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Friday, September 17, 2021

The legacy of Lauren Jackson and the 10 greatest Australian players in WNBA history

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  • Steve SmithSpecial to ESPN.com

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      Steve Smith is an Australian writer who has covered men’s and women’s sports for more than a decade.

A gangly, almost painfully shy Lauren Jackson was about to play in her first world championship for the Australian national team.

It was 1998 and she was just 17. And as she stepped onto the court, surrounded by some of the best players in the world, she had no idea just how good she could be.

But everyone around her saw it. In nine games, as the Opals battled their way to a bronze medal, Jackson was Australia’s third-leading scorer, averaging 10.9 points in just less than 12 minutes per game.

“She was a really young kid, still holding her mum’s hand walking down the street, she was so young,” said Michele Timms, an Opals legend who was a veteran on that team. “And then she’d come on and she’d score a point a minute.

“She didn’t have the body yet to play international basketball, so she didn’t have the endurance for it. … But you just knew she was going to be something so special.”

Almost a quarter of a century later, Jackson stands alone at the pinnacle of Australian basketball. This weekend she will become the country’s first player, man or woman, to be inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

For more than a decade, the 6-foot-5 forward towered over women’s basketball across the United States, Europe, Australia and Asia. At the Olympics, she helped lead Australia to three silver medals and one bronze, and guided the Opals to gold at the 2006 world championship. In the WNBA, she was a three-time MVP, a three-time scoring champ and eight-time all-league selection. And the two-time WNBA champion with the Seattle Storm also leads ESPN.com’s ranking of the 10 greatest Australian who played in the WNBA (full list is below).

“Lauren Jackson is the greatest player Australia’s ever had in men’s or women’s basketball,” Timms said. “She’s our greatest export.”

And it all almost never happened.

Drafted by the Storm with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2001 WNBA draft, Jackson had an impressive rookie year despite a nagging shoulder injury that would require offseason surgery. Still just a shy country girl from Albury barely out of her teens, Jackson had also spent the season trying to acclimate to a professional league several levels above anything she’d ever experienced.

So when she got home, Jackson made a decision: She was never going back to Seattle.

“I had surgery when I came back (to Australia) and I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going back to America,'” she said. “It was just too hard, I was in too much pain. And then also 9/11 happened. I was very naive about the world, a little bit ignorant, and I was just a little country kid who lived in this bubble and the world was big and scary.”

As history shows, however, Jackson didn’t just return to Seattle. She bounced back with a savage vengeance, and in 2003 she won MVP honors. The next season, she helped lead the Storm to their first WNBA title. But as the accolades piled up, so did the injuries, which were an ever-present companion throughout her career, curtailing her time as the world’s greatest player by not just months, but years.

After helping Seattle win the 2010 championship, Jackson never played another full season. And though a 2012 playoff loss was her final game, Jackson didn’t retire until four years later, when yet another injury set back her plans to compete for Australia in the 2016 Olympics.

Jackson still plays mid-week mixed basketball in Albury, but it has its pros and cons.

“It’s just the basketball, being on the basketball court, I miss that. I miss playing,” she said. “I’m trying to get my fix playing mixed comp here, but every week someone’s got something to say, ‘You shouldn’t be playing in this league,’ things like that.

“Mate, I’ve had fifty surgeries, I’ve had two children, I’m 40 years old, and I can barely move, give me a break!”

Timms has no problem remembering Jackson at the height of her game. Timms played in the WNBA five years, and her final season coincided with Jackson’s first with the Storm. The Phoenix Mercury point guard was impressed to see how far Jackson had already come from the world championship in Germany just three years earlier.

“You just hoped that your team could stand up to her,” Timms said. “I just didn’t enjoy playing Seattle at all, because you knew what you were in store for.

“She not only brought that unbelievable ability, but she also brought a fierce competitive edge. … Every time she stepped on the court she was a super competitor.”

Jackson is grateful for all of it, even the opportunities that pushed her out of her comfort zone.

“When I first went over there (to Seattle) it was larger than life. The professionalism of the league, even though it’s nothing compared to what the men have, for women’s sport, it was beyond anything any other women’s sport had,” she said. “It was incredible. Playing overseas was a very big step for me, but one I had to take to become the best I could be. But it was super scary and I was very shy.

“But the WNBA made me.”

Nowadays, Jackson realizes the wins and losses weren’t her driving force.

“It was the journey for me,” Jackson said. “It wasn’t so much the winning or losing, because we could win a championship and then the next month we’re bombing out at the world championships and finishing fifth. So the roller coaster, I don’t miss that at all.

