Just the fact that Tiana Mangakahia is returning to the court for Syracuse this season would be remarkable in and of itself.
Mangakahia, a fifth-year senior from Brisbane, Australia, had considered entering the 2019 WNBA draft. But she decided instead to return to Syracuse and play her senior season in 2019-20.
Then everything changed.
Mangakahia missed all of the 2019-20 season after she was diagnosed with breast cancer in June. She underwent a double mastectomy in November, trained relentlessly as she beat back the disease, and a year later, she’s been cleared by the NCAA to return with an extra year of eligibility.
Her coach, Quentin Hillsman, finds himself marveling regularly that the point guard — who stayed in Syracuse to fight the disease — is back at full strength. But the process was easier for everyone, Hillsman said, because Mangakahia made it that way.
“From the diagnosis, to day one seeing her back on the court again, it’s just a toughness,” Hillsman said in October. “That’s a long road, not just physically, but mentally and emotionally. And she just came in with a great attitude. … I never saw her down, to be honest with you. So she wouldn’t allow us to feel sorry for her, and she wouldn’t allow us to be down.”
As he prepares for the season ahead, Hillsman recognizes that Mangakahia has been kept in the program’s orbit by a special set of circumstances. But to simply leave it there — an inspirational story, an easy figure to root for — is to miss both the previously unmatched levels of playmaking Mangakahia provides and just how dangerous her presence makes the Orange this year.
After transferring from Hutchinson Community College in Kansas before her sophomore year, Mangakahia posted an assist percentage of 61 in 2017-18. It’s worth putting this in context because it’s as astonishing a stat as any women’s basketball player has put up in recent memory.
The runner-up in the stat that season, Taeler Deer of Texas State, posted an assist percentage of 44.7, a difference of 16.3 percentage points. Put another way, the gap between Nos. 1 and 2 was as large as the gap between Nos. 2 and 145 in the nation that year. Over the five years of charting this stat at HerHoopStats, no other player has reached the 60 percent mark, or even come close. No one has even breached the 50 percent assist rate …
Except Mangakahia, who did it her junior year, leading the nation with a 52.2 percent mark in the 2018-19 season. It’s one thing to be the very best in a category. It’s another to redefine the ceiling of that category, especially when distributing the ball is the most important job at her position.
|2016-17||Drea Toler||UC Santa Barbara||48.1|
|2016-17||Cherise Beynon||New Mexico||47.7|
|2016-17||Curtyce Knox||Texas A&M||45.9|
|2019-20||Ivy Wallen||North Alabama||45.3|
|2018-19||Aisia Robertson||New Mexico||44.8|
|2017-18||Taeler Deer||Texas State||44.7|
Notably, while her assist rate dipped some from her 2017-18 high, she cut her turnover percentage significantly, from 26.1 to 20.8. She elevated her shooting from beyond the arc as well, from 28.9 to 37.1 percent. Mangakahia was making better decisions, and she was still finding her teammates at rates no one has ever seen.
More impressive: These were precisely the goals she had set for herself. So it’s worth considering her 2020-21 statistical benchmarks in that context as well.
“One thing when I look at players who get picked high [in the WNBA draft] — first five picks — is they score a lot of points,” Mangakahia said. “My average scoring is like 17. When I look at players getting picked top 10, top five, they’re averaging over 20 points a game.”
It’s not as if Mangakahia is incapable of those eye-popping scoring totals. She scored 44 in a game against Florida State in February 2019, and did so on just 20 field-goal attempts, and she routinely tops 20, including a 26-point output in November 2018 against Chennedy Carter and Texas A&M.
But working against her own scoring average, and Hillsman’s desire to see her play more selfishly on offense, could make her a threat to topple even her own oversized assist records: Syracuse is stacked this year.
Backcourt mate Kiara Lewis, who held the fort at point guard as a redshirt junior last year and scored 17.6 points per game, will move off the ball to play the two guard next to Mangakahia. Digna Strautmane and Emily Engstler, both versatile wings, and forward Maeva Djaldi-Tabdi are another year more experienced. And a monster recruiting class — seven newcomers, including three ESPN Top 100 players — will provide endless opportunities for Hillsman to play at the frenetic pace he prefers, since he can throw waves of players at opponents. It was a strategy that lifted Syracuse into the 2016 NCAA title game, and it should enhance the number of transition opportunities for Mangakahia as well.
If the timeline for Mangakahia looked terribly unfair just a few short months ago, it all looks to be lining up for her now. Most WNBA talent evaluators have her projected to go in the first round of the 2021 draft, assuming she returns to play at her previous level. And because the Olympics were postponed a year, Mangakahia’s dream of playing for Australia is a real option.
Even her time away from the court should help her, Hillsman believes.
“I think a lot of it is actually watching the game,” he said. “Being on the sideline and seeing things — there were times after games she and I were talking and she’d say, ‘I understand what you’re saying now.’ The best teacher is obviously doing it. But the second-best teacher is just doing it, watching it and understanding it. And now she understands it. I think that’s different. … I think this will change everything.”
When she gets back to the court, she’s returning as both a prospective top draft pick and a beacon of hope for others afflicted by breast cancer. She knows it, and she’s up for that role.
“I hear about that every day, almost,” Mangakahia said in October, which was Breast Cancer Awareness Month. “I get messages on my Instagram. … It makes me appreciate everybody who was there for me when I was going through it. And so I’ll be thinking about everybody who has to go through a hard time and obviously, always there for anybody who wants to reach out.”
Mangakahia’s story is inspiring and heartwarming. But when it comes to basketball, she’s not finished writing it quite yet.