WNBL: Chris Lucas on Adelaide Lightning's youth-fuelled rebuild
2016/17 was always going to be a development year for the Adelaide Lightning, but the team’s improvement over the last couple of months of the season suggest green shoots are already appearing.
Having slumped to a 0-14 record in December, the team was much more competitive in 2017 and finished with three wins from their last ten games. Coach Chris Lucas, joining the club straight from back to back titles in Townsville, placed second in coach of the year voting, a testament to how much the team exceeded expectations given their lack of experience.
“Considering the team was thrown together so late, it was encouraging” Lucas says. “Post-Christmas we only had only one blowout. We’re trying to rebuild the program and hopefully next year we can move up a couple of spots”.
Part of this rebuild has been a renewed focus on local players. These included combo guard Sarah Elsworthy, who played the most minutes of the rookie class and improved at warp speed. In the Lightning’s final game, she roamed free against Sydney, connecting on 6/7 field goals for 12 points.
The Lightning recently announced she had re-signed with the team. “Sarah has earned the right to be re-signed” Lucas says. “I thought for an 18 year-old she handled the situation very maturely”. She placed second in rookie of the year voting and her committed work on the defensive end saw her named the club’s defensive player of the year.
Hotly-tipped youngster Anneli Maley joined the team mid-season and also looked the part, having a particularly promising outing against grand finalists Dandenong, where she scored 16 points and claimed 9 rebounds. Described as a “wonderful athlete and real star of the future” by Lucas, Maley tallied a rebound every 3.5 minutes. For context, Marianna Tolo, who had the third most rebounds in the league, averaged a rebound every 4 minutes. Maley’s efforts represent a small sample size, but suggested that scouting reports describing her as a potentially elite rebounder were accurate.
Maley was just one of several locals to appear in the red, white and blue. Norwood product Jessica Good exemplified the team's commitment to playing hard even in trying circumstances while Alex Ciabatoni built on her rookie of the year campaign, most notably being a thorn in Canberra’s side, dropping 17 then 20 points against the Capitals, the latter in a rousing victory.
Complementing this youthful group were a couple of veterans, like Coleen Planeta, who joined the team from the V League. Lucas says Planeta was chosen not just for her ability to contribute on-court, but her general personality. “I don’t sign anybody unless I’ve checked on their background” he says. “In the teams I’ve coached, chemistry and cohesion has been paramount and we’ve had a fair amount success with that”.
Nobody was more important to the Lightning’s chemistry was four-time Olympian Laura Hodges, who was a top ten scorer and rebounder, hustled hard and barely turned over the ball over. Lucas is effusive about her impact on the young players. “In Rachel McCully and Jess Foley, I’ve been lucky to have some great leaders, but Laura Hodges is one of the best captains I’ve ever had” he says. “She’s a great player and an exemplary leader, just a delight to have around”.
While Hodges gave the Lightning a much-needed inside scorer, they struggled from the perimeter at both ends. Opponents shot 35% on 3 pointers to Adelaide’s 25%, a trend Lucas puts down to their youthfulness. “It’s inexperience defensively. Some players did well and some need to do better. It’s an area we need to improve on”.
The team fared better in terms of forcing turnovers, but Lucas says this wasn't something that resulted from their defensive schemes. “It wasn’t something we were overly focused on, I think that comes down to the individual skills of the players”. Import guard Samantha Logic had 42 steals, good for fifth in the competition, while Sarah Elsworthy claimed 21 steals; only one player who played fewer minutes (Dandenong’s Natalie Novosel) had more.
Lucas says next year’s team will again have a youthful flavour with two or three 18 year-olds being given roster spots. The team has made bringing South Australian players home their long-term goal. They have previously been linked with former Lightning star Stephanie Talbot, and remain interested, but believe her to be well settled at Polish club Gorzow Wielkopolski.
Regardless of who ends up on next year’s roster, Adelaide fans can take heart from the team’s renewed focus on local youth, not to mention the stunning success Lucas had revitalising an ailing program in his previous coaching gig at the Townsville Fire. Adelaide’s rebuild will take time, but they’re committed to doing it the right way.