Friday, May 24, 2013

Washington Mystics Season Preview


After a winter of surprises -- most notably, the one that handed them the first pick in the Draft after the can't-miss Big 3 -- the Washington Mystics figured they might as well throw one more into the mix.
So, when the rest of the women's basketball world seemed to reach a consensus that Washington would select Texas A&M center Kelsey Bone at No. 4, the Mystics traded for Quanitra Hollingsworth and selected Ohio State guard Tayler Hill instead.
And they're hoping that Hill's the first of many fortunate surprises to descend, at last, on The District.
Brand-new coach Mike Thibault has reasons to suspect that they might. Granted, the issue with coming off a five-win season is that you still have most of the players from that five-win season -- "We kind of need everything right now," Thibault said before Draft. But with Crystal Langhorne and Monique Curry forming a veteran core and Hill joining the fold, the foundation's getting stronger. Throw in fellow offseason additions Kia Vaughn (from the Liberty) and Ivory Latta (from Tulsa) and a 20-year-old training camp revelation named Emma Meeseman, and it's not hard to find progress in a town known for stalemates.
In any other Draft year, Hill would have lived in spotlight, not shadow. As creative and capable a scorer as anyone in the country not named Elena Delle Donne last year, she put up 21.1 ppg while playing through complications from strep throat. She can defend, too: she posted more than 240 steals in her career at Columbus.
But this is still Langhorne's team.
The Mystics' leading scorer over the past three seasons is coming off her lowest scoring average (14.7) since 2009, albeit during a season in which she shot 56.2 percent from the field. What that meant? Langhorne was more than the focal point of the Washington offense. She was the offense. And as she earned double-teams, she took fewer shots.
But with the additions of Hill and Latta on the perimeter and Vaughn on the inside -- whom the Mystics picked up from the Liberty in February trade -- she should have a little more room to operate this year.
Not to mention a little more gas in the tank, thanks to a different approach from her Dynamo Moscow team.
"Langhorne had a coach in Europe who realized she needed rest," Thibault said. "They haven't been the usual two-a-day practices. She's feeling good about it."
Had Thibault not been able to cajole the Liberty into letting go of Vaughn, a Sixth Woman of the Year Candidate in 2011 who saw her minutes slide last year, they'd likely have selected Bone. But with Vaughn, a force on the glass and in the paint on both ends of the floor, the coach said he's found the right compliment to Langhorne.
"Bone is an intriguing talent, but right now, today, Kia Vaughn's a better player," Thibault said.
And if Meeseman works out, Thibault may have one of the biggest surprises of the WNBA season. The 20-year-old Belgian led her U18 Belgian team to a European Championship title last year and earned the rank of top European Young Women’s player in 2011. But, according to washingtonmystics.com's Jeremy Hyman after signing a deal with Spartak, the Russian power allowed her to spend her first two years closer to home in Northern France. And when Meeseman expressed interest in coming Stateside to play in the WNBA, Thibault jumped at the chance, selecting the phenom with the No. 19 pick.
If she sticks, Meeseman will provide a tall (6-foot-4) frame that can also expand the floor, giving the Mystics a much-needed boost after the team shot just 30 percent from 3-point range last year.
Ditto on Latta, a point guard who hit 39 percent of her shots from behind the arc for Tulsa in 2011. And if Currie can regain the form that saw her go .446 from distance in 2010, this Mystics team could do a lot more than simply surprise.

New York Liberty Season Preview

New York Liberty GM/Head Coach Bill Laimbeer has established a reputation over the years, dating back to his Bad Boys NBA playing days with the Detroit Pistons and then again during his WNBA coaching tenure with the Shock. He wins, but he isn't exactly the friendliest guy to compete with or against. Laimbeer's from the Old School, where you play hard, tell it like it is and move forward toward the only one real goal: a championship. Any niceties that may get in the way of reaching that goal are studiously avoided. 

