Alex Bentley/Renee Montgomery
Allison Hightower/Danielle McCray/Kelly Faris
Katie Douglas/Alyssa Thomas
Chiney Ogwumike/Kelsey Griffin
Kelsey Bone/Yelena Leuchanka
plus either Kayla Pedersen or Kelley Cain as the fifth post you hope never plays.
Significant additions: Ogwumike, Thomas, Douglas, Bone, Bentley, hopefully a little bit of giving a crap
Significant losses: Tina Charles, Kara Lawson, Mistie Bass, Tan White, Asjha Jones is even more injured this year, forgot to fire Anne Donovan
Well if we thought Chicago’s offseason was messy, welcome to a team where a bomb went off. This franchise was a perennial contender under Mike Thibault, but in their first season under Anne Donovan last year they fell off a cliff. No one was happy about Thibault being let go, Asjha Jones skipped the year to rest her body, Kara Lawson and Tina Charles pouted their way through the entire season, Donovan produced a coaching stinkbomb, and they crawled their way to just 10 wins. On the bright side, that produced the #1 overall pick in the draft, and a clear direction to rebuild. When Lawson and Charles demanded out at different stages in the offseason, resulting in trades and several new young pieces, it only hastened the process. What they’re left with is an interesting squad that has a chance to be competitive pretty darn quickly, and that can grow together in future seasons. Even without their stars from previous years, there’s a sense of renewed optimism around this squad in 2014 (even if I’d rather have seen them start afresh with a new head coach as well).
Perhaps the most surprising move, and their only meaningful free agent pickup, was the return of Katie Douglas. She spent five years playing in Connecticut, developing into a star, before being granted her wish for a trade back home to Indiana in 2008. Various injuries in recent years made the Fever reluctant to give her guaranteed money this offseason, so she accepted the Sun’s offer when they were willing to take the risk. If she stays healthy, she’s still a very good player. She can light it up from outside, has those occasional sweeping drives (always to her stronger left hand, not that defenses ever seem to have noticed that), and she’s typically been one of the better perimeter defenders in the league. At the very least she’s a veteran leader for a young squad, but it’ll be a massive help for this team if she can stay fit enough to actually lead them on the floor.
Joining Douglas on the perimeter is a group of players that ought to be able to combine as a fairly effective group. Allison Hightower made the all-star team last year after taking on a bigger role when teammates were dropping like flies around her. She’s an excellent defender, has worked hard on her shooting and scoring, and can handle the ball well enough to take pressure off the nominal point guard (or just play point herself, at times). Alex Bentley and Renee Montgomery will likely be the players more frequently referred to as the official point guards on this team. Bentley was the main returning piece from the Lawson trade, an aggressive combo guard whose rookie season tailed off badly after a hot start in Atlanta last year. There’s some promise there, but some development is necessary from what we saw in 2013. Montgomery is Montgomery at this point in her career. A score-first point guard who won’t shoot a high percentage, she can still be an electric burst of energy off the bench and has won the Sixth Woman of the Year award in the past (although the voting that year made very little sense). She can also be a negative for her own team when she’s not clicking.
Out on the wing backing up Hightower and Douglas, Danielle McCray is back from yet another injury, and reportedly looking useful in training camp. She’s never shown an enormous amount in this league even when healthy, but she can fill some time on the wing if you need her to. They’ll also be hoping to see some development from Kelly Faris, who did practically nothing in her rookie season last year. Like McCray, she was on the fringes of being cut in camp but it was former starter Kalana Greene who was let go, so presumably Faris showed something. Coming out of college she was supposed to be a role player who could do a little bit of everything, but we saw a whole lot of nothing last year when she suffered through injuries. She needs to step forward this season and prove she belongs.
But the real fresh hope for this squad comes from the rookies. Chiney Ogwumike was the #1 pick and while she’s not exactly the same player, her sister Nneka has already given us a solid preview of the level we can expect with her play in LA the last two years. Even if it takes a little time for Chiney to work out how to attack pro defenses, she’ll be an immediate presence on the glass and with her athleticism and mobility for a big. As part of the Charles trade the Sun also picked up Alyssa Thomas with the #4 pick, who might be an even more tantalising prospect than Chiney. With Ogwumike we’re reasonably sure what we’re going to get; with Thomas there’s acres of potential, but still some question marks over how she’ll translate. She’s a combo-forward who’ll probably play most of her minutes at the 3, but she can handle the ball, attack off the dribble, and make a lot of things happen. The problem is that she can’t really shoot. Defenses will play off her until she proves she can hit anything from outside, compressing the space inside and limiting driving lanes. If she develops she could be a real star; if not, it could be seriously hard work for her on the pro level.
They also received Kelsey Bone in the Charles trade, and there’s plenty of potential there as well. She’s a big body in the paint, and she spent the offseason at Galatasaray playing the Erika de Souza role alongside Sancho Lyttle (and doing a solid imitation). Donovan’s going to need better schemes than she came up with last year to take full advantage of the Ogwumike/Bone pairing, but that could be a great duo going forward if they mesh. Kelsey Griffin’s back again as the backup 4, where she’ll be a mediocre fill-in again. Yelena Leuchanka was also signed as an extra post backup, and either Kayla Pedersen or Kelley Cain will stick as the pull-in-case-of-emergency post. It’s the youngsters they’ll be relying on.
So, there’s been plenty of turnover from last year, but it’s given a sense of freshness to the franchise after the debacle of 2013. Donovan has steadfastly and frustratingly failed to take responsibility for anything that went wrong last year in various interviews, but now that she’s got rid of most of the people who objected to her hiring, maybe she can do a better job. They’re unlikely to immediately bounce back to the results Thibault used to produce, but with improved health, a better attitude and some youthful promise, things are looking up. When you traded away the two best players on your roster during the offseason, that’s a pretty nice trick to have pulled off.