WNBL: Guy Molloy talks Melbourne's brush with extinction, working with Lauren Jackson and dancing with Bec Cole
“I’ll be honest, it was bloody brutal” Melbourne Boomers coach Guy Molloy says of the team’s 2016/17 campaign, which saw them record just five wins. For a team that could have easily become extinct, however, on-court results were secondary to survival.
For their fans, who continued to turn out in healthy numbers despite an early exit from finals contention, the good news is that the team is in a much more stable place and is planning a quick return to contention rather than an extended rebuild. “We’ve come out the other end” Molloy says of the dark days.
One thing that hampered Molloy's side all season was a real lack of frontcourt size, which saw them place ahead of only one team for rebounds collected as well as rebounds allowed. Molloy says this deficiency was a direct consequence of the uncertainty about the club’s future which dominated the Boomers off-season.
“We were in limbo for a long time” he explains. “There was a really tenuous stretch there…we weren’t able to take part in free agency, we couldn’t sign players until very late in the piece”.
The team’s lack of size was compounded by a serious knee injury which ruled club co-captain and Opals squad member Elyse Penaluna out for the entire 2016/17 campaign. Adding to their snake-bitten season was a shoulder injury to star wing Maddie Garrick. “She got crunched badly really early on” Molloy says. She continued playing, but the injury “really impacted on her shooting for about a month”.
Still, the undermanned team refused to throw in the towel and had several agonising defeats, including a one point loss to Bendigo and two point margins against Dandenong and Townsville. The team finished with eight losses of five points or less. “I really felt for the team” Molloy reflects. “We worked really hard and there just wasn’t the reward. We battled valiantly”.
Help, however, is well and truly on the way. Having sat out free agency last off-season, the Boomers will now be aggressive free agency players. The team has already pulled off one major coup with the signing of Opals mainstay Jenna O’Hea, with more big-name signings soon to be announced. O’Hea’s scoring ability promises to make life much easier for Smart and Garrick, who have both already re-signed, and can settle into more natural roles as complementary scorers.
O’Hea rejoins the team (she previously played for Bulleen Boomers) after stints in the WNBA and a championship-winning sojourn in France. “I’m excited” Molloy says of her impending arrival. “She’s a truly elite player in this league… she works so hard and she’s a ‘lead by example’ player. That will soak into our culture”.
Many players on last season’s roster also showed enough to suggest better times are ahead. Young forward Olivia Thompson continued to develop as a physical presence and showed real resilience. “Through the difficult part of the season, she just found a way” Molloy says of Thompson. “She gained consistency and confidence”.
Molloy credits Thompson and point guard Brittany Smart with driving the team forward in the barren weeks of late 2016 when the team was ravaged by injuries. Smart continued to be a crafty point guard and reliable outside scorer, while Maddie Garrick also added new facets to her already potent game, improving her ability to slash to the basket and taking her defence up a gear.
Another positive for the Boomers was the play of rookie of the year Monique Conti, who joined the team after winning the world championship with Australia’s under 17 team. “I copped a bit of criticism for playing her” Molloy says of Conti’s initial appearances, which saw the then 16-year-old was fast-tracked into court time due to the injury toll. “She turned the ball over and lacked confidence”.
But the pint-sized point guard improved at warp speed in the surrounds of a professional team. “By December, we found she was really taking it to the older players at training. She’s a terrific talent and a hell of a good kid. She is legit”.
Known as a prolific scorer and silky ball-handler at junior level, Conti also showed real skill as a ball hawk, collecting a steal every 18.86 minutes, a rate that compares favourably to even the league’s best one guard Leilani Mitchell (who had a steal every 21.27 minutes).
Molloy agrees Conti has all the tools to become a disruptive defender. “She definitely plays both ends and has…real speed in a basketball sense. She is built quite low to the ground, has great balance and quick hands”.
Off the court, the new Boomers ownership consortium have shown a willingness to recruit top front-office staff, including Lauren Jackson, who joined the club as a commercial operations executive last year. “Lauren’s been awesome” Molloy says. “Through a really, really hard year, she’s been a great help to me”. Jackson brought valuable networks and winning experience to her role and Molloy says her instincts on players are a huge asset. “Her read on players is really good, she knows how they are as competitors”.
One player everyone is confident is a great competitor is club veteran Bec Cole, who returned from injury and after taking a while to shrug off its lingering effects, enjoyed a strong end to the season. She brought intangibles to the team and even involved Molloy in some pre-game dap. “I’ve coached Bec a long time and she knew it was a stressful time and figured I needed to lighten up a little before games” he laughs. “I’m not much of a dancer, but she thought she’d give me some rhythm. It’s a good bit of fun”.
For a team that has stared down basketball extinction and is now eyeing a return to the finals, the fun is only just beginning.