It's in this spirit that Laimbeer is looking to revamp the New York Liberty in 2013, one year after an up-and-down 2012 campaign where the squad struggled for periods, made a late regular-season run to snatch the final Eastern Conference playoff spot before succumbing to 2012 WNBA Most Valuable Player Tina Charles and the Connecticut Sun in the postseason. "Anytime a team doesn’t win the championship, you must assess where the team is at, and decide to stay the course or make significant changes," said Laimbeer. "I felt significant changes were needed." 

To that end, Nicole Powell and Kia Vaughn were moved out and Cheryl Ford, Katie Smith and the rights to Deanna Nolan, all three former Shock players of Laimbeer's during his first stint in the W, were acquired by New York. Additionally, the Liberty picked up three draft picks -- 6-4 forward/center Kelsey Bone (Texas A&M), 6-2 forward Toni Young (Oklahoma State) and 5-11 guard Kamiko Williams (Tennessee) -- who may stick with the team and contribute this season. 

"You always want youth, not only for the energy, but for your future. These rookies will get a great education from the championship veterans that we have on the roster," said Laimbeer. "As far as my rookies, any rookie will tell you this when they get in the league and get in practice they look around and they're in awe of how big the players are and how fast they are and how strong they are." 

"Once they get past that one, I think Kelsey Bone has done a fine job of adjusting quickly. You don't have to tell her twice on things. She wants to learn; she has a good work ethic; she picks up things very fast," said Laimbeer, who was then characteristically blunt his other first-round pick. "Young has been a little bit behind, but she's made really good progress in the last few days. She's gotten over the overwhelmed part from being from Oklahoma coming to a big city in New York. So she's starting to fit in a little bit better, and we're still very confident she's going to work out." 

Another player who Laimbeer thinks will work out is All-WNBA guard Cappie Pondexter, who was a late arrival to camp after completing her off-season commitment in Turkey, which resulted in a rough first week of camp. 

"We started off slow, the first week was not the best. Cappie wasn't here and it was like pulling teeth. The second week we improved, culminating with a win against Connecticut. I think every day we're getting better and better as practices go on. I think we're doing OK," said Laimbeer. "We put a whole new system in that she [Ponddexter] had no clue coming in. It will probably take her three or four weeks before she will catches up to the rest of them. Once that happens I have all the confidence in the world putting her out there as the lead guard." 

And with Pondexter leading the way, the veteran leadership provided by Ford and Smith and the contributions from the younger players, look for the Liberty to compete with the same intensity and drive of their coach and make a playoff run in 2013.

Indian Fever Season Preview

The Indiana Fever, collectively -- and Lin Dunn and Tamika Cathings, individually -- finally reached their goal last season, winning the WNBA Championship in an unlikely upset of the defending champion Minnesota Lynx in a thrilling 2012 Finals showdown. But now the question must be asked, can they do it again? 

Catchings, who as a three-time Olympic Gold Medalist, five-time WNBA Defensive Player of the Year, 2011 WNBA Most Valuable Player had achieved just about every individual accolade available, was single-minded of her pursuit of the WNBA Championship that had so long eluded her, but as 2013 approaches, she is transitioning from celebratory to go-win-another-one mode. 

"We got that championship last year. Against all odds," said Catchings, who secured the 2012 WNBA Finals Most Valuable Player Award in leading the Fever past Maya Moore, Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and the Minnesota Lynx. "Let’s face it, on paper when you looked at the two teams in the Finals, you had to know they were going to win. But for us, it was like mind over matter. We didn’t care what people thought, or how it looked on paper. We concentrated on what happened on the court. Katie [Douglas] went down, and players stepped up. Jeanette [Pohlen) went down and players stepped up." 

After permitting herself one last look at past glory, Catchings immediately looked to future. 

"But, I’m still motivated to win the WNBA Championship in 2013, probably more now than ever," said Catchings. "I think this year, now that we know what we are capable of, and if we can stay healthy, we can stay strong and make another run. One thing I’ve always been conscious of is when you have success, how to you sustain and build on it to do it again? That’s the motivation." 

