- Nancy Lieberman, Basketball analyst / Writer
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It's called "midseason form" for a reason.
And as is the case with every professional league just starting a new season, several of the WNBA's teams were nowhere near that level of play when the 2006 schedule tipped off Saturday.
As expected, Connecticut and Sacramento did look at the top of their games, but most squads still need a little time to fine tune. A look at some quick Week 1 observations:
Does Westhead have the personnel to fit his style?
I really like Paul Westhead's system; I know it can be fun and know it has potential. But I don't know if he has the personnel to fit his frenetic style of play. You need people who can put the ball in the basket and want to push tempo, players who play hard and get after it for 40 minutes. As we've said before, Australian Penny Taylor would have fit really well in this system, but guard Tamicha Jackson is not the answer. She is quick and capable of making some nice steals in the open court, but she plays percentage basketball -- do the good shots outweigh the bad shots and bad passes she makes?
The Mercury had to be very disappointed after their season opener against Sacramento. They came out and -- perhaps helped along by the Monarchs' emotional ring ceremony at center court moments before tip off -- jumped to a 14-1 lead after a fast five minutes. But some of the players told me afterward that they had nothing left after that initial spurt. Phoenix ended up losing 105-78.
That's the other obstacle Westhead faces: the WNBA's demanding schedule. Can you play that hard at both ends of the floor for 34 games in 87 days, especially when a lot of these players are already coming off of intense overseas play in the offseason? Yes, it has only been a couple games and we need to give Westhead time to implement his style but right now, Phoenix is 0-2 after giving up a combined 199 points.
Sun shining even brighter
In Connecticut's national TV debut Tuesday, not only was point guard Lindsay Whalen able to play more than was originally expected after fighting some nagging injuries in the preseason, but the Sun finally had a backup to step in for Whalen when needed.
Whalen's not in game shape and her timing is off. Right now, she just needs to be patient and wait for her body to catch up with her mind. What I mean by that is that her instincts are right on; when it was there, Whalen tried to get to the rim against Minnesota. She just can't quite beat her defender off the dribble right now, or if she beats the first defender, Whalen isn't able to use her body control and strength to finish around the basket. But it will come back -- and we'd happily take Whalen even if she was only at 50 percent.
But because of backup point Erin Phillips, Sun coach Mike Thibault doesn't have to. Phillips, who was drafted in 2005 but is playing her first season in the WNBA, is averaging 19.5 minutes, 10.5 points, 3.0 rebounds, 2.0 assists and just 0.5 turnovers over two games. She's also 3-for-6 from 3-point range and has been very impressive. There's no learning curve for this 21-year-old Australian who plays a lot like fellow Aussie Michele Timms, but Phillips is much more physical. How tough? Ask Phillips to describe the best part of her game and the 5-foot-7 guard says she likes to set screens on the post.
We're not saying Phillips was one of the league's the best players this past week, but she was really impressive in her role -- and that's to split minutes with Whalen and help carry the Sun.
But the bonus for Thibault is that there's not a lot of drop-off when he subs out his starters. That's because his reserves, his "energy team," come in and are playing incredibly well. They're up-tempo and they're difference makers who get things done in the balance of the game.
Thibault's bench has always been good, but he says there's a new mind-set this season. Last year, his eighth, ninth or 10th players were "just happy to play," but he wants them to be as aggressive as the ninth, 10th or 11th guys on an NBA roster, who "think they should be starting and so they jack up shots when they get on the court." Thibault wants his reserves to come off the bench with aggression and looking to score.
And the Sun are already a better defensive team than a year ago. Their rotations are better and they can play harder for longer stretches because the bench is improved. The Sun don't lose much except for experience when the starters are sitting. It's true that older players (the average age of the Sun's starting five is 29.3 years old) play with smarts while younger ones (the rest of the team averages 23.3 years old) play with more aggression. Asjha Jones continues to add solid contributions and Megan Mahoney, the 34th overall pick in 2005 who missed last season as she rehabbed an Achilles injury she suffered prior to the 2005 NCAA Tournament, had an outstanding game. And of course, Katie Douglas put on a show with 28 points.
