The rookies and newcomers that lit up WNBL23

March 9, 2023 | WNBL news

By Daniel Herborn | The Pick and Roll

One of the most interesting storylines this 2022/23 WNBL season has been the rookies and newcomers who made an impact.

We’ve gathered up the most impressive first year players, as well as the likes of Isobel Borlase and Shaneice Swain, who played one and five games respectively in 2021/22 but really announced themselves as major talents this season.

There are also returning players like Tiana Mangakahia and Chloe Bibby, who had appeared in the league as youngsters —in Bibby’s case, first as a 15-year-old for the Dandenong Rangers way back in 2013/14— but who had their first seasons as professionals this time around.

Collectively, they represent a new generation of players with intriguing upside who will play a major role in the league for years to come. Many are already swinging games with skill and poise beyond their years.

Amy Atwell | Perth Lynx

After a glittering career at the University of Hawaii where she steadily developed and eventually set the record for most three-pointers made, Amy Atwell returned home to Western Australia, and was a key piece of a Perth team that surged into the finals after a slow start to the season.

The 24 year old is the kind of player that could slot into any time in the league and have an impact, but she proved a particularly nice fit for Ryan Petrik’s pace and space offence. She’s a confident shooter from beyond the arc and only Cayla George and Karlie Samuelson bettered her 2.5 three-pointers made per game. She also got her share of deflections and steal, leading the Lynx in the latter category with 24.

Atwell is a high-level technician that doesn’t need much time or space to get her shot off and is adept in both off the dribble or in catch and shoot situations. She also moves well off the ball, and got her share of easy points through transition buckets and backdoor cuts.

Chloe Bibby | Perth Lynx

In her first year on a full contract, Bibby quietly established herself as one of the league’s most resourceful scorers. Her 16.2 points per game placed her in the top ten across the competition, a feat all the more impressive given her efficient 49.2% field goal percentage.

Bibby achieved all of this with the disruption of catching COVID-19 for the first time in January, a setback that saw her miss a game and return on reduced minutes. After a college career that spanned both Mississippi State and Maryland, she seemed a polished player with an excellent understanding of her own game.

A genuine floor spacer with the ability to beat defenders off the dribble, Bibby could be relied on bail out her team with tough shots late in the shot clock if the Lynx offence ever grew stagnant. She has a particularly damaging fadeaway jumper in her arsenal.

Isobel Borlase | Adelaide Lightning

Borlase wasted no time making her presence felt in WNBL23, scoring an eyecatching 25 on 10 of 12 shooting and pulling down nine rebounds in Adelaide’s season opener. She ended up with 13.5 points per game and it was testament to her poise and decision-making that coach Nat Hurst had no hesitation trusting her down the stretch in close games.

Rookies almost inevitably struggle with shot selection, but Borlase was unusually efficient for a youngster – she placed third in the league for field-goal percentage, often a statistical category dominated by relatively low-usage bigs.

Borlase’s impressive season saw her win both the Sixth Woman of the Year Award and the Betty Watson Breakout Player of the Year.

Miela Goodchild | Melbourne Boomers

Despite being a late addition to the Boomers squad, Goodchild immediately looked at home in the WNBL, proving an effective complementary player around Melbourne’s core of stars.

The 22-year-old guard joined the team after a successful college career at blue chip school Duke, where she reached the 100 three-pointer milestone quicker than any player in the program’s history. Her long-range shooting translated to the WNBL handily as she connected on a scorching 46% of her three-point shots, good for fourth in the league.

She ended up starting five of her 18 games and made the most of every opportunity that came her way, including a 17-point, five-rebound, three-assist showing in a win over the Adelaide Lightning and had 18 points with a remarkable six from six three-point range in a rout of the Bendigo Spirit.

Nyadiew Puoch | Southside Flyers

Puoch was a real X-factor off the bench for Southside this year (earning a nomination for Sixth Woman of the year) but she figures to be a star in years to come. At 186cm and with great length and athleticism, she’s got all the tools to become both an elite slasher and a disruptive defender with the ability to guard multiple positions.

She came up with some highlight reel plays, particularly as a shot blocker. In the last six seconds of a close battle with the Sydney Flames, she produced two spectacular efforts, covering a lot of ground to block a Kiera Rowe three-point attempt and then rejecting a Keely Froling layup. Another memorable rejection came against the Melbourne Boomers when she came from well back in the play to deny Penina Davidson.

While her ability to get downhill is her best skill, Puoch also showed some range on her shot, finishing with a three-point shooting percentage of 42.1% on 16 of 38 attempts. Having proven herself a dominant force at junior international level, Puoch will no doubt build significantly on her 5.7 point and 1.5 rebounds to game in future campaigns.

Shaneice Swain | Canberra Capitals

The Capitals ended with a 2-18 record, but the sky-high potential of 19 year old Swain was a bright spot in a tough campaign. With injuries to backcourt partners Gemma Potter and Jade Melbourne opening up court time, Swain got a lot of burn (she started 13 games) and she showed advanced ability as a driver and scorer.

Swain is quick up and down the court, but her biggest weapon is an explosive first step that makes her a tough cover in a halfcourt offence. She finished with a 14.5 points per game scoring record and 36.2% from three at high volume – she took 5.8 three-point attempts a game. She proved she could get it done against quality opposition, top-scoring for her team with 25 points against the defending champion Melbourne Boomers and pouring in 33 (with 8/15 three-pointers) against the surging Perth Lynx in the final game. She also used her speed to menacing effect on defence; only four players bettered her 35 steals for the season.

As good as these numbers look, Swain could really level up when she gets more experience at this level and refines her decision-making; this year she had a high turnover rate, turning the ball over 59 times to her 37 assists. Her upside is undeniably tremendous. Analysts view her as a likely selection in the upcoming WNBA draft and she’s already been named in an extended Opals squad.

Tiana Mangakahia | Sydney Flames

Anticipation was high for Mangakahia’s return to the league after she survived breast cancer as a college player and made her professional debut in the star-studded Russian league. While the Flames were out of finals contention early, there were plenty of individual highlights for the free-scoring guard.

Perhaps most notably, she had 26 points with 6 assists and coolly made a pair of game-winning free throws in an upset win over Southside Flyers in front of a record crowd at John Cain Arena. She also showed active hands and quickness on defence, finishing the season as the total league leader in steals, with 44 (2.2 per game).

Mangakahia has talked about how long it took her to fully recover her fitness levels after returning from her cancer journey, and she noticeably got better as she went. She scored more than 25 points in three of her last seven games, probably a combination of her increased comfort in the league and a result of her playing more as the Flames primary ball handler after Shyla Heal exited the team. Mangakahia will be back with Sydney next year, and fans can expect even bigger things.