The most intriguing player questions heading into the WNBL season

September 9, 2023 | WNBL news

The most intriguing player questions heading into the WNBL season

By Will Crouch | The Pick and Roll

There’s no shortage of storylines heading into the new season, especially with the Olympics less than a year away. These are the most pressing questions fans, players, and officials have around the upcoming campaign.

Can Izzy Borlase fill the void left by Steph Talbot?

Put simply, there’s no replacing Steph Talbot. But with Borlase, the Lightning might be able to come close.

The 19-year-old is already one of Australia’s brightest young talents, and even as a rookie, rarely looked out of place last season. Her 25-point debut (on 10-12 shooting) put everyone in the league on notice, but even after that, she barely skipped a beat. Not many teenagers come into the league possessing the patience to pick their moments, let alone the poise to hit overtime forcing triples, but Borlase isn’t most players.

It’s not unrealistic to suggest that whether the Lightning sink or swim could rest on her shoulders. After a season of going head-to-head with Talbot at training, and an off-season spent fixing a nagging back issue, the young star comes into this season perfectly positioned to shine brighter than ever. A WNBA contract, Opals consideration, and MVP votes are all in her future. With Talbot likely still sidelined for a good portion of the season, we’re about to find out how far away that future is.

How much does Tess Madgen have left in the tank?

That’s the big question hovering over the Opals captain going into an Olympic year.

The 33-year-old missed nearly all of last season to fix a knee issue, which by all reports, is now behind her. The veteran’s numbers had already dipped as she led Melbourne to a breakthrough title in 2021, but can you ever really judge Madgen’s output purely on paper? The veteran willed a shorthanded Opals side to an Olympic berth at the Asia Cup, silencing any critics who’d been calling for a younger, faster replacement. Madgen’s move to Sydney signalled a seismic shift around the league, with the Flames clearly going all in this season. By retooling their roster with the likes of Lauren Nicholson, Shaneice Swain, as well as long-time running mate and reigning league MVP Cayla George, the Flames will be contenders this season. Add in a reunion with championship coach Guy Molloy and all the pieces are in place for Madgen… at least on paper.

Will Alice Kunek be an Opal?

It’s no surprise Kunek’s homecoming coincides with the upcoming Olympics. The 32-year-old is on a mission to make sure she’s on the plane to Paris, and she couldn’t have come back to a better situation.

Kunek joins a championship calibre roster, will be running alongside arguably the league’s best guard combo in Steph Reid and Sami Whitcomb, while doing it all under master coach Shannon Seebohm. Kunek instantly makes the Fire a genuine chance to go back-to-back, but her audition to win national selection remains a fascinating subplot. She certainly did her chances no harm at the Asia Cup, where she was comfortably the team’s most capable player, leading scorer, and an All-Star Five selection. Can she maintain that form, and play a similar role for the Fire?

Her versatility, size and skillset are what every coach craves. And while there’s no shortage of players pushing to win a spot in that Olympic team, whether she wears the green and gold next year could come down to how she plays back on home soil.

What exactly is Alex Wilson’s ceiling?

The Norwood Flames conducted a science experiment of sorts in the NBL1 Central competition this past season: what happens if you surround Ally Wilson with shooters, and just let her cook? The results were pretty remarkable: Wilson finished the season with video game averages (20 ppg, 10 rpg, and 7 apg), a championship, a Finals MVP, and a genuine case as the country’s best NBL1 player.

So how does that translate in Bendigo? Maley’s departure could be addition by subtraction, with Wilson almost certainly set for a higher usage rate, especially for a side not only hungry to avenge the disappointment of last season, but also needing to replace the former league MVP’s output at both ends of the floor. Norwood maxed out Wilson’s talents as a do-it-all combo forward – could Bendigo do something similar?

Two years ago, Wilson was almost out of the league. She was only offered an eleventh-hour contract by the Spirit when Leilani Mitchell’s pregnancy opened a roster spot – and a pathway for her to resurrect her career. She’s done that, but the best might still be yet to come. Watch this space.

How long can Monique Conti keep juggling two sports?

There’s a lengthy list of ex-basketballers who’ve made the switch to AFLW: Anne Hatchard, Chloe Molloy, Jess Good, and Taylor Ortlepp, just to name a few. There’s also a reason Conti is still playing both sports at the highest level: She’s simply too good.

While she’s not the only one, the 23-year-old has already made a serious case for being the AFLW’s best midfielder, thanks to a resume that, frankly, seems fictitious: five best and fairests, four All-Australians, one league MVP, and a premiership – with a best on ground medal to boot. The AFLW minor rounds conclude over the first weekend of November – the same week the WNBL starts – and history suggests there’s no reason why Conti’s transition should be anything other than seamless.

