With the WNBA Draft just days away, Chemist Warehouse Opals squad member Tiana Mangakahia feels an odd sense of calm.
A week away from her 26th birthday, the Australian star guard understands that the on-court challenges ahead pale in comparison to what she has already achieved off the floor.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2019, Mangakahia’s dreams of reaching the professional ranks were initially shelved. Attacking treatment with the same determination we have been accustomed to seeing as point guard at Syracuse University in America, Mangakahia was declared cancer free and cleared to return to practice in early 2020.
Just 615 games after her last game, Mangakahia would not only return to the floor, but lead all scorers with 16 points in a win over Stony Brook.
“I think the reason I decided to play college this season was because I wanted to, and I felt like I was able to,” Mangakahia said. “I didn’t have any reason why I couldn’t. I had been through everything. Maybe with more time I would have been able to prepare myself a bit better, but I just wanted to get back out there. I felt like my time in college was coming to an end, I didn’t want to stay in college for so long, I had already been in college for six years and I wanted to start my life.”
It was an incredible return season for the starting point guard, who earned an All-American honourable mention while also finishing her college career as the all-time assist leader at Syracuse.
Her final appearance with the Orange came in the second round of the NCAA tournament, with Syracuse falling to Connecticut. With the WNBA Draft looming, Mangakahia was well aware of the importance of performing well under the brightest of college lights, while also acknowledging she handled the situation better than she may have in previous years.
“I definitely felt a little pressure because it was the end for me, and I really needed to show out and if I didn’t, you think about your career. Because of what I went through with breast cancer I view basketball so differently. I used to think it was the only thing I had. If I didn’t have it, I didn’t know what I was going to do with my life and now I feel like I have so many opportunities so even though going into the tournament it was the end and I did feel pressure to be successful, I know that I have other outlets.”
A sure ball handler and excellent facilitator, she admits her game has undertaken some changes on return.
“I think my game has changed a lot. Before I was sick, I was super thin, I wasn’t as thick, and my game is just a little different. I used to attack the rim a lot, this year I didn’t attack as much but I felt I was more of a leader on the court,” Mangakahia explained.
“I wasn’t trying to do everything. I went back and watched a game from two years ago and I was just doing everything, but this year I took on a different role. I wanted to be more of a leader and control the tempo and not try to do too much.”
Moving from college basketball to the best league in the world will be accompanied by a deeper talent pool, with the opportunity to run a world class offence an exciting proposition.
“I’ve always been a pass first leader, when I first came to Syracuse my coach wanted me to score more so he really helped me become more of a scoring threat. I think moving forward into the WNBA my style of play fits because I am going to have better players around me. I know when I get to the next level, I’m going to have scorers around me, I’m going to have shooters around me, and great post players and I won’t feel like I have to do it all. I can just play in control and try and be that floor leading point guard.”
Due to COVID-19, the WNBA Draft is once again set to be a virtual affair, with Mangakahia lamenting the fact her family won’t be able to make the journey to the US to be with her on the big night.
“I actually asked my friend today if my friend will watch it with me and of course she wants to. I haven’t spoken to my coaches about it, so I am not sure what my plans are yet,” she says with a smile.
“I wanted my family to come over for the tournament so bad. Because of quarantine back in Australia it was too difficult so they couldn’t make it. I still talk to them every day.”
Asked how she will approach the days leading up to the draft, Mangakahia lets out a giggle, before reflecting on how younger Tiana would approach the situation.
“Two years ago, I would have said I can’t sleep, I can’t eat, I’m so nervous, I would have been freaking out. I’m just more chilled now, I don’t know why but whatever happens, happens. My brothers text me almost every day to check in on my training and diet and they are on me but me, I’m just chilled and I’ll be blessed no matter what.”
“When I was growing up it wasn’t heard of to go to college as a female. There weren’t many Australians in the WNBA, now it’s far more common and it gives us all such a good name. All the women like Liz [Cambage] and Leilani [Mitchell] and Steph [Talbot] represent Australia so well.“
Mangakahia will be joined by fellow Opals squad member, Shyla Heal in this year’s WNBA Draft.
The 2021 WNBA Draft is on Friday 16 April, starting at 9:00am (AEST).
Written by Kane Pitman, freelance contributor for Basketball Australia
Image courtesy of Syracuse University