SEABL: Kristen Veal on coaching Australia's elite youth at the Centre of Excellence
There is no more intriguing outfit in the SEABL competition than Basketball Australia’s Centre of Excellence team. Based in the Australian Institute of Sport, it brings together the twelve scholarship holders each year and pits the top echelon of youth talent against seasoned semi-professional teams, offering a preview of the next generation of elite basketballers.
This season has seen Kristen Veal take the reins of the women’s team of the program where she had previously been an assistant coach. A former Opal, three-time WNBL champion and the youngest ever WNBA player. Veal was also an AIS scholarship holder herself and part of perhaps the most fabled collection of junior talent in Australian women’s basketball history, the 1998-99 AIS WNBL team. With a once in a generation squad including Lauren Jackson, Penny Taylor, Suzy Batkovic and Belinda Snell, they rolled through the season and comfortably won the grand final.
While she doesn’t believe playing in the program is a prerequisite for coaching it, Veal agrees there is something to be said for this experience. “Knowing what it was like to be here, and living it first hand as an athlete is probably an advantage” she says. “It means you have some insight and some empathy with what they’re going through at different times of the year”.
The Centre of Excellence team aren't eligible to play in the finals and its youth developmental charter means it has a different focus to most teams. This year’s team currently boasts has a 7-4 record, behind only the star-studded Kilsyth and Geelong sides in the East division. Veal says winning games is still a vital part of what the program hopes to achieve.
“We have a huge focus on development but if (the players) don’t have the winning mentality and the ability to problem-solve to get wins, you’re just developing for the sake of it really. (Winning games) is not the be all and end all but they definitely need to know what it’s like to win, and how to win”.
The bigger picture of the team means that giving everyone significant court time is front of mind for Veal. Yet sometimes a game situation demands certain players stay on the court longer. “That’s always the balance we’re trying to strike” Veal says. “We could give everyone 15 minutes, but that doesn’t always teach them to win basketball games. We’ve definitely had a few games where we’ve had to make decisions and put in the kids who are playing well and have a little bit more experience”.
A brilliant passer as a player, Veal now has hugely promising point guards on her roster in Abby Cubillo and Maddi Rocci, who have both played significant minutes. “They’re two very different players, but I think both are turning into really good leaders and students of the game, learning how to read the game, call the game and talk the rest of the team through it” Veal says.
“Abby is more a natural facilitator, a really good passer. Maddi is a good aggressor and through that becomes a good passer because she is always looking to attack. Now she’s figured out how to use that to her advantage, attacking and then finding the open man”.
At the other end of the position chart is perhaps the team’s most lauded prospect, Ezi Magbegor, a 6’4 (193cm) centre who was MVP at last year’s Under 17s World Championship, where Australia handed USA their first ever loss at that level before demolishing Italy to win the gold. After the tournament, Veal described Magbegor as probably the best player of her age in the world.
She has lived up to that heady billing this SEABL season, terrorising opponents inside the paint. “She’s got some amazing strengths in her shot-blocking ability, strength, athleticism and speed” Veal says. “She’s got a great temperament, does a lot of things really, really well, though she’s still working on adding more to her game. It’s hard to say where she’ll take her game exactly, but she’ll be successful. There’s no two ways about it”.
Another big on the team, Zitina Aokuso, recently signed a deal with the Townsville Fire. An explosive athlete with crazy upside, she has already achieved some viral fame when footage of her throwing down dunks was widely shared.
Veal has high hopes for Aokuso, who has had a meteoric rise after starting basketball late, but notes that the transition to a college program is significant and the jump to WNBL level represents an even steeper learning curve. “She’ll do well in that first year, but for all these kids we’re looking for them to hit their straps in the next 2-3 years. If they commit and get opportunities, I can’t see why they won’t succeed”.
Aokuso isn’t the only COE player who will join a WNBL roster next season; Maddi Rocci has signed with Canberra and forwards Kiera Rowe and Rebecca Pizzey are both off to Dandenong. Rangers guard Amelia Todhunter told this site she was looking forward to playing alongside the pair. “They’re great fresh young talent and they will have been working hard” she said. “They’ve still got some developing to do, but they’re very talented girls”.
For now, though, the team recently had a rare weekend off with a scheduled bye. Six players opted to return home, but they were due back Monday morning and would be straight back to work. With eight players in the team selected for the U/19s World Championship in Udine, Italy and another two headed to the U/17s Oceania tournament in Guam, both in July, Veal says it’s vital that they don’t let their conditioning slip.
“We need to keep building their load and their tolerance, so when they go into Worlds they have enough load in their bodies, one to protect them from injuries and two to be able to perform at that peak level”.
Veal says the physical demands of SEABL level basketball have proven a useful benchmark for her team's progress. “It’s good for us because it means we can measure their desire” she says. “If they come up against physicality and they shy away from it or they give up, it shows we need to do a little more work on their resilience and their handling of adversity”.
Of course, it’s not just on court where the young charges need to show considerable resilience. All have left behind family and friends to take up scholarships, and Veal says that challenge can’t be understated. “It’s pretty big, maybe even moreso these days because of all they do have at home. They’re pretty lucky kids and most of them have really good support networks and friendship groups”.
The coaches have found that it takes the young players around half a year to really acclimatise to their new environment. “You do see when they come in for the first six months that there’s a fair amount of transitioning going on...they need to learn that self-management and self-talk to get through the tough times when there’s nobody there to cuddle them every time something doesn’t go their way”.
Overall though, Veal’s young charges are relishing the challenge and she has been impressed with both their growing off-court maturity and their results. While most basketballers who make the jump from junior competition to professional level find themselves ground down by the greater physical and emotional demands, Veal says that if anything, her side wants more competition against women. “They’re right on the edge of the women’s pro world and the college world…They’re at that level now where they’re itching for more of a challenge”.
Meet the next gen: CoE team members
Abby Cubillo: Only the second ever scholarship holder from Northern Territory, Cubillo is 2nd on the team in assists (2.8 pg)
Maddi Rocci: Shooting 3-pointers at 38.7%, leading the team. Also pulling down 5.5 rebounds a game.
Emma Clarke: From WA, Clarke has been a prolific scorer at junior level. Had 12pts & 6rb in 20 min v Frankston.
Taylor Mole: Tasmanian Mole has shot three-pointers at 35.7%, third on the team. She had 11 points in just 20 minutes v Nunawading.
Kiera Rowe: A do-it-all forward, Rowe had an accumulated on/off total of +118 at the world championships
Jazmin Shelley: A player with excellent vision, Shelley leads the team in assists (3.3 pg) and is 6th in SEABL in steals.
Samantha Simons: Versatile enough to run the point or play off the ball, Simons has a FG% of 42.5, 2nd on the team.
Jasmine Simmons: The captain of Australia’s world champion u/17s team, Simmons is an elite prospect but has missed much of the season through injury. She has committed to Oregon State University.