BENDIGO Spirit will take to the floor for the first time this season on Friday night in Canberra, hopeful of making an early impact in an abbreviated 2017-18 WNBL season.
The Spirit finished last season in sixth place, winning 13 of 24 games, but missing the finals for a second-straight season.
A clash against the Capitals, who also finished 13-11, will give an early guide to the success of the Spirit’s slight, but substantial off-season makeover.
Front and centre will be new imports Rachel Banham and Betnijah Laney, who give the Spirit a pair of legitimate scoring threats.
WNBL audiences will need no reminding of how impactful Laney can be.
The shooting guard/small forward averaged 15.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 3.7 assists and one steal per game in her previous stint in the league with Perth Lynx in 2015-16.
Point guard Banham, who is coming off a pair of knee injuries in the last 18 months, will be hoping to replicate the stellar college form that saw her taken with pick four in the 2016 WNBA draft out of the University of Minnesota.
Third-year coach Simon Pritchard likened Banham to Australian Opals and Dandenong Rangers star Stephanie Blicavs (nee Cumming) with her precise and silky shooting ability.
“I’d like to see her get hot for us, where she’s hitting these shots no one believes she’s hitting,” he said.
“And she can do that because she shoots the ball so straight.
“She is one of the straightest shooters I’ve ever seen – dead straight every shot.”
There have been roster changes aplenty across the WNBL, with big names returning, old favourites backing up, and a handful of stars departing.
The Spirit, unlike most teams, should have little trouble gelling early in the season, returning nine of last year’s line-up, headed by Opals star and four-time club MVP Kelsey Griffin and centre and joint vice-captain Gabe Richards.
Also back with the Spirit are Heather Oliver, Nadeen Payne, Ashleigh Karaitiana, Ashleigh Spencer, Kara Tessari, Ebony Rolph and development player Jess Rennie.
Pritchard said information on Canberra had been scarce.
“I know the coach (Paul Gorris) well and I know the style of play from last year,” he said.
“We’ll look at that style from last year, but really it’s a case of focusing on what we do.
“If we can do that well, it’s highly likely we’ll know what we can take away from them by quarter time.”
Key inclusions for the Capitals are Olympian Rachel Jarry, veteran guard Natalie Hurst and former South East Queensland stars sharpshooter Jordan Hooper.
The Spirit’s home season opener is against Perth Lynx at Bendigo Stadium on October 14.
A condensed WNBL season will see all teams plays 21 games in a 13-week regular season, with finals to finish before Australia Day.