On May 18 in Phoenix, Liz Cambage will make her long-awaited return to a WNBA court. It’s been five years since Cambage last played in the world’s best league, and those who watched her first stint can’t wait to see how she performs.
The No. 2 pick in the 2011 WNBA Draft, Cambage came into the league at age 19, yet still made the All-Star team as an injury replacement that same year. After a season away due to Olympic commitments, she then averaged 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game on 56 percent shooting in 2013.
Since then, Cambage has played club ball in China and her home country of Australia. All the while, the 6-foot-8 center was relentlessly pursued by the Tulsa Shock – now the Dallas Wings – who drafted her and owned her WNBA rights.
“When Wings majority owner and chairman Bill Cameron asked me to get involved with the team in November of 2015, I made a list of priorities. Priority No. 1 was signing Liz Cambage,” Wings President & CEO Greg Bibb told WNBA.com.
Cambage dominated overseas and quickly became the face of Australian basketball. After starting in the Olympics as a 20-year-old in 2012, she was perhaps the best player in the entire tournament four years later, averaging 23.5 points and 10.3 boards on 58 percent shooting in Rio. A former MVP in Australia’s WNBL, Cambage was the league’s leading scorer this past season, which ran from October to January.
“When people say Australian Opals, it used to be Lauren Jackson and Penny Taylor. Now it’s Liz Cambage,” Erin Phillips — a fellow Australian, former WNBA player, and current Wings assistant coach, told WNBA.com. “She’s the new face of the Opals.”
Bibb’s vision of bringing Cambage to the Wings officially came to fruition earlier this month, when she signed a multi-year contract. Cambage was introduced in Dallas at a press conference Monday.
During Monday’s press conference and in conversations with WNBA.com, it became apparent that this was truly an all-out pursuit by Bibb and the rest of the organization. With Dallas owning her WNBA rights, the only question was whether Cambage would return to the league at all.
She had enjoyed vast success in China and Australia. And while her first WNBA stint could be considered a success individually, the experience was at times too much to handle for a teenager. Cambage became a franchise player right away – “thrown in the deep end,” as she put it – and her hard work didn’t lead to many victories. Tulsa finished 3-31 her rookie year and 11-23 in 2013. They once lost 20 straight games, a WNBA record.
“At the end of the day, I felt like I had a lot of pressure on me, as I was turned into this franchise player,” Cambage told WNBA.com. “It was tough times, but tough times will make you stronger and make you grow. So it made me tougher in different ways. At the end of the day, it wasn’t what I really wanted out of a basketball season.”
Cambage also suffered a ruptured Achilles in 2014, and she struggled with the injury through the 2016 Olympics before taking time to recover afterward. That summer in Rio was the last time she played basketball outside Australia.
Thus, the Wings had some convincing to do.
A pair of visits to Dallas – one by chance and one by choice – helped persuade the all-world center. First, in the summer of 2016, the Australian National Team trained for a few days in the city before departing for Rio. During that time, Bibb and Wings coach Fred Williams had a meeting with Cambage to reconnect and start a dialogue.
Second, after years of Bibb and Williams constantly messaging her through email and WhatsApp, a major turning point came this past spring.
“We wanted to let Liz know that we were sincere in our desire to have her be a part of our team,” Bibb said. “We wanted to do whatever we could to make her feel comfortable. We really tried to convey the message that we view her as an important piece of our puzzle going forward.”
As part of her three-day trip to Dallas in May, the Wings showed Cambage everything that makes the city special. In addition to watching a game and spending time with the team, Cambage toured the Cowboys’ AT&T Stadium, visited the studio of Grammy-winning musical producer Kirk Franklin, and had dinner with business leaders from around the region. Among those who greeted her at AT&T Stadium was the mayor of Arlington, Jeff Williams.
Cambage’s favorite part of the day was kicking a football around with Phillips.
“I was horrible,” she said with a laugh. “And she’s been trying to get me to play Australian football with her, but I think that ended her dream right there when she saw how horrible I actually was. But it was a lot of fun. There’s a lot of cool stuff going on in Dallas. I don’t even know if I’ll have time to check any of it out, seeing as this is such a busy season. But I think I’m going to have a lot of fun living here, and it’s a great group of girls.”