She’s continued to be a capable back-up ball handler, reliable shooter, and willing defender while juggling both gigs, and joins a Boomers rotation that almost seems tailor made for her circumstances. With a bona-fide star in Kristy Wallace and marquee import Jordin Canada pencilled into the backcourt, Conti should share backup minutes alongside former Southside team-mate Aimee Rocci. It’s a situation as perfect as any for a player hoping to continue proving it’s possible to have the best of both worlds.

Is Nyadiew Puoch basketball’s next big thing?

Five points, one rebound, and less than one assist per game. Those averages aren’t exactly eye caching, but don’t be surprised if the 19-year-old doubles – or even triples – them this season.

Puoch was mostly an understudy in her rookie year with Southside, learning from the likes of Lauren Jackson, Abby Bishop, and Sara Blicavs. They’re all gone now, opening the door for Puoch to prove why she’s considered one of the world’s best young talents. Sure, her U19 World Cup tournament didn’t exactly go as planned, with the Gems crashing to a ninth place finish. But with some added experience in the national framework after touring China with the Opals, as well as another WNBL pre-season under her belt, Puoch is primed to make this season her own, especially if she can continue converting at above 40% from three-point range.

At 6’3, with otherworldly athleticism, there’s no reason why she can’t start fulfilling that seemingly limitless potential. The minutes, shots, and opportunities will all be there.

How quickly can Canberra’s young stars make some noise?

In 1999, the now defunct AIS won their only WNBL title thanks to a nucleus that included Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, Suzy Batkovic and Kristen Veal. Now, there’s no suggestion this Canberra outfit can live up to that legacy, but if you squint, you can see some similarities: a group of Australia’s brightest young stars ready to put the league on notice in the nation’s capital. Jade Melbourne is already one of the country’s most exciting – and likeable – young talents.

Melbourne took major strides last season, and she’s been reaping the rewards in Seattle. Alex Fowler comes to the Caps fresh from a dazzling collegiate career at Portland and is expected to make an impact from day one. Gemma Potter will be 12 months removed from a second ACL surgery when the season starts, and despite the setbacks, still has as bright a future as anyone in the league. Curiously, all three of these players represented Australia together as juniors. And all the talk out of Canberra is just how much every player wants to play for Coach Kristen Veal. She lived through the historic AIS championship campaign. Can she help history repeat?


Finally, a few players to keep a close eye on:

Steph Reid

Reid is a strong candidate to wrestle an Olympic spot away from Madgen, should the Opals make a change, and this season could offer an early insight into what that future might look like. Alongside new team-mate Sami Whitcomb, we’ll get a firsthand preview of what an alternative Opals backcourt could look like in Paris.

Amy Atwell

In short, Atwell’s riding a serious hot streak. Don’t expect this shooting star to cool down anytime soon.

Keely Froling

The league’s gotten even smaller this season, with the likes of Tolo, Scherf, Bibby, Garbin, Horvat, and Smith all plying their trades overseas. It’s welcome news for the Melbourne recruit, who’s quietly become one of the league’s most productive bigs. Don’t be surprised if she builds on last season’s averages of 18 points and 8 rebounds per game.

Shaneice Swain

The Flames know what they’re getting in Madgen, George and Nicholson, but it’s the 19-year-old Swain that could ultimately be one of their hottest commodities. She played a lot of empty minutes for a Capitals side glued to the bottom of the ladder last season, but that won’t be the case in Sydney. Keep an eye on what kind of impact she can have in games that matter.

Issy Bourne

While Borlase is likely to pick up the most slack in Talbot’s absence, the rookie out of Nebraska (who’s actually three years older than Borlase) has a fantastic opportunity to get some serious reps for a Lightning team that will need to pack a punch every night if they want to stay competitive.

Maddi Rocci

Between the veterans (Whitcomb and Madgen) and the rising stars (Reid and Heal), Rocci can sometimes be overlooked in the national framework. But don’t sleep on the Southside star come this WNBL season. The Flyers are younger, faster, and Rocci is still the engine that makes things go.

Kelly Wilson

By this stage of her career, Wilson’s done it all, but there’s still some unfinished business in Bendigo. Sure, she’s just helped the Braves to an undefeated season and national NBL1 title, but there’s work to do with the Spirit following last season’s catastrophic crash landing. Wilson’s experience – and how much she has left in the tank – will have a big say in whether or not Bendigo can climb back into the top four.

Monica Okoye

I’ve mostly omitted imports from this piece, but Okoye should be extremely interesting fit in Canberra, and the WNBL in general. The Japanese star has routinely hurt the Opals on the international stage, and her rugged style should be an excellent addition to a young, hungry Capitals team.