“But it’s the journey, it’s the teammates and the friends you make and the relationships and stories you have to tell later. To this day some of those teammates are still some of my best friends. And the good journeys tended to become championships.”

Many of those longtime friends and former teammates are among the best Australians in WNBA history.

Over the last 25 seasons, 37 Australian players have competed in the league, and no country outside of the United States has had a bigger impact on the WNBA.

From the get-go, an Australian contingent, led by Timms, Tully Bevilaqua and Sandy Brondello but also including the likes of Kristi Harrower, Michelle Brogan, Carla Boyd and Rachael Sporn, made an immediate impact in the fledgling league and set the standard for wunderkinds like Jackson and Penny Taylor to follow.

Jackson said the Australian national team helped them all prepare for playing in the WNBA.

“You had to fight for everything, we had that grit mentality and we really did bat above our average, we had that dogged sense of purpose,” she said. “You combine that with a freak group of athletes who came through at the one time, and we had a really good run.”

So who are the 10 greatest Australian players in WNBA history? Several factors came into play when making this list: individual talent, team success and longevity were all part of the criteria. Only 14 of the 37 Australians who have played in the WNBA have played at least five years in the league, so newer players such as Stephanie Talbot and Ezi Magbegor don’t quite make the list.

Naturalized players such as Kelsey Griffin and Sami Whitcomb, who were born in or grew up in the United States but later sought out Australian citizenship, also weren’t included, but Leilani Mitchell, who has an Australian mother and dual citizenship, qualifies.

The best 10 Australians to play in the WNBA

1. Lauren Jackson: There has never been a greater Australian player, man or woman. The awards and titles are impressive enough, but her drive, determination and absolute fearless, single-minded approach to not just winning but dominating set Jackson apart-. Even her gaudy statistics undersell what a threat she was on court: a monster scorer, rebounder and defensive force who had legitimate 3-point range, and the first true stretch forward-center in the history of the league. Despite the injury interruptions of the final two seasons of her WNBA career, Jackson averaged 18.9 points and 7.7 rebounds, with a PER of 27.9. Almost a decade after her final WNBA game, her 73 win shares still rank second all-time, behind only Tamika Catchings. “Lauren was the ultimate competitor,” Tully Bevilaqua said. “She made us all better. It wasn’t just about Lauren doing well. It was all about the team doing well.”

2. Penny Taylor: The quieter yin to Jackson’s rampaging yang, Taylor was a huge part of three WNBA titles with Phoenix, and garnered three All-Star Game nods and two All-WNBA honors over 13 seasons. A smooth, versatile 6-foot-1 forward with genuine range, Taylor was a vital cog in all three Mercury titles (2007, 2009, 2014), the perfect foil for Diana Taurasi, Cappie Pondexter and Brittney Griner. Taylor averaged 13.0 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.0 assists for her WNBA career, and made a lasting impression on Jackson, her Opals teammate. “Just knowing she was on the court with me made me feel a whole lot better,” Jackson said. “I saw Penny play on a broken ankle; that girl would do anything to win games. … She was just an incredible athlete and the best teammate.”

3. Michele Timms: TIMMMMMMMSY! Beyond her impact on Australian women’s basketball, the mark Timms left on the WNBA is underrated. The 5-5 guard stormed onto the scene for Phoenix in 1997, pushing the ball up court at a frantic pace that frustrated opponents and made her a fan-favorite. But here’s the really impressive part: She was 32 years old when she made her WNBA debut and still averaged 12.1 points, 5.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds and a superb 2.6 steals per game. The mind boggles at what a young Timmsy might have done in the league. “She was the mother of it all, she was where it all started for the rest of us,” Jackson said. And Timms embodied toughness. “You stepped foot on the court and you knew Timmsy was coming after you. She’s going to dive for every single loose ball,” Jackson added.

4. Tully Bevilaqua: A late bloomer in the WNBA, the Western Australian dynamo maximized her talents into a gritty and productive 14-season WNBA career. Early stints with the Cleveland Rockers and Portland Fire didn’t always let Bevilaqua show what she was capable of at the elite level, but the 5-7 guard signed with Seattle in 2003. Playing back-up to Sue Bird, she was a key member of the 2004 championship team, coming up big in the playoffs against the Minnesota Lynx. An extended second wind followed that success, with Bevilaqua proving herself a vital cog for the Indiana Fever over the next six seasons. Her trademark snappy defense was a nuisance to opposing backcourts, and by the time she retired in 2012 after two years with the San Antonio Stars, she was one of only four WNBA players with 800 assists and 500 steals. “She wasn’t known for her offensive prowess,” Jackson said, “but if she had the ball at the end of the clock, she was going to shoot it and knock it down.”

