Refreshed Liz Cambage benefits from time out of basketball

NEW YORK -- Liz Cambage is set to return to basketball in Australia's Women's National Basketball League, which tips off in October, but it's the WNBA and future Olympic glory she's really got her sights set on.

Cambage hasn't played since the Australian Opals' crushing defeat by Serbia in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals in Rio, but the 6'8" centre says her love for the game is re-ignited after some time away from basketball and she intends to return to the WNBA next season.

"I definitely do want to be back in the WNBA next year," Cambage tells ESPN.

Drafted by the Tulsa Shock in 2011, Cambage initially voiced her displeasure at playing in Oklahoma but still she made the All-Star team in her rookie season. She last played in the league in 2013, when she averaged 16.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 25 minutes. Since then, the Shock have moved to Texas to become the Dallas Wings.

Erin Phillips was recently hired as the Wings' director of player and franchise development, leading to speculation that she would help to guarantee her good friend and fellow Olympian's return to the WNBA. Cambage can return to the WNBA only in Dallas because the Wings still hold the rights to the final year on her rookie deal as she has played only two seasons in league.

"I wish she was still playing," Cambage says of Phillips. "That would have been so fun playing a WNBA season with her, but she's got a coaching role now. She's one of my closest friends and having her around she's always been like a big sister to me on the Opals team."

On her recent visit to Dallas, the team really rolled out the red carpet for Cambage in an effort to show how much they still valued her skills. The Wings also took her on a tour of AT&T Stadium -- home of the Dallas Cowboys -- and had the stadium's giant video board say, "Welcome to Dallas Liz."

"It's really cool what they're doing in Dallas now," Cambage says. "It's a lot of the same people from when the organisation was in Tulsa. It's a lot more professional, it's a lot better. It was a baby organisation when it was in Tulsa. It was really nice to see how well they're doing."

Cambage's appearance in Dallas, and at subsequent Wings' games both home and in New York, led some of the WNBA national media to speculate that she may have been making a return to the league this season, filling the team's hole at center. Cambage says she also felt the love from fans.

"I watched the Liberty versus Phoenix, and lots of people in the crowd were saying 'We want you back in the WNBA, we love your game', and it does mean a lot that people want me to play and want me to be here," Cambage says.

Cambage's road back to the hardwood has been anything but smooth. After the Rio Olympics last year, Cambage, 24 at the time, seriously considered giving the game away for good.

"I thought Rio was the last time I would play basketball," Cambage tells ESPN. "I honestly thought 'I'm done, I don't want to do this anymore', but I didn't want Rio to be the thing I went out on."

The Opals' early exit in Rio ensured the team would return home without a medal --ending a run of five successive Olympic medals dating back 20 years -- and Cambage, who finished the tournament as its leading scorer with 23.5 points per game, and second in rebounding with 10.3 per contest, was utterly burned out.

"I always wanted to give myself time off," she says. "I got caught up with it being such a business, and with a business comes negativity and it got a little bit Survivor [style]. Outwit, Outlast, Outplay. It can get like that some days, and I don't like being in that environment. I like being in environments where everyone's working together and working towards something and lifting people up, instead of being put against each other, so I just needed to step back and refresh."

Essentially, Cambage took a year off and decided to focus on things she enjoyed doing. So she branched out, did some designing, launched a shoe line, and her side career as a DJ began taking off; amidst all that, she also rediscovered her love for basketball.

"I've always had stuff going on and I think that's what keeps me sane," Cambage says. "I'm the type of person where I can't just be invested in one thing. When I'm doing one thing I work hard and I'm focusing on it, but I need other things to help take my mind off my main task."

The past year has taught Cambage not to look too far ahead, but her love of representing Australia means she also has one eye on the Tokyo Olympics and a chance for the Opals to regain their standing as an elite team.

"Tokyo is a big goal of mine," Cambage says.

"That's the main goal right now, and I've got a big season coming up with the [Melbourne] Boomers and the WNBA next year and the Commonwealth Games and world champs ... but I haven't really had any thought past Tokyo."