Prodigious Aussie point guard Shyla Heal is considered one of the best teenage basketballers in the world. But she’s following in hallowed footsteps.
The surname Heal is synonymous with Australian basketball. Shane Heal represented Australia at four Olympic Games from 1992 to 2004, played 440 NBL games across 21 seasons, had two stints in the NBA and famously shirt-fronted Charles Barkley in a pre-Olympic warm up game against the USA’s ‘Dream Team’ in 1996.
Now it’s his 18-year-old daughter, Shyla, who is carrying the family legacy – in some style.
Since making her WNBL debut at just 14-years-old for South East Queensland Stars, the younger Heal has had an emphatic rise to stardom.
There is an estimated 400,000 females playing the game down under, but since the retirement of former Opals captain Lauren Jackson, Australian female basketball has been searching for more high profile role models. With the WNBL finishing its 40th season, Kogarah born Heal is a breath of fresh air.
Heal’s tipped to go early in the 2021 WNBA draft and while she isn't thinking too far ahead, she admits a potential WNBA career gives her plenty of inspiration.
"It definitely motivates me,” she says.
“A good season this year in the WNBL gave me confidence to keep rolling. Wherever I play next year, hopefully I’ll have another big year and be ready for the WNBA."
"There is little doubt the highly skilled point guard will be in huge demand, with the free agent already pursued by clubs in Europe and expected to be a strong target by WNBL clubs for next season once their free agency opens, all keen to sign one of the strongest female basketball prospects since Jackson."
Despite their contrasting positions – 196 centimetre Jackson was a power-forward – the comparisons are coming thick and fast.
Late in the WNBL season against her former club Perth Lynx, Heal netted a sizzling 11 from 16 field goal attempts, becoming the first 18-year-old since Jackson to score 30 points in a WNBL game.
This included five three-pointers, reminding everyone the apple didn’t fall far from the tree (her father Shane’s eight three pointers against the USA is part of Australian basketball folklore).
Heal had a stellar 2019/20 WNBL season for the Bendigo Spirit, winning the ‘Most Consistent’ award for her club in a team that contained a number of Opal players.
She finished with 254 points in 21 games at an average of 12.1 points, 4.1 rebounds and 1.6 assists per-game, an impressive return for anyone, let alone a teenager.
"I definitely gained a lot of confidence this year, going head to head with more experienced players," said Heal.
"Last year in Perth I definitely learned how to look after my body at such a young age. This year playing injury free, I learned to adjust to the style of play in the WNBL.
“Everyone is bigger and more experienced, so I adjusted.
“Playing well against them has helped my confidence and shown me where I'm at. I want to build from here and keep developing."
Heal says she’s matured a lot as a player over the past four years, learning to understand the demands of playing in a senior professional league.
With a reputation for having an incredible work ethic and always having the ball in her hand, she insists she has learned to manage herself better. It’s helped that one of her keenest followers has been done it all before.
Heal’s foundation for an explosive WNBL season came in 2019, playing with the Sutherland Sharks in the NSW Waratah Basketball League, under her father’s coaching.
In just 12 games Heal dominated the league, averaging 25.3 points, seven rebounds and seven assists per game (a league high). Intimidatingly cool for a teenager, she also led the league in free throw percentage.
Despite the added pressure that comes with her surname, Heal says she enjoys playing under her dad, something she has done throughout her career.
"When he coaches me, he works me harder than everyone else and I like that,” she says.
“His experience and knowledge is a big benefit for me over other players. On and off court we get along really well."
Most vital is the guidance Heal receives over where she should play. She’s already rejected overtures from big clubs in Europe, choosing to focus on her development rather than chase the dollars on offer.
While many future Australian WNBA prospects go through the traditional US college system, Heal made the decision to stay in Australia and play professionally.
The move has paid rich dividends, with the teenager guarding established WNBA stars, such as New York Liberty guard and WNBL MVP, Kia Nurse, while playing for the Spirit.
That sort of experience is set to hold Heal in good stead when the WNBA eventually comes calling.
Now there are already numerous calls for Heal to be fast tracked to the senior Australian team, with Opals legend Michelle Timms publicly backing her support for the impressive youngster.
With Tokyo 2020 just around the corner, another Olympian in the family is an enticing prospect. But Heal’s unfazed attitude is catching the attention of many in the basketball industry.
She insists she’s solely focused on building her game for now, her main target the Paris Olympics in 2024.
"I just want to keep developing each year,” she says.
“Hopefully first I’ll make the Opals squad, then continue onto the Olympics one day.
“That’s the goal."
While an Opals jersey isn’t far way, Heal has already donned the green and gold to great success.
She made her international debut at the 2017 FIBA Under-17 Oceania Championships in Guam, where she led the Sapphires to gold with an MVP performance against New Zealand in the final. She then won gold at the FIBA Under-16 Asian Championships in India.
The next year Heal planted herself on the world stage at the Under-17 World Cup in Belarus, where the Sapphires won a bronze medal. Heal was picked in the All-Tournament Team after averaging 16 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists.
Last year, she made her debut for the Gems at the Under-19 World Cup in Thailand, falling just short of a debut winners medal after Australia made the final for the first time in 22 years.
Heal says playing at junior international level has helped her adjust her game to the variety of styles she will face going forward.
"The main thing for me playing at junior level is adjusting to the different styles of play all around the world, everyone plays differently," she explains.
"I think that's a big part of going to the Opals one day, adjusting to different styles of play."
Heal has also excelled at the three-on-three version of the game, a modified half-court variant considered the largest urban team sport in the world.
Heal has played for Australia and was voted MVP at the FIBA 3x3 U18 Asia Cup in Malaysia last August. She says she enjoyed the chance to play “rougher” and with a “more skilled base”. Three-on-three basketball will be an Olympic sport at Tokyo 2020 for the first time, with Heal a good chance of making the squad. But there’s no debating where Heal’s real aims lie.
For now, she’s dropped down to Hobart Chargers in the Women’s NBL1 competition, which tips off in April in order to develop her leadership qualities. It was an interesting choice of destination given the lucrative offers on the table, but one that was given plenty of thought, she says, with Heal given a chance to lead a side in her preferred point guard position in the Apple Isle.
"(Head coach) Mark Nash attracted me to the club," explains Heal.
"Developing in the off season was a really big thing for me. To get the chance to run the team and help my team mates and get them better as well, it was a really big part in going to Hobart.
"I love playing the point guard spot, in Bendigo it was tough because I played in the two and sometimes the three.
“I took playing as a point guard for granted, so in Hobart I’ll definitely be looking forward to taking control of the team."
In contrast to the hype, Heal believes she knows exactly how to reach the top.
"The main thing is outworking everyone else,” she asserts.
“Getting to training before everyone else, coming in on off days…doing more work than everyone else."
With an attitude like that, there is every chance Heal could replicate the success of her father and Jackson herself, who last week became the first Australian woman to be inducted into the WNBA Hall of Fame. Heal admits the news was a major inspiration.
"I’d love to follow her footsteps,” she says. “To be one of the best to play for Australia."