5. Elizabeth Cambage: When she’s on, there might not be a more dominating player in the WNBA. But it has been a roller-coaster WNBA career for Cambage, who from a young age was labeled the heir apparent to Jackson’s crown as Australia’s best talent, not just in the WNBA but for Australia’s national team as well. What has followed has been some incredible, remarkable flashes of talent, even as she has lived with mental health and injury issues, contract disputes and other off-court controversies. The 30-year-old’s 53 points against the New York Liberty in 2018 still hold as the WNBA single-game scoring record, and she also won the league’s scoring crown that season. The 6-8 Las Vegas Aces center — who was originally drafted in 2011 but is playing just her fifth WNBA season — sat out 2020 due to COVID-19 concerns, and is out indefinitely after recently testing positive for the coronavirus. “She’s a big, strong woman and she knows how to dominate basketball,” Jackson said. “It’s fun to see her evolve and where she’s getting to. As an athlete, she’s just incredible.”

6. Erin Phillips: How elite is Phillips as an athlete? The 5-8 guard was willing to risk her WNBA career to play Australian Rules football at the highest level. Already established as a bona fide WNBA player, Phillips competed in the AFLW for the Adelaide Crows in 2016 despite not having medical insurance on her WNBA contract to do so. Phillips, who played nine seasons in the WNBA, played a critical role for two WNBA championship teams — Indiana in 2012 and Phoenix in 2014 — and led the league in 3-point field goal percentage (44.9%) during the 2014 championship run. “She was just one of those hard-nosed defenders I loved playing with,” Jackson said. “It’s been awesome watching her succeed in the AFLW, that is clearly what she was meant to do; she’s an amazing athlete.”

7. Sandy Brondello: One of Australia’s all-time greatest shooting guards, Brondello was already deep into a spectacular playing career by the time she arrived in the WNBA. She earned an All-Star nod in her second season with the Detroit Shock, while shooting 48.7% from deep. Stops in Miami and Seattle followed, and the 5-7 veteran played five seasons. But Brondello has made her WNBA legacy in the coaching ranks, leading the Mercury to a title in 2014 and earning WNBA Coach of the Year. “Shooter. Deadly shooter. She could knock down anything. So positive, such a positive teammate. … Just a really good human,” Jackson said. “As a coach? I would have loved to have played under her. … You have to juggle a lot of personalities and I think she’s the person to do that.”

8. Leilani Mitchell: One of just 14 players with more than 500 3-pointers in her WNBA career, and the only player in league history to twice win the Most Improved Player award, Mitchell is a plucky 5-5 point guard who has been a steady playmaker both as a starter or reserve over 13 seasons for New York, Phoenix and the Washington Mystics. Mitchell, who holds dual Australian and American citizenship, is completely unafraid to put her body on the line, and is still, at 36, a highly effective quarterback who can stretch opposing defenses. “She just goes about her business and gets the job done, and I think that’s the sort of quiet leadership her teams really benefit from,” Jackson said.

9. Jenna O’Hea: The current Australian Opals captain enjoyed a solid six-year career in the WNBA, doing a little bit of everything for first the Los Angeles Sparks and then Seattle. O’Hea’s versatility was always on show, with an ability to hit the open look, provide playmaking from the frontcourt, and she was an underrated defender, especially after her move to the Storm. A career 41.1% shooter from beyond the arc, O’Hea never quite got the accolades her Australian peers did in the WNBA, but Jackson likened O’Hea to Penny Taylor and lauded her leadership. “She’s a shooter, she can knock down shots, she can get to the basket,” Jackson said. “She’s a big-time player and just a great leader and all-round player.”

10. Rebecca Allen: Steadily coming into her own at the elite level, Allen has rebounded from a knee injury early in her WNBA tenure to be a key player off the bench this season for New York. Similar to O’Hea, Allen’s versatility makes her a good fit for the Liberty. Capable of lighting it up from downtown, Allen has stepped it up a notch this WNBA campaign, averaging a career-high 9.4 points per game after sitting out the 2020 bubble season at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Allen — who played for Australia at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — is a 28-year-old talent who is still evolving. “When she gets on a run, you cannot slow her down,” Jackson said. “She’s just a great offensive weapon. Defensively, she has a real nose for the ball.”

Honorable mention: Kristi Harrower, Steph Talbot, Sami Whitcomb, Belinda Snell, Alanna Smith, Ezi Magbegor

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