorrow and before all the exciting action begins, we’re here to breakdown the players to watch in both series.

Southside Flyers vs Melbourne Boomers

Game 1: Wednesday March 8 at the State Basketball Centre.

Game 2: Saturday March 11 at Melbourne Sports Stadium.

Game 3 (if necessary): Wednesday March 15 at the State Basketball Centre.

The cross-town rivalry between Southside and Melbourne is set to reach new heights as they battle it out for a place in the Grand Final series. Both teams have potential game-winners and have been tested throughout the season as injuries have taken their toll.

Melbourne’s depth has been a question mark all season long, and because of that, Cayla George, Tiffany Mitchell and Kristy Wallace have been forced to play huge minutes, and that won’t be changing in the Finals.

George (37 minutes per game) and Mitchell (36) were the top two in the league for minutes played per game, while Wallace (33) wasn’t far behind in eighth. The Boomers rely so heavily on those three players, and they haven’t let coach Chris Lucas down.

For the Flyers, they are on the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to sharing the load. No Flyer was in the top 10 of minutes per game, with Kayla Thornton and Sara Blicavs leading the charge with just under 30 minutes played per game.

Southside have the mental edge against Melbourne, having won all three match-ups during the regular season. It will be interesting to see if the Boomers are able to take the lessons learnt from those losses and turn the page, or if the Flyers can continue their winning ways.

George, who was awarded the 2023 Suzy Batkovic Medal as the WNBL’s Most Valuable Player on Sunday night, has had an incredible season thus far and will be out to add even more accolades to her resume in the Finals.

George has put together one of the most complete seasons in recent WNBL history by playing in all 21 games and averaging 18.3 points, 11.3 rebounds (league best) and 4.6 assists, while shooting a ridiculously efficient 46.6% from the field, 40.9% from three and 85% from the charity stripe. It’s been a season to remember for George and perhaps her best is yet come as she loves to step up in big moments.

George was the undisputed MVP of the season, but the Boomers wouldn’t be where they are today without fellow 2023 All-WNBL recipients Mitchell (Second Team) and Wallace (First Team), who have both elevated their respective games to new heights this season.

Mitchell is the type of player that can create highlight plays at any moment, who’s athleticism makes her a nightmare to guard. The way she drives to the bucket with force is what really sets her apart as she can finish through contact, rise above or step around defenders, or make the play for a teammate by kicking it out to the wing.

Wallace was named Sixth Woman of the Year last season and this season she started every game she played for the Boomers. A finalist for the 2023 Defensive Player of the Year Award, Wallace is an absolute workhorse on the court with her defensive energy being key to Melbourne slowing down opposing guards, while offensively, she’s added more strings to her bow and has mastered the mid-range game.

The Flyers do things by committee, but 2023 WNBL MVP runner-up Kayla Thornton, Sara Blicavs and Maddy Rocci are the three cornerstones, in the absence of injured Lauren Jackson.

Thornton has been stellar as the lone import for Southside. She battles against the bigs every game, while her versatility sees her also take advantage of mismatches against smaller opponents on the offensive end. Thornton simply doesn’t stop and when push comes to shove in the Finals, I get the feeling she won’t be one to take a backwards step.

Blicavs has been efficient and consistent for the Flyers this season, always ready to step up and contribute in whatever way is required. Look for Blicavs to keep the scoreboard ticking over for Southside, alongside Thornton, and if those two can keep close to pace in the scoring column with George and Mitchell, the Flyers might just have the upper hand in the series.

Rocci has been tremendous for the Flyers this season, bouncing back from a quieter 2021/22 season. She has become a bona fide star of the league; shooting the lights out from three (44% from long range), while creating great offensive looks for teammates with her passing.

The battle between Rocci and Wallace will be an entertaining one to say the least. Both are fiery guards (in the very best way possible), who will stop at nothing to help their team get over the line.

Townsville Fire vs Perth Lynx

Game 1: Thursday March 9 at Townsville Entertainment Centre.

Game 2: Sunday March 12 in Bendat Basketball Centre.

Game 3 (if necessary): Thursday March 16 at Townsville Entertainment Centre.

Townsville enters the Finals on an incredible 12-game winning streak and as the minor premiers, having finished the season on top of the ladder. With that comes home-court advantage in their match-up against Perth and the same goes should they advance to the Grand Final series.

While Townsville is on a hot streak, Perth enters the Finals having fought tooth and nail for their post-season spot by winning 11 of their final 14 games after a slow start to the season.

Perth is powered by their big three of Sami Whitcomb (2023 All-WNBL First Team), Chloe Bibby and Lauren Scherf (All-WNBL Second Team). Bibby and Scherf have combined to become one of the premier big pairings in the league and are focal points on both ends of the court for the Lynx.

Bibby’s scoring has been a constant for Perth all season, averaging 16.2 points per game and scoring in double figures in all bar two games. She’s proven herself to be a reliable option on the offensive end for the Lynx and helps to stretch the floor with her three-point shooting, as does Scherf. Alongside sharp shooters Whitcomb and Amy Atwell, having two bigs who can step outside and shoot from long range with confidence is key to Perth creating space – and great looks – on that end of the floor.

Scherf has really blossomed into the do-it-all, superstar post player, and she will be key to Perth’s chances of pulling off an upset. Scherf will have a huge load on her shoulders as she’ll be battling against the likes of Tianna Hawkins and Mikaela Ruef for rebounds, while also trying to draw them out of the paint so Perth’s guards have room to operate when driving to the bucket.

Scherf is such a threat on both ends of the court and her offensive arsenal I believe is severely underrated as she’s capable of scoring in the post thanks to her bully-ball mentality close to the basket, can step out and drain a triple and she’s a terrific passer (averages a team-high 5.3 assists per game) which helps take some of the playmaking load off Whitcomb and Robbi Ryan.

We all know what Whitcomb is capable of, and she’s undoubtedly the engine that powers Perth with her relentless attack and dogged defence. If she catches fire, Whitcomb can turn a game on its head and I get the feeling that the Lynx will need Whitcomb to drain plenty of triples if they’re to compete against the Fire.

Townsville boasts a squad that has great depth and an outrageous amount of top end talent. Import duo Tianna Hawkins and Karlie Samuelson have been exactly what coach Shannon Seebohm – who was named 2023 WNBL Coach of the Year on Sunday – would’ve hoped they’d be, while the starting backcourt of Lauren Nicholson and Steph Reid are always ready for battle and provide a huge lift on both ends of the court.

Adding Opal squad member Shyla Heal to the backcourt rotation late in the season is a luxury that has really helped propel the Fire even closer to their goal of a Championship.

The Fire have been led by superstar import Tianna Hawkins all season, and she was rewarded by being named to the All-WNBL First Team. She can score against the best of them in the paint and will heap plenty of pressure on Perth’s bigs. Look for Hawkins to go to work early in the paint and make her presence felt.

The Reid and Nicholson backcourt pairing is a joy to watch, possessing speed and energy that is incredibly tough to defend. They are ruthless in their attack on the offensive end, with Reid often orchestrating the offence and Nicholson being a scoring threat from anywhere on the court.

While Reid and Nicholson are a deadly duo on the offensive end, they place just as much focus on the defensive end, which creates absolute havoc. They will both pressure opposing guards all day long, often leading to turnovers and fastbreak opportunities for the Fire.

With Reid and Nicholson leading the Fire’s backcourt and Heal coming off the bench, Townsville might have claims to boasting the best backcourt trio in the league. Strap in, because they’re fun to watch.