Unfortunately for the Fever, the healthy part isn't exactly working out well as the season approaches. Three key members of last year's championship squad -- Jeanette Pohlen, Jessica Davenport and Erin Phillips -- are currently out of the lineup due to injury, which leaves Head Coach Lin Dunn in quite a quandary. 

"Well, our hope is that now that we've lost (Jeanette) Pohlen, (Jessica) Davenport and Erin Phillips and they won't be back until probably mid-season is that we'll get some relief," said Dunn. "But I think you can expect us to start ... Friday night at San Antonio with nine players. I'm hoping for nine. So we'll just do the best that we can do with what we've got and not worry about what we don't have." 

One thing Dunn will not be worrying about is the fact that with the "3 To See" -- Brittney Griner (Phoenix Mercury), Elena Delle Donne (Chicago Sky) and Skylar Diggins (Tulsa Shock) -- garnering lots of headlines, and two Western Conference powers -- the Candace Parker-led Los Angeles Sparks and the aforementioned 2011 WNBA Champion Minnesota Lynx -- also looking strong, the Fever may be able to slip into the season under the radar. 

"I think we'd certainly prefer to be the hunter versus the hunted," said Dunn. "And the fact that we sustained some injuries early with some of our players and they're recovering from off-season surgery, I do think we'll be overlooked and that's fine. I don't take that the wrong way. When you come back and a couple key players aren't available, I think the other people are going to get a little more attention." 

With Catchings, Katie Douglas, Briann January, Erlana Larkins, Shavonte Zellous and rookie Layshia Clarendon healthy and raring to go, don't bet against Indiana gaining attention once the post-season arrives.

Chicago Sky Season Preview

Take it back to early March, when the '2' in No. 2 overall pick looked a whole lot more like a '?

Brittney Griner had been slotted into the No. 1 spot in the 2013 WNBA Draft ever since a middle-school growth spurt. But the second pick -- the one that belonged to the Chicago Sky -- wasn't quite so clear. Hoops-wise, Elena Delle Donne looked like the favorite, what with her center size and Steph Curry range. But Skylar Diggins, a hometown sensation, born leader and marketing sunburst, was the safe bet. 

Then the country got to watch Delle Donne in action, blowing through double-teams and shooting over triple-teams to take the Delaware women's basketball team to a place that Delaware basketball -- in all likelihood -- never expected to go. 

Now, the questions go something like this: is a team that hasn't made the Playoffs in its seven years of existence, theonly team in the WNBA to never reach the postseason, really the favorite to come out of the East? 

"Getting that national ranking, getting to the Sweet Sixteen, was something no one thought we could do," Delle Donnesaid of her time at Delaware. "Now, it's time to do stuff like that for the Sky. We haven't made the Playoffs, so that's No. 1. Make the Playoffs. Then keep pushing the limits, do things people don't think we can do. I think anything is possible with this team." 

The pieces were already in place for a run last year. If not for Tina Charles, center and 2011 Defensive Player of the Year Sylvia Fowles would rank as the elite pivot player in the WNBA. And had an injury not taken away half of Epiphanny Prince's season -- after Prince had rolled out to the hottest start of her career, leading the WNBA in scoring -- the Sky almost certainly would have cracked the Playoffs. 

Now, they're both back. Swin Cash -- and all the matchup problems she presents -- too. And they're all healthy. And along with ever-improving point guard Courtney Vandersloot, whose progress essentially gave the Sky the confidence to go with Delle Donne instead of Diggins, they've got someone to fit the pieces together. 

Because right now, heading into the most important season in team history, the Chicago Sky could feature a starting five that looks something like an All-Star team: Vandersloot at point, Prince at 2, (the 6-foot-5) Delle Donne at 3, Hall of Famer Cash at 4 and Fowles at 5. 

