Pick and rolls for payrolls: how ACL injury has reshaped Steph Talbot’s basketball future

Dec 18, 2023, 09:52 PM ET

Swapping pick and rolls for payrolls has reshaped Australian star Steph Talbot’s international basketball future.

Talbot, who earned All-Star Five selection at last year’s FIBA World Cup in Sydney, has gained clarity from the ruptured ACL which has sidelined her for much of 2023.

Prior to the February injury sustained while captaining Adelaide Lightning in the WNBL, the 29-year-old thought she’d go around for a few more years before moving on to the next phase of her life.

“If you asked me 12 months ago, I probably would have said, ‘I’ll play my two-year deal with LA then that will be it.’ I might still play in Australia but I think I’m done travelling the world and what not,” Talbot told ESPN this week.

“But now I’m not ready to finish yet, that’s the one thing that’s changed. I definitely have goals for sure, I just feel like I’m not ready to go back to normal life yet.”

Steph Talbot’s February ACL injury has given her a new perspective on her career and what she wants to accomplish. Mark Nolan/Getty Images

Normal life has looked different for Talbot following her March 1 surgery.

For the past six years she’s spent her Australian winters in the WNBA, with Phoenix, Minnesota and Seattle, and was about to embark on a new contract in Los Angeles with the Sparks.

Instead, rehab became Talbot’s focus and for the first time she found herself at a desk in a part-time administration job in Adelaide. The guard with a high IQ and brilliant skillset was now busy with bookwork, her week centred around pay day instead of game day.

It forced the laid-back Talbot to sit in her feelings.

“I’m normally a pretty steady head, easy going, same-same kind of person but emotionally it’s been very up and down. Not going back to the States means I’ve stayed home, spent more time with family and that’s been nice but early days when you can’t run and can’t play basketball, I was quick to realise that’s my release,” she said.

“When you suddenly don’t have that anymore and you have a bad day or have energy to release what do you do? I didn’t cope with that too well. My partner probably wore some of that, I bottled it up.

“Rehab has been pretty smooth sailing and anyone who knows me knows I love the gym so that’s worked in my favour but it’s the other side of life — a lot free time and trying to find what else I enjoy out of basketball.”

Talbot will be a major key for the Opals should they qualify for Paris at February’s tournament in Brazil. She has been named in the 20-player squad subject to her fitness and availability.

Despite her first serious, long-term injury, Talbot has always believed if the Opals play in Paris, then so will she.

“Not for one minute have I thought, and not in a cocky way, don’t get me wrong, that I’m not making that team. I’m going to do everything I can to be on that team and just trust that if I put in the work, I know my body will adapt. I’ve been blessed with great athleticism and I’ve backed myself to do the work.”

She craves a successful, positive Olympic experience after challenging and disappointing campaigns in 2016 and 2020.

In Rio, Talbot was a 21-year-old rookie in the team that suffered a shock quarter-final loss to Serbia, the Opals tumbling to their worst result since 1988.

One of the end goals of Talbot’s rehab is to make it to Paris 2024. She craves a successful, positive Olympic experience after challenging and disappointing campaigns in 2016 and 2020. Tim Clayton/Corbis via Getty Images)

The Covid-delayed Tokyo Olympics was derailed by the 11th-hour withdrawal of Liz Cambage. Australia finished eighth, its lowest finish since the team’s first Olympic appearance in 1984.

“My first Olympics, I was the youngest on the team, I didn’t play a lot and I probably didn’t handle it that well,” Talbot explains.

“That year we had a massive lead-up, we did a million tours of Europe, I was a main player in all that and obviously you get to the Olympics and bring back your WNBA players and [I] end up on the bench. I probably at that age didn’t know how to handle that that well.

“My second Olympics, I was a key component but got injured and hardly played again.

“I’ve had two very different experiences, both disappointing. I feel like Paris is a big one for me and the team.

“The rest of the world is catching up and better than it used to be but we definitely still have the talent and if we play to our potential we should be medalling, in my opinion.”

Talbot back where she belongs will only help the Opals return to the podium, a benchmark the legendary program has set itself since winning the country’s first Olympic basketball medal in Atlanta in 1996.

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