Living up to the hype
The WNBA's marketing campaign this season, "Have you seen her?" couldn't be more appropriate in
Minnesota, because rookie Seimone Augustus seems to have captivated the town. Everybody from Kevin Garnett to Twins center fielder Torii Hunter have either heard of the first overall draft pick or gone out of their way to see her play. Garnett stayed for Minnesota's entire game Tuesday night against Connecticut.
And he got a good show. Though the Sun dropped a loss on the Lynx, Augustus played incredibly well in her debut. It didn't matter if All-WNBA defensive team member Douglas or Nykesha Sales, another excellent defender, were guarding her -- Augustus pretty much had her way. April's No. 1 overall draft pick was too smooth to stop -- scoring 10 points in the second quarter and finishing with 21 -- and her game off the bounce and ability to create separation are lethal.
Augustus is already a star in Minnesota and has a little Taurasi-like magic when it comes to making other athletes, especially male athletes, want to see her play. And that curiosity and respect obviously are good for the game. Right now, with the amount of touches she gets and the fact that the Lynx offense runs through her, Augustus is the odds-on favorite for rookie of the year honors. Now Minnesota just needs to score its first win (0-2).
(Silver) Stars in the making
I love what Dan Hughes has done in San Antonio. The Silver Stars have beautiful inside-outside balance, and after scoring a huge win in their season opener, 79-63 in Houston, they look able to make some strides in the West standings, where they've been a cellar dweller.
Adding Liberty veteran Vickie Johnson was a great move and she should flourish in Hughes' system, which typically features really good offensive rebounders and a tough, physical defense that specializes in taking the opponent out of its offensive continuity.
Hughes has a great blend of players, from solid youngsters to good veteran leaders, who can push tempo. If he wants to go big, he has Katie Feenstra inside. If Hughes wants to speed it up, he has rookie Sophia Young. This will be a better basketball team than it was a year ago.
Ticha takes control
Ticha Penicheiro also is playing better than she did a year ago. And that's saying something. One of the league's all-time best players, Penicheiro looked like she was 22 again Tuesday against Phoenix.
Penicheiro, who's 31 and in her ninth season, has always been one of the league's most incredible passers, but she has played more conservatively the past couple of years, almost as if she started worrying about her assist-turnover ratio. Whatever the reason, Penicheiro stopped playing that freewheeling style and is more like the player she really is. She was just trying to be so efficient.
But it appears she's playing very well right now. At one point against Phoenix, she put the ball around her back, through to her other hand and then finished to the rim. When she was overlooked for All-Star status last season, some feared her game was going down. Instead, Penicheiro has another confidence level to her game. Nobody passes the ball with her flavor, and she's also a tremendous defender.
Hamchetou Maiga was also impressive. She is the Monarchs' best defender, and they can put her anywhere, from guarding a point to a post. Rebekkah Brunson also is continuing to play well and take her game to the next level. You always want your starters back, but Brunson is helping make up for DeMya Walker's absence (maternity leave).
Slow start for Sparks
One team that's struggling out of the gate that we didn't expect? Los Angeles. And it's not just because of Chamique Holdsclaw's sudden disappearance, which reportedly is due to an illness in the family.
Though Lisa Leslie has looked terrific, the Sparks don't have a whole lot of continuity, and that might be attributed to losing so many veterans and having a lot of young players on the court. If losing Holdsclaw weren't bad enough -- that's a double-double right there that's missing -- L.A. already was going to need some time to adjust to playing without Tamicka Dixon and Nikki Teasley. The Sparks have been in the starting lineup for years and coach Joe Bryant needs some time to find the right combination. That said, Bryant already is probably working from a disadvantage, having been hired too close to the start of training camp.
Nancy Lieberman, an ESPN analyst and Hall of Famer, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. Contact her at www.nancylieberman.com.