Basketball

Point guard Shyla Heal, who started in the WNBL at 14 and has just become a top 10 WNBA pick for Chicago Sky, is ready to step up her game. By Daniel Herborn.

Shyla Heal looks to WNBA future

Shyla Heal of the Townsville Fire warming up before the WNBL game against Sydney Uni Flames at Townsville Stadium last year.
Credit: AAP / Cameron Laird

Surrounded by friends and family at a casino function room, Shyla Heal felt something she’d rarely experienced on a basketball court: nervousness. The 19-year-old was watching a live stream of the WNBA draft, hanging on confirmation of where her career in the sport’s elite competition would begin.

“I had dreamt about and pictured this day so many times,” Heal says. “As a little girl, this is what you train for.” Her father, four-time Olympian Shane Heal, known for his fearlessness on the court, was also feeling unusually edgy. “We were all pretty nervous and anxious to get it going,” he says.

As teams began selecting their rookie players, sparking scenes of celebration across households in the United States, Shyla felt her lips go numb with tension. But anxiety soon turned into elation as Chicago Sky read her name as the eighth pick.

The draft night capped the rise of a young player long seen as one of the most promising talents in Australian basketball. Despite not being blessed with great height (she stands 168 centimetres tall), she had become a fixture of junior representative teams by her early teens, culminating in an eye-catching turn at the FIBA Under-17 Women’s Basketball World Cup in Belarus in 2018 where her 16 points a game was only bettered by Mali’s Sika Koné.

For most of the sport’s elite young players, the logical next step from junior stardom is an apprenticeship in the US college system. Heal had the option to go down this path, with interest from blue-chip schools including the University of Connecticut, home to the most prestigious women’s college basketball program. But she had other ideas.

“I wanted to be different,” Heal recalls. “I didn’t want to follow everyone else. I wanted to go down my own path.” She’d made her debut in Australia’s WNBL at just 14, playing under her father as coach and becoming the youngest player to appear in the league.

“People thought we were crazy for not doing what everybody else had done,” says Shane. “Yet my belief was if you’re ready to contribute as a pro and play against women at a much higher level than the collegiate system, then why wait?”

An injury-plagued season at the Perth Lynx followed before Heal emerged as a quality starter for the Bendigo Spirit, displaying a pure shooting stroke, silken ball-handling and a seemingly unquenchable appetite for the contest.

Last season, she reunited with coach Shannon Seebohm at the Townsville Fire; the pair had previously won a bronze medal together at the 2018 World Cup.

“I went to Townsville for Shannon Seebohm,” Heal explains. “Most coaches probably wouldn’t have faith in a 19-year-old to run their team and be their starting point guard, so that was huge for me, and I’m really grateful it worked out that way.”

Given this responsibility, Heal didn’t just hold her own against the best in the WNBL: she dominated. She ranked fifth in the league for scoring, further refining her already high-level ability to draw contact and drive to the hoop and disrupting even the most organised defensive schemes with her polished step-back jumper.

But the most striking thing was her preternatural confidence. “She’s had belief because she’s done the work,” explains Shane. “She’s had more reps shooting the ball than anyone else in the country.”

Playing point guard may be the most challenging role in basketball for a young player. As the team’s primary ball handler and playmaker, the point guard tells their teammates exactly where to be and what to do on any given play. It’s generally not a role for a youngster feeling their way into a higher level of competition.

As the 2020 season rolled on and the stakes got higher, Heal only got better. By the finals, she was unstoppable, putting up 30 points in the semi and 28 points in the preliminary final, including a pair of coolly taken free throws to secure Townsville’s place in the season decider.

This self-possession in the big moments suggests her inevitable rise to Opals selection may come sooner rather than later. She was part of the national team camp in March and is hell-bent on being in the final team. While many players her age would be content to have the experience of being around the squad and consider an Olympics berth a bonus, Heal sees it differently.

“I’ll definitely be disappointed if I don’t make it,” she says. “It would be an absolute dream making the Olympics and the WNBA in the same year – that’s probably an understatement.”

To be in the mix at such a young age speaks to not just her ability but her work ethic and methodical approach to all aspects of preparation. She keeps a diary tracking different types of training, such as weights work, sprint sessions and stair runs, as well as scheduling recovery sessions and carefully monitoring her diet. Asked about the strongest parts of her game, she immediately goes to intangibles: her love of the sport and her determination to constantly improve.

For all her hard work off the court and her cold-blooded efficiency on it, Heal is determined to keep a healthy balance in her life.

“There’s definitely two sides to how she works mentally,” says her father, who captained Australia at the 2004 Olympics. “She’s unbelievably focused and professional, and then she’s a teenage girl that loves her Instagram, going to the beach and hanging out at the cafe with her friends.”

Most teenagers would presumably baulk at playing under a parent as a coach, but Shyla has signed up to play WNBL for Shane at the Sydney Uni Flames once the WNBA season wraps up. She’ll be well-versed in his coaching style. “I wouldn’t be the player I am without him, that’s for sure. He’s taught me everything I know,” she says.

There may be fewer familiar faces in Chicago, but signing with the Sky does afford Heal the opportunity to play understudy to 32-year-old Courtney Vandersloot, the American–Hungarian floor general who has led the WNBA in assists (passes leading directly to a basket) for the past four seasons.

“I’m so excited,” Heal says of working with the veteran. “She’s one of the best point guards in the league. I can’t wait to train with her. I want to be learning heaps from her and just getting better each day.”

With positional versatility being all the rage in professional basketball, Heal can also see a path to earning court time alongside Vandersloot. “I do see myself as mostly a pure point guard, but I do think I could play as a shooting guard next to Vandersloot. I can spot up and shoot, and I think I could do that pretty well and then defend a two-man.”

In terms of her role in the team, Heal’s also prepared to bide her time and says she’ll have no qualms about adapting to a supporting rather than starring role. “I’m one of the youngest in the league and I still have so much development and so many things to learn. I’m not expecting anything. I know I’ll have to earn it.”

While Heal has thought through many of the details of how her long-held dream is finally about to turn to reality, there are some aspects of the whole adventure she still finds surreal. The mention of her running pick and roll (basketball’s fundamental offensive structure) with her new teammate and two-time Olympic gold medallist Candace Parker, one of the sport’s all-time greats, brings an almost disbelieving giggle. “That part of it,” she says, “hasn’t quite sunk in yet.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 8, 2021 as "Second generation".

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Daniel Herborn is a Sydney-based journalist and novelist.