An Australian Star Returns to the W.N.B.A., Happier to Be There
There are a bevy of statistics, sophisticated and basic, that tell the story of how Liz Cambage has changed the trajectory of her Dallas Wings and, perhaps, shifted the balance of power in the W.N.B.A.
But her teammate, Skylar Diggins-Smith, has a simpler explanation.
“Coach Fred calls her a chick magnet,” Diggins-Smith said, referring to Wings Coach Fred Williams. “She’s going to take two or three every time. That definitely creates opportunities for us to shoot higher percentage shots on the perimeter. It opens up games as far as transition defense. Her presence on the defensive end, altering shots, and helping us.”
That Cambage, a 6-foot-8 Australian, is here in the United States, playing basketball, is something of a surprise, even to her.
Selected second in the 2011 W.N.B.A. Draft by the Tulsa Shock, Cambage reluctantly reported to the team, excelled as a rookie, then missed the 2012 season — first for the Olympics, then by choice.
She returned to the Shock in 2013, once again displaying an ability to dominate — her 29.9 player efficiency rating in 2013, as a 21-year-old, rates 16th among any single season by any player in the history of the league.
But Cambage did not like it in Tulsa and did not think the team had a bright future. The Shock were 14-54 in her first two seasons. So she decided to leave the W.N.B.A. and spent the next four seasons playing professionally in China and Australia.
She faced problems of her own, including an Achilles tear in 2014 that cost her a full season and battles with depression that led her to consider walking away from the game entirely by the 2016 Olympics, where Australia lost to Serbia in the quarterfinals.
“Leading up to Rio, I was ready to retire,” Cambage said. “I was ready to be done. But we did so bad in Rio — getting knocked out by Serbia. In that moment I was like, ‘I want to keep playing. This isn’t the end.’ If we medaled at Rio, I feel like I might have retired. But that loss really drove me to keep playing.”
In 2016, the Shock moved to Dallas and became the Wings, retaining Cambage’s rights. And Williams began a courtship with Cambage to bring her back to the W.N.B.A.
The many ways Cambage dictates the action are the primary reason for optimism in Dallas.
“She’s so big, not just tall, but big,” Minnesota Lynx Coach Cheryl Reeve said of Cambage, whose wingspan measures 83.3 inches, or just under seven feet. “And so when she gets to her spots, that’s it — she’s going to do what she wants.”
Entering Tuesday’s games, Cambage’s field goal percentage of 54.8 is in line with her career W.N.B.A. mark of 53.5. But she’s hitting shots in a greater variety of ways, burying her first 3-pointer of the season late in a loss to the Liberty on May 29, and managing to stay central to a Dallas attack that consistently pushes the pace.
That was the Wings’ biggest concern as they integrated Cambage: whether the presence of a 6-8 center would compromise the alchemy that led to last season’s surprise playoff run, keyed by the league’s third-fastest pace, according to Basketball-Reference.com. But so far in 2018, the Wings remain third in the league in pace, actually playing slightly faster. If others are surprised by this, Cambage is not.
“People just see a big post player like me and just think, ‘She’s slow,’ ” she said. “I come from Australia. We play a running game in Australia. It’s about pushing the ball. I love to run.
“For my height, I think I’ve got great speed and great technique.”.”
Cambage leads the W.N.B.A. in points per possession, by a wide margin. She is also spotting her teammates more effectively than in her last trip through the league, raising her assist percentage to 17.0 from 9.9 in 2013. And there is a ripple effect on the entire roster. Diggins-Smith’s assist percentage is up to 33.7, which would be a career-best for her, and the young shooters on the Wings are getting many more open looks, thanks to the extra attention on Cambage.