There are a bevy of statistics, sophisticated and basic, that tell the story of how Liz Cambage has changed the trajectory of her Dallas Wings and, perhaps, shifted the balance of power in the WNBA.
But her teammate, Skylar Diggins-Smith, has a simpler explanation.
“Coach Fred calls her a chick magnet,” Diggins-Smith said, referring to Wings coach Fred Williams. “She’s going to take two or three every time. That definitely creates opportunities for us to shoot higher percentage shots on the perimeter. It opens up games as far as transition defense. Her presence on the defensive end, altering shots, and helping us.”
That Cambage, a 6-foot-8 Australian, is here in the United States, playing basketball, is something of a surprise, even to her.
Selected second in the 2011 WNBA Draft by the Tulsa Shock, Cambage reluctantly reported to the team, excelled as a rookie, then missed the 2012 season — first for the Olympics, then by choice.
She returned to the Shock in 2013, once again displaying an ability to dominate — her 29.9 player efficiency rating in 2013, as a 21-year-old, rates 16th among any single season by any player in the history of the league.
But Cambage did not like it in Tulsa and did not think the team had a bright future. The Shock were 14-54 in her first two seasons. So she decided to leave the WNBA and spent the next four seasons playing professionally in China and Australia.
She faced problems of her own, including an Achilles tear in 2014 that cost her a full season and battles with depression that led her to consider walking away from the game entirely by the 2016 Olympics, where Australia lost to Serbia in the quarterfinals.
“Leading up to Rio, I was ready to retire,” Cambage said. “I was ready to be done. But we did so bad in Rio — getting knocked out by Serbia. In that moment I was like, ‘I want to keep playing. This isn’t the end.’ If we medaled at Rio, I feel like I might have retired. But that loss really drove me to keep playing.”
In 2016, the Shock moved to Dallas and became the Wings, retaining Cambage’s rights. And Williams began a courtship with Cambage to bring her back to the WNBA.
Her return this season transformed the Wings’ roster from an overachieving, plucky playoff team in 2017 into a squad that could contend for the title this year.
The many ways Cambage dictates the action are the primary reason for optimism in Dallas.
“She’s so big, not just tall, but big,” Minnesota Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of Cambage, whose wingspan measures 83.3 inches, or just under 7 feet. “And so when she gets to her spots, that’s it — she’s going to do what she wants.”
Entering Tuesday’s games, Cambage’s field goal percentage of 54.8 is in line with her career WNBA mark of 53.5. But she’s hitting shots in a greater variety of ways, burying her first 3-pointer of the season late in a loss to the Liberty on May 29, and managing to stay central to a Dallas attack that consistently pushes the pace.
That was the Wings’ biggest concern as they integrated Cambage: whether the presence of a 6-8 center would compromise the alchemy that led to last season’s surprise playoff run, keyed by the league’s third-fastest pace, according to Basketball-Reference.com. But so far in 2018, the Wings remain third in the league in pace, actually playing slightly faster. If others are surprised by this, Cambage is not.
“People just see a big post player like me and just think, ‘She’s slow,'” she said. “I come from Australia. We play a running game in Australia. It’s about pushing the ball. I love to run.
“For my height, I think I’ve got great speed and great technique."
Cambage leads the WNBA in points per possession, by a wide margin. She is also spotting her teammates more effectively than in her last trip through the league, raising her assist percentage to 17.0 from 9.9 in 2013. And there is a ripple effect on the entire roster. Diggins-Smith’s assist percentage is up to 33.7, which would be a career-best for her, and the young shooters on the Wings are getting many more open looks, thanks to the extra attention on Cambage.
But it is on defense that the Cambage sea change is most apparent. The Wings finished at the bottom of the WNBA in defensive efficiency in 2016, and only improved to 11th in 2017. So far in 2018, they are third through Monday, ranked ahead of last season’s WNBA finalists, Los Angeles and Minnesota.
Cambage is indisputably the reason. She ends possessions: Her defensive rebounding percentage of 26.5 is near the top of the league with Sylvia Fowles and Breanna Stewart. Cambage is among the leaders in block percentage, and there are plenty more shots that are never attempted because she’s there. Dallas opponents took a greater percentage of shots inside the arc last season than any other WNBA team, but Cambage’s presence has forced a huge jump in opposing 3-point attempts in 2018.
Entering Tuesday, the Wings were 4-3 and showing encouraging signs, but Williams sees opportunities to improve ahead.
“It’s right on pace with what we want it to be,” he said. “We still have about three or four more games to tighten up defensively on that end. I think Liz has really helped us a great deal in the paint — it’s been so lopsided, the points in the paint. But our whole focus was to bring in players who could fit into pieces that we already have, and I think Liz has really done a great job of fitting in with us.”
More important, Cambage feels comfortable. She is not sure what the future holds for her, though she said she has her eye on playing for Australia in the 2020 Olympics. Australia’s national team coach, Sandy Brondello, is also the head coach of the Phoenix Mercury and encourages her national team players to ply their trade in the United States.
“Everything is just peaceful,” Cambage said. “Like working with Fred, he’s very patient. The girls are great. There’s no drama, there’s no bickering, there’s nothing cliquey going on. It’s just a group of women who want to work hard and play hard and get wins. When everything’s working well off the court, it goes onto the court as well.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.