THE second season of NBL1 East announced the competition proved itself as a legitimate semi-professional league, especially for player development and creating professional pathways. During the WNBL offseason, NBL1 East was stacked with players from Australia’s top women’s league, from rising stars to seasoned veterans. Here are the NBL1 East stars stepping up to the WNBL for the 2023/24 season.
Lizzy Tonks – Canberra Nationals/Adelaide Lightning
Back for her second season in the WNBL, Lizzy Tonks has joined the Lightning, moving away from Canberra, where she played last season with the Capitals. While in Canberra Tonks also starred for the Canberra Nationals for the second season in a row in NBL1. Unfortunately, Tonks’ squad just missed out on the playoffs, but this was by no means because of her play. The guard was electric offensively, especially from behind the arc, averaging 19 points. She also posted an impressive seven rebounds and played clinical on ball defense, which shows the true value of Tonks. Last season with the Caps she was somewhat stuck behind Jade Melbourne and Shanice Swain in the guard rotation, yet might get more minutes this season with Adelaide’s thinner guard depth.
Isabelle Bourne – Canberra Nationals/Adelaide Lighting
The Lightning picked up a double whammy from the Canberra Nationals signing one of Australia’s best rising talents. Bourne has returned to Australia after a stellar college career with Nebraska. She joined her hometown Canberra Nationals mid-way through the 2023 season and immediately made a huge impact, averaging 19 points to go with seven boards. So impressive was Bourne’s form she earned a spot in the East’s team of the year. The centre is almost perfect for this position; she is great off the pick and in post ups, while spacing the floor with her shooting and making precision passes out of the paint. If you don’t know about Issy Bourne yet, take notice, after representing Australia in U17, U18 and U19 levels, she might just be pulling on an Opals jersey sometime soon.
Leilani Mitchell – Inner West Bulls/Southside Flyers
This Australian basketball legend needs no introduction. After coaching the Maitland Mustangs NBL1 women’s side in 2022, Mitchell returned to the court in 2023 with the Inner West Bulls. From game one it was evident she hadn’t missed a beat, averaging 20 points, six assists and five rebounds for the season. The veteran even popped off for 40 points off 61% shooting in a game against Sutherland. This season will be the point guard’s 15th as a pro, 13 of which were in the WNBAand eighth season in the WNBL. She is a legend of the league, boasting 3 All-Star 5 selections, three championships and a pair of Grand Final MVPs.
Vanessa Panousis – Sydney Comets/Sydney Flames
At just age 17, Vanessa Panousis made her WNBL debut with the Sydney Flames. Fast-forward 11 years and the crafty guard is back for another season with the Flames after dominating NBL1 East with the Sydney Comets. She returned to her junior club in their debut NBL1 season and dominated by averaging 22 points and 5 assists, while leading the squad to the semis. For the Flames she will likely feature as a spark plug off the bench which is a very dangerous prospect as Panousis is an instant bucket and can heat up in a hurry, especially with her signature mid-range pull up.
Lauren Nicholson – Sutherland Sharks/Sydney Flames
Just last season she helped Townsville to the WNBL Championship averaging 15 points, but now Nicholson has traded tropical North Queensland to play for her home town Sydney. Nicholson is also coming to an incredible NBL1 East season, claiming DPOY and an All Star 5 call up after while averaging a mind-blowing 29 points, six assists and seven rebounds. Not only this, she also gained an Opals call up for the Asia Cup. Despite her excellent form Sutherland unluckily were knocked out in the elimination final. Nicholson will be keen to guide a stacked Sydney Flames roster all the way. The ingredients are there after looking unstoppable in the NBL1 East Season, while also having an impressive list of WNBL achievements from two time champions, DPOY and All-WNBL second team. Between her and Shaneice Swain it will be interesting to see who gets the starting spot alongside Tess Madgen.
Saffron Shiels – COE/Townsville Fire
After bursting onto the NBL1 East scene in 2023 Saffron Shiels has secured a WNBL contract and is set to become one of the best young talents in the league. Shiels has a guards skill set in a wings’ body, making her a serious offensive threat. This NBL1 season she averaged 11 points and six rebounds which can be deceptive as COE tend to share minutes and shots around. She often popped off for 20+ points, leading the side to a semi-finals finish. Not only this, Shiels also represented Australia in the U19 World Cup. It might be difficult for the young gun to find minutes on this experienced Fire roster. However, playing under Coach Seebohm and joining the defending champions will be excellent for her development.
Jayda Clark – Centre of Excellence/UC Capitals
Choosing to stay in the nation’s capital, Jayda Clark is ready to take her game to the next level after joining the Caps. Clark is the ultimate wing, with a great handle, smooth shooting, lockdown defense and an ability to find teammates; she really is a jack of all trades. Originally from Western Australia the 18-year-old averaged 15 points and five rebounds in her second season with COE while earning a call-up to the Gems’ World Cup Squad. Joining the Caps for her first professional gig, Clark will benefit from learning alongside fellow COE graduate and former Perth Lynx star Alex Sharp.
Tahlia Tupaea – Penrith Panthers/UC Capitals
At just age 15, Thalia Tupaea became the 2nd youngest debutant in the WNBL history playing for Sydney Uni Flames. Now at age 26, the Kiwi and Aussie international is gearing up for her third season with the Caps; her 12th season as a pro. It was a rough season for Penrith in the debut NBL1 East season, mainly due to the injury of Tupaea. Before going down she was dominating, averaging 23 points which included an astonishing 45-point explosion against COE. By the time she had recovered the Tauihi Basketball Aoteroa season was tipping off and Tupaea had to return with Northern Kahu. She would go onto to feature heavily in their championship, averaging 12 points. The WNBL veteran will be a big part of the Caps line up providing ball handling, shooting and leadership.
Nicole Munger – Newcastle Falcons/UC Capitals
NSW basketball fans couldn’t be happier to have their favourite Pennsylvanian back for another season. Nicole Munger is coming off her second NBL1 East season with Newcastle. After dominating in her first NBL1 season in 2022, the former Michigan University star took over the league this year, winning MVP while averaging 19 points and 13 rebounds. Munger is undersized for a power forward but is incredibly strong, getting to the basket at will while also boasting a great mid-range and three point shot. When she joined the Falcons last season, the dream of playing WNBL seemed unlikely, but due to her incredible form earned a call-up to the Caps. All we can hope for is that this star is part of Aussie basketball for years to come as Munger is the full package on and off the court.
Ashlee Hannan – Albury Wodonga Bandits/Perth Lynx
Not that long ago, Hannan was tossing up whether to stick with basketball after leaving college. Thankfully this extremely talented youngster stayed with the sport and hasn’t looked back. The turning point was when long-term mentor Matt Papps reached out to Hannan to come play for Albury-Wodonga in the NBL1. Hannan then proceeded to show the basketball world this is where she belongs, averaging 13 points and eight rebounds, even producing 23 points and 22 rebounds in one game. Not only did she manage this at age 22, but did it as part of a stacked Bandits roster which had plenty of scoring options. Sharing the front court with Malery Bates, Hannan showed great versatility on the perimeter, playmaking, running pick and rolls, attacking close outs and shooting too. When in the post she was nearly unstoppable on both end of the court. The young centre will benefit a lot of playing alongside Perth’s latest import signing and Canadian international, Emily Potter as well as NBL1 Champion Mackenzie Clinch Hoycard.