June 25, 2024 

Handicapping the Australia roster as Olympics beckons

Ezi Magbegor: 'no matter what 12 players are picked, it's going to be a great team'

The recent announcement of the 12-player roster that will represent the United States in the 2024 Paris Olympics in 5-on-5 play generated a dizzying amount of discourse. The assumption in almost all of it? The Americans will bring back the gold hardware for the eighth consecutive time. But Australia, with an incredible array of talent, may have something to say about that assumption. Which players will make that team, though? Tough decisions loom.

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In late March, head coach Sandy Brondello and the Australian federation revealed the 26-player squad that will be battling for a spot to defend the green and gold in Paris. The group includes seven current WNBA players, such as Seattle Storm’s Ezi Magbegor and Sami Whitcomb, seven former WNBA players like the two-time MVP Lauren Jackson and the 2023 champion with the Las Vegas Aces Cayla George, as well as exciting up-and-comers like Virginia Tech’s standout Georgia Amoore, who is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2025 WNBA draft.

“We’re really special and unique in that we have a lot of young, talented players that we could pull from. We have this middle group [of players] who have been there for a while, and then we do have some vets that maybe this is their last run around,” Whitcomb told The Next. “So we’ve got this really, really fantastic blend of next up-and-coming people who are going to be around for a while, and last ones that we’ve really blended nicely, I think. And it’s been a really fun journey with this group.”

Among the younglings, Jade Melbourne and Isobel Borlase are the strongest contestants to land a role within the Opals. Both helped Australia punch their ticket to Paris by finishing first in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament this February in Brazil. Borlase was the fourth highest scorer on that team with 14.4 points per game. Melbourne, who is in her second WNBA season, is averaging 5.9 points per game on 46.9 percent from the field coming off the bench for the Washington Mystics. She scored in double-digits in four opportunities so far, including a 21-point performance on June 9 against the New York Liberty.

Indiana Fever guard Kristy Wallace (3) scrambles for the ball against Washington Mystics guard Jade Melbourne (5)
Wednesday, June 19, 2024, during the game at Gainbridge Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. (© Brett Phelps/IndyStar / USA TODAY NETWORK)

On the other side of the age spectrum is Lauren Jackson, a legend who at 43 boasts one of the most successful resumés in basketball. In her 12 seasons in the WNBA, Jackson tallied two WNBA championships, two MVPs, seven All-Star and All-WNBA First Team nominations, two All-Defensive Team honors, and numerous other recognitions. On top of that, Jackson’s international list of accolades for Australia and on the club side isn’t any shorter: a gold medal in 2006 in the FIBA Women’s World Cup, three Olympic silvers and one bronze, seven WNBL championships and four WNBL MVPs, along three Euroleague championships, a pair of Russian championships and so on.

In between, there are players who have made names for themselves in the WNBA and secured longstanding roles in their teams. Magbegor and Whitcomb have just been named to the Seattle Storm top 25 all-time roster, Rebecca Allen has solidified herself as a starter with the Phoenix Mercury averaging 7.5 points and 3.8 rebounds per game, Alanna Smith is tallying career-highs in minutes (28.2), points (12.0), assists (3.2), steals (1.5) and blocks (1.9) with the Minnesota Lynx, and Kristy Wallace and Stephanie Talbot have proven to be key reserves in their star-stacked Indiana Fever and Los Angeles Sparks, respectively.

Basketball Australia has big decisions ahead of it. Of the 26 Australians currently being evaluated either by playing in the WNBA or going on tour with the national team, 14 will receive bad news and debates will follow among fans, while anything short of gold could lead to second-guessing.

“It is tough [to make the team], especially now that we have a lot of great players … and I think it’s always a difficult decision for the coaches, but the players as well. So, no matter what 12 players are picked, it’s going to be a great team,” Magbegor told The Next.

“I think it is an advantage knowing that all twelve of us bring something different. Obviously, Lauren [Jackson]’s experience is different to Jade [Melbourne]’s, but I think that doesn’t take anything away from either of them,” continued Magbegor. “It’s just a matter of how well someone’s playing at this particular time in the lead up … Sandy’s going to look at that. But yeah, obviously, experience does come into it.”

For Whitcomb, who plays both in the WNBA and the WNBL (Australia’s domestic league), experience in American soil doesn’t necessarily mean an advantage:

“The other group is getting to play together now in sort of more of a trial and camp scenario where they get to play China and Japan and they’re getting that time together,” Whitcomb said. “Hopefully us, the WNBA players, have done enough in the lead up to it [the Olympics] that us playing well here is what we’re judged on. But there’s truly no advantage or disadvantage. It’s just trying to play your best basketball in the lead up.”

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Regardless, one thing is true: becoming an Olympic is no easy feat, and the United States’ path is not going to be easy. France’s team includes Gabby Williams and Marine Johannes, Belgium has Julie Allemand and Emma Meesseman, Germany might bring the Sabally sisters, and Spain recently announced Silvia Dominguez, Alba Torrens and Laura Gil as part of its training camp.

“We’re always going to recognize that the United States is a great team … and obviously [they are] going to be the team to beat,” Magbegor said.

Now Australia just has to determine which team it needs to beat them.

Written by Roberta Rodrigues

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