PG: Kara Lawson/Renee Montgomery
SG: Allison Hightower/Tan White
SF: Kalana Greene/Kelly Faris
PF: Kelsey Griffin/Mistie Mims
C: Tina Charles
(plus SG Johannah Leedham or SG Natasha Lacy, and PF Ashley Walker or C Latoya Williams, pending final cuts)
Significant gains: Faris and Leedham/Lacy – so not much. Ann Donovan on the bench, if you happen to be a fan.
Significant losses: Asjha Jones, Danielle McCray, and Mike Thibault if you prefered him to Donovan.
Much like Atlanta, there’s been very little turnover in Connecticut since last year – bar the one big hole that’s opened up. Power forward Asjha Jones is taking the season off to rest a variety of injuries, leaving a glaring issue in the post alongside last season’s league MVP Tina Charles. The front office made a change on the sidelines, replacing long-time head coach Mike Thibault with Ann Donovan, in the hope that she could take them to the championship that always eluded her predecessor. But whoever’s in charge, covering the gap left by Jones isn’t going to be easy.
Ever since Tina Charles was drafted and created a two-way debate between herself and Chicago’s Sylvia Fowles for the title of ‘best center in the world’, she’s had a nice balance with Asjha Jones. In a lot of ways their offensive skills overlap, both possessing the ability to finish inside and hit a mid-range jumper, but they managed to become a complementary pair rather than get in each other’s way. That’s gone now. Charles will still be a prominent force, but defenses will be able to collapse on her even more than before. The remaining options aren’t great. At all. Kelsey Griffin has been in the league for three years now, is yet to shoot over 36% for a season, and is still just as undersized to play the 4 as she’s always been. Mistie Mims was a solid contributor as a 4/5 backup last year, but she’s limited offensively and distinctly slower than Jones. Mims is one of those players you love on your team as a 15 mpg backup, but scares the hell out of you as a 30 mpg starter. The one potential option who could replace Jones without much drop-off is French post Sandrine Gruda, who hasn’t been seen in the WNBA since 2010. She’ll be with the French national team through EuroBasket Women, which ends on June 30th, but there’ve been some signs that she might have interest in joining the Sun after that. If so, she’ll be welcomed with open arms. Because without Gruda – unless Griffin or Mims make a big leap – it’s going to be a case of papering over the cracks all season alongside Charles.
The perimeter rotation often worked shockingly well last season in Connecticut, and it should be a case of Donovan trying not to tamper with things too much. Allison Hightower made a leap as a competent ballhandler who could take the pressure off the players alongside her, while also defending the opposition’s most dangerous perimeter threat. That made life significantly easier for Kara Lawson, who had a fantastic season shooting the ball and added a career high in assists. Another year exactly like that may be too much to hope for from Lawson, but if she comes close it’ll still be a very solid season.
Supporting that likely starting backcourt, it’s a familiar group. Danielle McCray is injured again and will miss the year, but Renee Montgomery, Tan White and Kalana Greene all return. Montgomery is the speedy combo-guard who’ll come in and attack, taking some bad shots but also injecting drive and aggression into the offense. Her 2012 season could generously be called inconsistent (the Sixth Woman of the Year award she won was ludicrous), but the talent and ability to break down defenses has always been there. Finding a way to make Montgomery more efficient and less moody than she became under Thibault could be key to Donovan’s success. Greene and White will both get their chances on the perimeter, although neither has exactly set the world alight in recent times. Just as Thibault had to with this group, it’ll be a case of finding the right options on any given night for Donovan with her wings.
She’ll also have two new alternatives, with Kelly Faris coming in from UConn and either Natasha Lacy or Great Britain’s Johannah Leedham joining her on the bench. Faris showed in college that she can do a little of everything, from distribution to defense to shooting, and could quickly become a solid part of this perimeter rotation. Lacy’s another quick attacking guard who’ll likely be ruled too similar to the likes of White and Montgomery to be worth retaining. Which would mean Leedham makes the roster. Full disclosure on Jo – she’s my countrywoman, I’ve interviewed her, seen her play countless times, and anything I say on her comes with admitted bias. She’s the sort of player fans will come to love, if she gets a chance on the floor. Not the fastest, but she’s sneaky quick and smart, she’ll hustle after everything and end up with surprising steal and rebound numbers. She’d also be the first Brit to make the WNBA since Andrea Congreaves in 1999. It’s about damn time.
This isn’t quite the job Donovan thought she was signing up for. It was supposed to be like Larry Brown with the Detroit Pistons in 2003 – take over from a very good coach and push the same group an extra notch to win a title. Instead, one of the top three players on the team is out and it’s become a very different proposition. The Sun can still be a very good team, especially if Gruda arrives at some point, but this might be a season where they take a step back. If they’re going to be a legitimate title contender again, Charles may well have to outperform her MVP season from a year ago.