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Shelley: Golden Sapphires, a major wake-up call, the Ducks and Ionescu
MELBOURNE (Australia) - The spotlight will shine brightly on Jaz Shelley in Bangkok after scooping the WNBL Rookie of the Year award, signing with the University of Oregon and having made history with the Sapphires.
The talented guard will be a centerpiece for the Gems at the forthcoming FIBA U19 Women's Basketball World Cup in Thailand and will have to deal with a ton of expectation as people tip her to continue doing great things.
THE GOLDEN SPIRIT OF ZARAGOZA
She already knows what it is like to make history in a FIBA global youth competition and to stand on the top step of the podium. That is exactly what happened three years ago in Zaragoza, Spain when something extraordinary happened.
Shelley was a key figure in the Australian Sapphires side that landed a maiden title at the FIBA U17 Women's Basketball World Cup and ended the previously unblemished dominance of the mighty USA.
"That whole campaign and winning gold in Zaragoza during 2016 still feels so surreal to me; it was the best time of my basketball life," she reflected.
"We went into the tournament ranked 7th and having never finished higher than 5th, so I don’t think the rest of the world expected us to do what we did.
"There was just something special about that group; from the great coaching and medical staff, to my amazing teammates; every moment of that tournament was just unbelievable. The unity within our group was so unique and special. To eventually go through the tournament undefeated with an average winning margin of 23 points was just surreal, as I said.
"Some of my best memories include our Semi-Final win against the USA, who had never been beaten in the history of the tournament. I remember we were completely fearless going into that game. We were tough and up for the challenge against an extremely talented USA side," continued Shelley.
"I will also never forget the fantastic recognition and praise we received from the entire Australian basketball community when we got back home. It was amazing.
"Zaragoza was an experience I will never forget, and my gold medal is something I will cherish forever," she insisted.
If her first global outing saw her floating on a golden cloud, there was more of a frustrating gloom for Shelley and Co when she took her first footsteps at the U19 Worlds two years ago. Instead of being able to revel in more podium glory, she still thinks more about what might have been.
"I was the baby of the team at my first FIBA U19 Women's Basketball World Cup in 2017, but was bitterly disappointed with our 5th place finish as I felt we under achieved," stressed Shelley.
"I’m hoping for a better result this time round and I believe this Gems team is capable of winning a medal. We will be considerably undersized, but we are relentless on defense and play extremely well together. We have a number of talented players that I am super excited to play with."
A MAJOR WAKE-UP CALL
Last year Australia were expected to overcome the new challenge of moving into the wider geographical net for the FIBA U18 Women's Asian Championship 2018. However, things didn't go to plan and they had to settle for the last podium step - not a place they are used to in past Continental tournaments.
"This was the first time Australia had to compete against the likes of China, Japan and Korea in order to qualify for the FIBA Women's U19 Basketball World Cup and this certainly presented a much tougher path than the old format," conceded Shelley.
"These nations are improving so rapidly if you don’t respect them and prepare well, they can upset you - as they did last year we really struggled to adapt to the Asian game style. They play extremely quickly and move the ball so well, meaning our defense struggled to keep up.
"We learned some valuable lessons from that experience. It was probably a great wake up call for us, and now in Bangkok, we can showcase the talented team we really are," claimed Shelley.
ROOKIE ACCOLADES AND HONING HER SKILLS
Despite the setback in Bengaluru, it didn't prevent her from putting herself back on the radar with some super displays in the WNBA with Melbourne Boomers. So much so, she was handed the Betty Watson Rookie of the Year accolade earlier this year.
"The WNBL was an amazing experience for me. Getting to play in one of the best leagues in the world was unbelievable.
"As far as expectations were concerned, I was confident that I could compete at that level going in, but was able to use the experience as a benchmark to see how my game holds up against Australia’s best players and quality import players, and gauge what areas I need to continue to develop.
One of the bright young stars of Australian basketball and shaping as a future @ChemistWhouse Australian Opal, Jaz Shelley has been named the #WNBL19 Betty Watson Rookie of the Year! pic.twitter.com/qpmHs7b7Vi— WNBL (@WNBL) February 18, 2019
"Playing alongside, and being mentored by some of the best players in the country; plus competing against players with Olympic and WNBA experience was so beneficial for my development. Overall, playing in the WNBL was a great learning experience.
Her basketball education actually began at an early age and very much close to home.
"My parents were huge inspirations for me to play basketball as they both played high level competition in Australia for many years and my dad is a specialist shooting coach which has been really helpful for me," explained Shelley.
"Growing up I was a very sporty kid, coming from a little country town. I played a number of sports including netball, soccer and high jump for many years and really enjoyed that before concentrating solely on basketball."
The fruits of her labor have seen her develop into an exciting player, although for Shelley herself, the mental side of basketball is just as important as the technical detail and evolution.
She commented: "I have been brought up with the mentality that the best players make the players around them better. So offensively, I pride myself on my playmaking ability and game sense - basically a 'team first' approach.
"I guess my ability to shoot the three is probably also a major strength; but I have recently been working hard on my dribble moves and footwork to improve my skills in getting to the rack to compliment my outside shooting.
"I have developed a more aggressive mentality, so facilitating the ball has been made easier as I am more of a threat in the paint now. On the defensive end, I love to shut players down and pick up the ball in the full court.
"A weakness I am working hard on right now is consistency with my shot, which is more mental than mechanical. I’m learning the importance of trusting my training and finding ways of controlling my mind and feelings, so that my body can execute the skills automatically without too much conscious thought.
"It’s a journey and I’m not there yet, but I’m seeing positive benefits and I am committed to ongoing improvement."
IONESCU AND THE DUCKS
Of course she must be doing something right, since she has signed to play with the prestigious University of Oregon - something she can't wait for. Especially after a long journey in coming to a major decision in her life and career.
"College is something I have wanted to do since I was a little kid," said Shelley.
"My older brother graduated from NCAA Div 2 college, Kentucky Wesleyan; and he loved it; and I always wanted to follow in his footsteps.
"My decision was tough. My ultimate goal is to represent the Australian women’s national team, the 'Opals', and there are two main pathways to achieve that; the NCAA or WNBL. I definitely want to play basketball professionally, but also understand the importance of gaining a college education and having career prospects outside of basketball.
"At the time I was making my decision, I was playing with the Melbourne Boomers in the WNBL as an amateur, so was able to experience what that pro-environment was like (in Australia at least) before deciding.
"I had arranged several official visits with NCAA programs and initially visited three schools including the University of Oregon. My heart had always been set on college but I was really enjoying the WNBL. However, after I visited the University of Oregon’s campus in September, my mind was made up," she continued.
"I just knew this was the place for me. Their facilities and culture was amazing and the people were incredible too. I knew I couldn’t pass up this amazing opportunity. I feel that four years in the tough NCAA PAC12 competition with Oregon Ducks will help develop my game and my body for hopefully a long and successful pro career afterwards.
"I plan to complete a Masters Degree in Psychology during that time and do everything within my power to contribute to the Ducks winning their first ever NCAA National Championship. The level of talent that the Ducks have recruited is amazing, and I feel honored to be a part of such a talented group of girls.
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"But, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I am especially excited about the opportunity to play next season alongside one of the best guards in the world in Sabrina Ionescu," added Shelley.
"Meeting and scrimmaging with Sabrina during my visit, and getting to know her a little off court, I felt good chemistry straight away. I am super excited about learning from Sabrina, going at each other in practice everyday and making each other better.
"It’s going to be tough, but I can’t wait," she said smiling.