Guru's WNBA Report: Connecticut Sun Offers New Wrinkles With Youthful Faces
By Mel Greenberg
UNCASVILLE, Conn. – In terms of differentiation, Monday’s WNBA Connecticut Sun media day was more about the new floor at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
The floorshow will come later as coach Mike Thibault spends the next three weeks preparing for a run that hopefully means breaking the two-season playoff drought.
There will be two sneak previews however, Thursday night against China four days into camp, and next Wednesday against against the San Antonio Silver Stars.
Actually, there will be a third in Wilkes/Barre in upstate Pennsylvania in the Poconos at the Mohegan Sun’s other casino-entertainment establishment.
“We thought about doing it a year ago but it’s just another way of extending the brand,” said general manager Chris Sienko, a front office executive veteran dating back to the days of the American Basketball League in Connecticut.
Sienko, incidentally, called new WNBA president Laurel Richie a “great hire and I believe she’s going to do great things,” he said of the former marketing honcho previously with the Girl Scouts.
A year older overall, the Sun is still one of the youngest in the WNBA, though when it comes to savvy in the front office the staff under Sienko, Connecticut is among the league leaders.
But even there mistakes can happen, such as one in which the rights to Australian guard Erin Phillips, who starred several years ago before suffering a knee injury, slipped away over the winter due to a technicality.
“Let’s deal with it, tell people we’re sorry, and move on to the next thing,” Thibault explained during an interview session in which he said it is not worth trying to hide what went down.
(Read Mike DiMauro’s Tuesday column in the New London Day for the nitty gritty).
Phillips ultimately signed with the WNBA defending champion Seattle Storm and then was sent to the Indiana Fever as part of the three-team deal involving Washington in which veteran all-star Katie Smith moved from the Mystics to Seattle.
Explaining to one reporter not familiar with Sun personnel, Thibault explained Phillips would not likely had been here this season but until the error occurred she was being discussed as part of a trade Connecticut was working on.
Thibault didn’t say what the bubbling deal was, but the Guru wonders whether it might have been with Tulsa, owners of the No. 2 pick who used the premium choice to select young Australian post player Elizabeth Cambadge to join the Shock.
The Guru had heard from elsewhere in the WNBA during the winter that Connecticut might be trying to get the pick from Tulsa.
That aside and, as Thibault suggested, moving forward, the statistics off last season tell the story of the Sun’s near-miss from making the Eastern Conference playoffs after finishing 17-17.
“How we mature in the (past) offseason and throughout training camp will determine our fate,” said Thibault of a squad consisting of four former UConn stars – Tina Charles, the rookie of the year last season; Asjha Jones, back from an injury; third-year pro Renee Montgomery; and forward Kalana Greene, a second-year pro obtained on draft day in a deal with the New York Liberty that sent rookie Texas A&M Sidney Colson off the NCAA champions down to, well, you know where.
Another new face, picked in last year’s draft from Kansas, is Danielle McCray who was sidelined the entire way because of a knee injury her senior season with the Jayhawks. There’s more in a bit on McCray, but back to the coach.
“Seven players trying to learn to play together last year – we’ll have a couple of new ones but the majority of our team now had a year to figure things out,” Thibault said.
“I don’t like excuses but I know there’s a reality,” he continued. “And when we got Tina Charles (picked number one overall) in the draft last year, the excitement was, `Boy Tina Charles is going to make them one of the best teams in the league.’
“Well, I think back to when (former UConn all-American) Diana (Taurasi) went to Phoenix. Well, it took her four years to make the playoffs,” Thibault explained.
“When you’re the first pick in the draft, you’re the first pick for a reason, you’re going to a team that needs help,” he went on. “And it’s not perfect. We just need to grow up.
“My sense is talking to our players in the offseason, going to see them overseas, and doing all that is we’ve done that. But it has to translate on the court,” Thibault said. “We need to be a better road team. Up until a year ago, we’ve always been a pretty good road team.
“Our lack of being a good road team killed us last year. You have to be in the ballpark of .500 on the road if you are a good team. And we won only four games. We lost five games on the road on the last possession or next-to-last possession.
“Those are killers. Turnover here. Most of them were on turnovers or a bad foul or something and those things kill you. You win two more of those, you’re in the playoffs and everyone says, `Wow what a great year.’
“The good part of that is we couldn’t hide it. When you don’t make the playoffs you are forced as an organization and as players to self-exam.
“And I think that it has been a long offseason and the players all known they have to take ownership for us to get better. Staying healthy – Asjha and Kara (Lawson) – Asjha is a crucial part of that,” he said also agreeing with the comment that having a core group back is also quite helpful.
Sandrine Gruda, however, will stay overseas in preparation for next year’s Olympics as will Anete Jekabsone-Zagota.
“Knowing where somebody wants the ball, knowing you can’t take a chance in this kind of situation late in the game,” Thibault pointed out some of the measuring sticks.
“I think there’s a heightened importance on making every possession more valuable – road games, in particular, have to be played more like playoff games. You can’t have throwaway possessions on both ends of the floor and I think that when you sit down with players and say, `Here’s what happened,’ and you say, `You’re right and I, me, we, can’t afford to make the same mistakes.”
Thibault wants to bring Jones alone cautiously.
“Training camp is not killing everybody and do all your conditioning the first two days of camp because all you’re going to be is sore and then you can’t get things done the next couple of days.
“I just want to make sure at the end of three weeks we’re headed in the right direction and not be all beat up.”
