Commentary

Cambage ready to start WNBA career

19-year-old Aussie brings comparisons to (and praise from) Lauren Jackson

Originally Published: April 10, 2011
By Mechelle Voepel | ESPN.com

BRISTOL, Conn. -- Liz Cambage has the right personality for this, says a certain highly qualified expert. She's outgoing, self-confident, funny, ambitious and a quick study. Cambage will need all of that, as she will be a long way from home, spending a lot of time on flights, and playing a different style of basketball. It's a great deal to take in when you're 19 years old and, at 6 feet, 8 inches, unable to go unnoticed.

"I was tall ever since I was little," Cambage said, which actually makes perfect sense. "Well, I was small when I was born, then I just started … growing."

The expert has been there. In fact, nobody on earth is better-suited to advise Cambage on what the next several months and years of her life will be like. But the expert also understands Cambage, who might be picked second in Monday's WNBA draft (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET) behind Connecticut's Maya Moore, will have to live this in her own way.

[+] EnlargeLiz Cambage
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comLiz Cambage, a 6-foot-8 draft prospect from Australia, has "a sparkling persona, stands tall and proud, and she's naturally engaging. "

"Every person's experience is a little different, depending on where they're from, where they go," said the expert, Seattle's 6-5 center Lauren Jackson, by phone from Australia. "There are a lot of different factors that are going to influence her experience.

"I think she's got a lot of people in her ear at the moment, and someone like me coming along is just another person in her ear about it. For her, I just want the best, and I think the WNBA is the best thing. I think she's definitely ready to play in the WNBA; she's extremely talented."

Speaking of extremes, LJ is being way too modest saying that she would be "just another person" giving tips to Cambage. Hardly. Jackson knows exactly what this is like, as she blazed the trail.

It was a decade ago -- can it really be that long? -- that Jackson was a teen-aged Australian entering the WNBA. She went to the Seattle Storm with the No. 1 pick in 2001. Jackson would turn 20 in May 2001 and deserved being named rookie of the year; the sentimental vote, though, went to Jackie Stiles in what would be her only complete WNBA season.

Jackson has gone on to win two WNBA titles, three league MVP awards, had a successful European career, and led Australia to the 2006 world championship. But she still recalls being a bit emotionally overwhelmed by the whole draft process.

"Looking back on it, I wish I could have enjoyed it as an older person," Jackson said. "Back then, I really didn't understand how big a deal it was. So I think Lizzie and I are different; her personality is a lot more out there than mine is. I was a little more reserved, and I still am.

"It's very exciting for her. She's a lovely person and just wants to experience life, which I think is quite endearing. And that's going to help her a lot as well."

Cambage's surname is pronounced cam-BEIGE, with the accent on the second syllable, which sounds like the bland color. But there is nothing "beige" about Cambage. She has a sparkling persona, stands tall and proud, and she's naturally engaging. Whereas Jackson -- now a terrific spokeswoman -- came to the United States more withdrawn and even a little shy.

"I'm quite the opposite of shy," Cambage said laughing. "Hopefully, I'll learn everything I can and make friends quickly."

Neither Jackson nor Cambage went the American college route. Jackson's mom, Maree, played for a while at LSU, but Lauren was ready for the WNBA when she came here at the age of a college sophomore. Jackson expects Cambage will be able to make an impact quickly as a youngster, too.

"With her size and agility, I haven't seen anyone quite like her," said Jackson, who has not faced Baylor junior-to-be Brittney Griner, who is also 6-8. "Lizzie is very strong at 19 years old. Is she ready to play in America? Absolutely; she's going to blossom from it. Like the WNBA became my home when I was young, it's going to happen for her, too."

The story goes that former WNBA player Michele Timms talked up Jackson here in the States when LJ was just a teen back home in Australia. In recent years, Jackson has done the same for Cambage.

"With the Australian culture, everyone has each other's back," Cambage said of her countrywomen already in the WNBA. "So they've been giving me well-wishes."

Cambage has been known to basketball aficionados everywhere for a while, but her profile and stock really rose last summer and fell when she was playing in exhibitions and then the world championship for Australia. She showed such promise that some suggested -- even UConn/Team USA coach Geno Auriemma mentioned it -- that maybe Cambage warranted at least some consideration for supplanting Moore as the expected top pick.

[+] EnlargeLiz Cambage
Tony Spinelli/ESPN.comLiz Cambage caught a lot of attention last summer and fall after playing so well for Australia's national team.

While that doesn't appear to be happening -- Moore seems certain to head to Minnesota at No. 1 -- Cambage is a great bet to go next. The No. 2 pick belongs to Tulsa, which was 6-28 last season. One Aussie newspaper recently reported that Cambage said she didn't want to go to Tulsa; she has since said that was a misunderstanding and that she'll be happy to go play anywhere.

She'll certainly be of use anywhere -- and like Jackson did in 2001, should become an impact player quite quickly. If Cambage does go to Tulsa, then there's yet another similarity to Jackson. While Tulsa isn't an "expansion" franchise because it relocated from Detroit before last season, it's essentially just like one because all the former Shock players are gone.

Seattle really was an expansion franchise in its second season in 2001 when Jackson was the top pick after the Storm's previous 6-26 record. With Jackson as a rookie, the Storm were 10-22 in 2001, and then got the top pick again in the 2002 draft. That brought point guard Sue Bird to Seattle.

Jackson and Bird combined to win their first title in 2004, and together they've been one of the most successful duos in the pro women's game. Whether Cambage will end up teamed with a point guard who fits with her as perfectly as Bird fits with Jackson remains to be seen. But this year, wherever she is playing, Cambage will be trying to learn the ropes in a faster game that stresses strength and toughness.

"I think the physicality is the biggest thing," Jackson said of adjusting to WNBA play. "It's different than what she's going to experience anywhere else, and the athleticism. Night in and night out, you're going against very tall, experienced players.

"I think that Lizzie is going to blossom in American, but there will be a tough run for her. She'll be the young kid on the block, but I think she can handle that. Her development in the last 12 months has just been phenomenal. When she's very good, she's very good."

Jackson, who won the WNBA title and MVP award last season, had surgery on her Achilles' tendon in February but said she's feeling very good physically. Cambage, meanwhile, was the most valuable player in the WNBL, Australia's women's pro league, this season.

Thursday, Cambage toured Manhattan with her mother on her first trip to the Big Apple, saying she'd love to come back to New York around Christmas. Monday will be the draft here in Bristol, and then she'll know where the bulk of her time in the next few months will be spent.

She watched Jackson win the WNBA last September, then played with LJ -- "an amazing experience; I learned so much" -- and the other Aussie pros on the national team at the world championship. Other than the April chill in Connecticut that her warm-weather constitution was balking at, Cambage is very glad to be experiencing all that she has so far. And it's not even really quite begun.

"I'm loving it, to be honest, how interested people are in basketball here," Cambage said. "It is a little scary, too, but you have to look at it like a big adventure."

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.

Mechelle Voepel joined ESPN.com in 1996 and covers women's college hoops, the WNBA, the LPGA, and additional collegiate sports for espnW.