Cambage added that she has bonded with Williams over music in the past few years, as they share similar interests. Her tour of Franklin’s studio was another highlight of the trip in May.
“The most beautiful music studio I’ve ever seen,” Cambage said at her press conference. “Being in such a beautiful studio surrounded by Grammys was a special thing. Music is a big part of my life. I grew up playing piano and violin, and then basketball took over. Getting back into music has been really good, getting my mind away from basketball. I don’t think I’ll be in there making songs, but it was really amazing to see how music is produced.”
After that trip, Williams and Bibb then traveled to Australia in December to seal the deal. They spent time with Cambage, her family and Phillips, who happened to be in Australia, too.
While the Wings stress that it was a team effort in securing Cambage, the role of Phillips can’t be overlooked. The two have known each other since Cambage first joined the Australian National Team at age 17. Cambage calls Phillips a big sister, someone she views as a mentor. Phillips was hired to work in the Wings’ front office in 2017, and Cambage couldn’t pass up the chance to be coached by her close friend.
Above all, though, it came down to timing.
Due to mental and physical fatigue, Cambage took 2017 off from a basketball standpoint until October, when she resumed playing again in Australia. Meanwhile, Phoenix’s Sandy Brondello was named the new head coach of the Opals. Unlike past Australian coaches, Brondello encourages her players to come to the WNBA, even in years that feature major competitions like this year’s FIBA World Cup. It’s fitting that Brondello will coach against Cambage in her first game back on May 18.
Cambage believes the WNBA season will help her stay in the best shape possible for the FIBA World Cup, anyway. She said this past season in Australia was the greatest she’s felt since she was 19.
“She took a break from basketball for a while, and I applaud her for that,” Phillips said. “Sometimes you play to just keep playing, without the passion and love for playing. She wanted to make sure that if she did come back, it was the right time. She wanted to make sure she loved it and that it was something she could give 100 percent to. She’s in a great frame of mind now.”
“Even playing in China and with the Opals, basketball got really negative for me,” Cambage added. “I just really needed time to step back and refresh. I had an amazing season in Australia over our summer, and really found my love for basketball again. I’m hoping to bring that back to the WNBA.”
In a scary proposition for opponents, Cambage and those around her say she’s a completely different player than the one who made the WNBA All-Star team seven years ago. At age 26, she enters her basketball prime with a talented, young core around her in Dallas.
Cambage had already built chemistry with All-Stars Skylar Diggins-Smith and Glory Johnson during her first stint. Now, the Wings also boast recent All-Rookie performers Allisha Gray, Kaela Davis and Aerial Powers, plus proven veterans like Karima Christmas-Kelly. They can add to their depth by utilizing the No. 6 pick in the upcoming draft.
With Theresa Plaisance recovering from a torn ACL suffered overseas and Courtney Paris off to Seattle, Cambage becomes even more crucial to their frontcourt.
“She is one of the premier centers in the world,” Williams said during the press conference. “For our organization, this is huge. We’ve always wanted an inside presence for this organization, for this team. And we feel with Liz, she can help us get to that next level. That next level is bringing a championship to this organization in the near future.”
It’s no secret which end of the court the Wings need to improve on. Dallas led the league in scoring last year, but also gave up the most points per game for the second straight season. They desperately wanted an imposing center to protect the rim.
The Wings also play a unique style, one they think Cambage can adapt to despite her size. They led the league in pace last season, and Dallas has ranked first or second in three-point attempts each of the last six years. They shot just 32 percent from downtown last year, however, and the Wings are hoping Cambage’s presence will create more space for their shooters.
“We play an exciting brand of basketball, an up-tempo style of basketball,” Bibb said. “We led the league in scoring last year, and I don’t see that changing. That’s the great thing about Liz – despite her size, she’s able to play that up-tempo style of basketball. I think she’ll fit nicely with the group of players we have on our roster.”
After attending Monday’s press conference, Cambage headed back to Australia, where she’ll be training for the upcoming Commonwealth Games. In late April, it will be time for Cambage to return and lead a new era of Wings basketball.
In the front row at Monday’s press conference was Diggins-Smith, the guard who figures to help her form one of the premier one-two punches in the league. Cambage can’t wait to get started in her new home.
“It’s so weird — I feel like I’m starting my career again, kind of,” she said. “It’s like a brand-new slate. I’m the new girl in town.”