"Elena is going to make everyone else's job easier. With her size and ability to hurt you from the three-point line, Syl was getting lots of room down low and I was getting a bunch of looks that were even better than the looks I get in practice," Cash said after the Sky's first preseason game. "We are going to be getting lots of chances to knock down open shots. It's a real benefit to the whole team." 

But, for potentially the first time in Sky history, there's some serious depth, too. In addition to Delle Donne, all six of the team's leading scorers are back. Guard Eshaya Murphy scored 8.5 points in just 18.6 minutes a night last year, shooting 44 percent from distance. Forward Tamera Young brings power on the wing and in the paint, along with a rebounding presence and a sure shot (42.3 percent from the field). Allie Quigley, signed in the offseason, had a solid debut in the preseason, going for 14 points on 50 percent shooting against the Liberty. 

And all that means that, after years of hopes cut short, the Chicago Sky have arrived. 

"You should expect every single game we will play hard," Cash said. "We're trying to do something this franchise has never done, which is to make the playoffs. But we know it won't be easy, so we are all committed to working hard to make that happen for our fans and the people of Chicago."

Atlanta Dream Season Preview

You might've heard a few things about this offseason. Like how a fresh wave of players is about to breathe new life into the WNBA, sweeping into the league at the same time that the league unveiled a brand-new logo -- a new standard -- to represent the modern age of the WNBA. 

All of that? Griner? Diggins? Delle Donne? New. New. New. 

But if the Atlanta Dream are going to reach their third WNBA Finals appearance in four years -- and pick up their first-ever Finals win -- it's because of how much has stayed the same. 

Sure, the Dream have some new faces, including a coach (Fred Williams) who only ran the team for half the year last year, after coaching Atlanta as an assistant for years. Three rookies (including No. 13 pick Alex Bentley and No. 31 pick Anne Marie Armstrong) made the roster out of training camp. Two new players (guard Jasmine Thomas and forward Le'coe Willingham) joined the team in the offseason. But of the core players that drove the Dream to their historically quick rise from conception to contenders, all but one player's back. 

And when the Dream open up on Saturday against Skylar Diggins and the Tulsa Shock, they'll be running. 

"I think what we do really well is play uptempo basketball," said Dream coach Fred Williams, who took over from Marynell Meadors during the 2012 season. "We really force opponents to get back on their heels on defense and we want to continue that." 

Lindsey Harding left in the offseason, going to LA and carving a void into the point guard role that Thomas can help to fill. But of the big names, they're back. Sancho Lyttle returns to the post a year after putting up a career-high 14 points and 2.5 assists a night. Armintie Herrington (nee Price) comes back with a new name, but the same skill-set that's made her one of the league's most reliable wing players. 

Meanwhile, the Dream made one big addition, in a sense: a full year from Erika de Souza. While the Dream didn't add any pieces of the league-rattling sort, de Souza will patrol the paint from the start of the year, as opposed to a season prior, when she only joined the Dream after competing for Brazil in the Olympics. 

Then there's Angel McCoughtry. 

Tumultuous, temperamental and tremendously talented, McCoughtry's served as the core of the Dream since she came into the league in 2009. No player can put the ball the hoop in as many ways, from the paint to the perimeter. No player can hollow out a defense with such frantic precision. And no player dictates quite as much of her team's fate as Angel McCoughtry. 

When she's playing well, so are the Dream. When she's not, everything grinds to a halt. But after a disappointing 2012 campaign (relatively speaking), the Dream have a year's more maturity to work with, and a bitter taste to get rid of. 

And in an East that suddenly got a whole lot tougher, Atlanta's set to attack from the start -- the same way they always did under Meadors, Williams said. 

"We just have to be patient down the stretch in certain situations, but the main thing we learned is you gotta finish real strong within your conference of being a top team there and gain home court," Williams said. "The main thing is that we've been there. We'll got there early, but we got a taste of what it takes to be in the Finals."