PG: Renee Montgomery/(Lawson)
SG: Kara Lawson/Tan White
SF: Kalana Greene/Danielle McCray/Allison Hightower
PF: Asjha Jones/Kelsey Griffin/Kerri Gardin
C: Tina Charles/DeMya Walker
Head coach: Mike Thibault
Significant additions: Greene and McCray add to the neverending list of wings Connecticut has paraded through in recent years. That’s your lot.
Significant losses: Sandrine Gruda, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota.
Uh, improvement from within, I guess we’re going with here. Outside of a couple of young wings who’ll attempt to patch over the small forward spot, and the two talented Euros who aren’t going to bother coming this year, this is the same Connecticut Sun team that went .500 and missed the playoffs last season. There are some young players who could be primed to improve, not least center Tina Charles who broke records as a rookie, but coach Mike Thibault could have trouble squeezing more out of this team than he already managed last season.
Charles was shockingly impressive as a rookie, taking no time at all to acclimatise to the pro level and putting up double-doubles like they were going out of style. Without the length of a Fowles or the pure athleticism of a Lyttle, she uses her body and her footwork to grab endless rebounds and score efficiently inside. She also has greater range than either of those contemporaries, which makes her more difficult to guard and creates extra space inside. She did seem to fade a little down the stretch of last season, and with the World Championships and her European season she hasn’t had much chance to rest, so Connecticut fans can only hope that she still has the energy to maintain her level of production. And that she doesn’t get hurt – if she does, they’re screwed. Asjha Jones will once again be Thibault’s power forward, and he’ll be hoping for more than he got in 2010. Struggling through injuries, Jones’s production diminished last year and the Sun desperately missed her mix of mid-range jumpshots and interior scoring. With French center Sandrine Gruda skipping the WNBA this year, they’ll need Jones to return to her form from previous seasons if they’re going to go anywhere.
With Gruda gone, it’s a mix-and-match effort to find backups for Charles and Jones in Connecticut this year. DeMya Walker has no knees and looked pretty damn close to done last season but right now she’s the only thing they’ve got that even remotely resembles a backup for Charles. She’s smart and savvy, but she’s also deathly slow and liable to get hurt yet again, so don’t be surprised if Thibault is trawling the waiver wire for a fresh backup. Likely spending most of her time at the 4 this year after starting at the 3 much of last year, is second-year player Kelsey Griffin. One of those players you love for her work ethic, her willingness to do the dirty work, take charges and help the team in any way she can, Griffin needs to find her shot to be a true help for the Sun this year. Playing at her more comfortable power forward spot could help, but she was 23/92 from outside 5 feet last year and that’s just not going to cut it. Kerri Gardin is also on the roster, still, and might find some backup minutes if others don’t produce. Or might be cut by the time you’re reading this in favour of any post player Thibault could find on the street.
Connecticut’s backcourt looks exactly like last year’s, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. On the other hand, it’s not something I’d be doing handsprings over either. Renee Montgomery is quick and pesky, and every now and then she gets scary-hot from outside, but she’d drive me crazy if I had to be a fan of a team where she was running the point. She has a tendency to pound the ball into the ground on offense rather than get her team moving, and her first option on any possession always seems to be ‘how can I justify putting up a shot’. Which isn’t really what you want from your point guard. She takes too many bad shots but point guard is a position where it can take time to develop the necessary mentality, so the room for improvement is still there. Montgomery’s occasional struggles meant Thibault switched to veteran Kara Lawson at the point at times last year, with mixed results. Lawson isn’t a natural point guard but she takes better care of the ball than Montgomery and initiates the offense as instructed by her coach. She’s still best employed as a gunner off the ball though. Tan White has found a home in Connecticut as their first guard off the bench and occasional starter. I used to give her all kinds of grief (only in print, obviously) for her miserable lack of production in Indiana compared to how much some fans seemed to love her, but she’s made me eat my words. The last two years in Connecticut she’s actually started to resemble what people already thought she was. An energy boost who can score in bunches and penetrate the defense, White’s gotten more selective in the last couple of years and as a result far more efficient. She might not start but there’s a strong chance you’ll see her on the floor at the end of close games.
The rest of the Connecticut roster is this year’s collection of hopefuls to fill the remaining minutes on the wing, and it’s anyone’s guess what they might get from them. Since ‘losing’ Katie Douglas and Nykesha Sales (‘chasing away’ might be more accurate, but let’s not quibble), Thibault’s gone through more interchangeable mediocre 2/3s than you can shake a stick at. Barbara Turner, Amber Holt, Jolene Anderson et al are followed this season by Kalana Greene, Danielle McCray and Allison Hightower. Greene had a rollercoaster year in New York last season, initially pushing past Essence Carson as the first wing off the bench, then falling so far behind her that she disappeared off the end of Anne Donovan’s rotation. Acquired for just a 2nd round pick, she’ll fly around and work hard, but she’s likely a backup long-term in this league, and yet here she may end up starting. McCray was a first-round pick in 2010, taken with the knowledge that she was hurt and wouldn’t play until this season. That gives her the advantage of having already played a year as a pro in Europe before coming to the WNBA, but no one really knows how ready she is or if she’ll be up to the grade. Preseason impressions weren’t great. Hightower survives from last season, and is the other likely option besides Gardin to be cut if Mike finds another post somewhere. Says it all, really.
Almost against my better judgement, I kind of like this team. There’s a gritty, workmanlike quality about a lot of their players that’s just nice to see, and although he has an unfortunate tendency to piss them off eventually, Thibault always gets his teams to fight hard while they’re still in town. I just worry that they flat-out don’t have enough talent. Simple as that. Montgomery’s not bad, per se, but she’s not great. Lawson tends to get hurt or be out of shape on a regular basis. Jones might well have hit the downslope of her career. Which leaves you hoping Charles steps up from All-Star to top-3 MVP candidate and can carry things without needing that much help, and/or that Kelsey Griffin takes a hell of a leap forward this year. They should be just about in the mix for the playoffs down the stretch if the key players stay healthy, but I’m not expecting much more than that.
Now that the Sun not only made the playoffs, but are in second place in the East, would you like a little milk with those words…? ;^} I’m glad to see Danielle McCray has mostly lived up to her hype, although she still most definitely has room for improvement. She, like the rest of the team, struggles more on the road than at home. Renee has made strides towards becoming a good point guard in the league, although she still drives me crazy with her driving-to-the-basket-I’ll-show-you! attitude at times. She really needs to listen to Kara and Tan, who have saved our butts on many occasions. Tina has developed even more, and will continue to be scary-good in years to come. Asjha deserves an apology – as one of the anchors of this team, she is finally healthy and has had an amazing year. Yes, at times her shooting percentage is less than desirable, but her defense and rebounding are better, and she gets open more for her famously great jumper. Allison and Kelsey, our ‘dynamic duo’ continue to show great talent in the short spurts they are in the game, and hopefully will develop into more excellent help in the future. Jess Moore is a good back-up for Tina to get some rest, and I’m anxious to see how Jess Breland fits in the mix next year.