One thing Thibault likes is the later start to training camp this year allowing more players returning from winter competition overseas to offer a more cohesive start at the outset.
“It’s a huge help. When you have players coming in every three or four days into training camp or into the season, you have to re-teach. I don’t think I’m going to have much of that this year. You kind of can go forward.”
Thibault is thrilled with McCray’s addition.
“If it wasn’t for the knee injury last year, she would have been the second or third pick in the draft,” he said of the choice Thibault got to make further down the line knowing she wouldn’t play in 2010.
Griffin Ahead of the Learning Curve
Former Nebraska star Kelsey Griffin who led the Huskers to a landmark season in 2009-10 arrived to Connecticut as a rookie a year ago via draft day trade with the Minnesota Lynx for the Sun’s 2011 first-round pick.
For a while that deal caused much angst in these parts because when the Sun failed to make the playoff it became a second lottery pick for Minnesota and two shots at UConn senior Maya Moore.
However, the Lynx got the number one with their own lotto pick but were able to use the Sun pick to take Xavier’s Amber Harris as fourth overall.
Griffin played well most of the way but coming into camp this time is a little less daunting having the knowledge and experience of a summer in the WNBA.
“Oh my gosh, the world isn’t spinning quite as quickly this year,” Griffin said. “I’m able to kind of not take myself so seriously and just kind of sit back, relax, and learn. Of course, it’s competitive, and it’s going to be challenging, as all training camps are and should be, but this year definitely, things are – instead of learning them, it’s re-learning them, which is nice.
“It’s not breaking college habits. It’s not trying to learn a new system. It’s like, `Oh, I remember doing that, I remember seeing that,’” so it’s a lot easier.”
Griffin is thrilled with Jones back in the fold after the former UConn’s star injury.
“She’s teaching me a lot of things and I’m really happy playing against her through training camp,” Griffin said.
The Coach’s Daughter
Though she liked Stephanie Gaitley who led Monmouth to one of its best season in years, Carly Thibault, the WNBA coach’s daughter who helps the Sun in the summer, is thrilled with new Hawks coach Jenny Palmateer, a former North Carolina State star and assistant to late Wolfpack great Kay Yow and who also assisted Hall of Famer Anne Donovan at Seton Hall last winter.
“She said she wants to run a lot so you know me, that suits me fine,” Thibault said, also adding she had know problems under Gaitley’s emphasis on defense.
Gaitley took the opening at Fordham after the season. Thibault is a junior next season at the central New Jersey school.
Philly Talk With DeMaya
Sun veteran DeMaya Walker is a former Virginia star who now lives in Texas but grew up in Mount Holly Township, N.J., near Philadelphia, and also starred at Rancocas Valley High.
Walker came to the Sun off the dispersal draft of the roster of the former Sacramento Monarchs.
“It’s funny, living in Texas, those folks have no idea what tri-state means,” Walker said, engaging in some Philly nuances.
“I mean, we know tri-state, right? Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware.”
After giving Walker a toll-saving way to visit her mom back home, the Guru asked Walker what she thought of her former coach Debbie Ryan’s departure from the Cavaliers.
“I didn’t even know when it happened,” Walker said. “I was down in Australia and when I’m there, I don’t know much about here unless someone tells me.
“But coach Ryan. Listen. I owe my life to the woman. She made me. She gave the scholarship offer and I wouldn’t be here today doing all this if it wasn’t for her.”
WNBA Gets Hotel Sponsor
Hotel Indigo, the upscale brand of Intercontinental Hotels, has become a marketing partner of the league.
The release said that part of the deal is WNBA teams will stay at IHG hotels for all games throughout the season.
Guru aside: This is kind of interesting in that WNBA visitors at the Mohegan Sun Hotel here have been given the perk of free rooms since the Connecticut Sun’s arrival in 2003.
But that said, let’s search the site and as a fan-friendly move of the Guru, here’s a guess at where WNBA teams could stay in each city in terms of closest to arena or airport:
Newark, N.J. – Holiday Inn (airport) or Crowne Plaza in Elizabeth
Washington – The Willard (1440 Pa Ave.), The Hamilton (14th St. NW), Crowne Plaza (Wash. Natl. Airport).
Uncasville, Ct – Holiday Inn – Norwich; Candlewood Suites (Hartford Airport)
Atlanta – Hotel Indigo (downtown); Crowne Plaza (Airport)
Chicago – Doug Bruno’s place (a little Guru humor); Crowne Plaza (O’Hare), Indigo – Gold Coast neighborhood.
Indianapolis – Crowne Plaza (Union Station or Airport) Indigo (Fishers Indys Uptown
Seattle – Jayda’s house (more humor); Crowne Plaza (downtown); Holiday Inn (airport)
Los Angeles – Crowne Plaza (Airport)
Phoenix – Crowne Plaza (Airport), Hotel Indigo (Scottsdale)
San Antonio – Hotel Indigo (at Alamo or Riverwalk) – Think All-Star HQ also.
Minneapolis – Crowne Plaza (downtown or airport)
Tulsa – It’s a Holiday Inn world.
In terms of Indigo, other than those listed: Closest California – San Diego; Closest Newark – Rahway or Baskings Ridge; Closest Uncasville – Boston; Closest Seattle – Vancouver opening soon; Closest Tulsa – Houston or Dallas; closest Minneapolis – Chicago; closest Washington – New Jersey.
OK, wil refine when more knowledge obtained. Off to Washington in the AM for afternoon Mystics media day.