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Youth movement takes over All-Star Game

Editor's note: This column was written before Tina Thompson was named a starter for the Western Conference All-Stars in place of Sue Bird, who will miss the game after undergoing knee surgery.

The league's legends are getting left behind.

When the 2007 All-Star Game is played Sunday in Washington, D.C. (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET), Lisa Leslie will likely be in Los Angeles with her newborn daughter and Sheryl Swoopes will probably be back home in Houston, sidelined by a back injury for all but three games this summer.

Yes, the WNBA originals -- the seven players (Tamecka Dixon, Vickie Johnson, Lisa Leslie, Mwadi Mabika, Wendy Palmer, Sheryl Swoopes and Tina Thompson) who have been around since the WNBA's inception in 1997 -- have helped make the league what it is today. But as the 2007 season has illustrated, the WNBA's young stars will take center stage Sunday.

For the first time in the eight-year history of the WNBA All-Star Game, the starting lineups include no WNBA originals (Thompson is a reserve). With the exception of 37-year-old Yolanda Griffith, none of the other All-Star starters is older than 31, and seven are still 20-somethings. Seven of the 22 All-Stars have been in the league four or fewer seasons. Eleven years after the league was founded, the youth movement is on.

A look at the All-Star starters and how they've improved their games since joining the league (player's name is followed by her age and number of seasons in the league):

West starters

Sue Bird*, Storm (26, 6): We knew she could control a team offensively, but Bird has become a better defender and learned how to have more defensive responsibilities. Also, a few years ago Bird might have just gutted through injuries. Now she's older and more mature and knows when she has to take time off for her body.

Yolanda Griffith, Monarchs (37, 9): Let's be honest -- Griffith was a sentimental pick. That's not to take anything away from her legend. But the best offensive rebounder the women's game has ever seen isn't the player she was five years ago. However, Griffith still brings extraordinary leadership and a desire to win, and she has embraced her role as mentor -- which can be just as vital as the statistics she puts up in a game. Griffith has taken players under her wing and shared her many gifts with her teammates.

Becky Hammon, Silver Stars (30, 9): There was a time when opponents went into a game thinking they might have a career night because Hammon would be guarding them. Not anymore. Unheralded early in her career, Hammon and her high basketball IQ defied the odds to be successful in the league. She has improved her lateral quickness, foot speed and defensive anticipation. Now she's a very good defensive team player and, like Tina Thompson, the consummate pro.

Lauren Jackson, Storm (26, 7): Who knew Jackson could take her game up a notch? A former champion and MVP, Jackson looks even better this summer. Part of it can be traced to Jackson finally valuing her body as an asset to the growth of her game. She has both rested her body like never before and also gotten into incredible shape. Both physically and mentally, she approaches the game from another level this season.

Diana Taurasi, Mercury (25, 4): It's no secret that Taurasi has flourished in Paul Westhead's system. And we've known all along what a confident player she is. But she, too, sees the game on another level. Taurasi is tougher mentally and also recognizes that though she can score 35 points every night, she has teammates she can also make better on every possession.

East starters

Kara Braxton, Shock (24, 3): She is a marvelous athlete with all the physical gifts. But the knock on Braxton has been that she couldn't come with the goods night after night. This season, she has shown great mental improvement and consistency and seems to be taking advantage of the opportunity that arose when former Detroit center Ruth Riley was traded away.

Tamika Catchings, Fever (27, 6): When describing Catchings in the past, "relentless" was the first word that popped up. No one seemed to zone in on what she did best other than focusing on how hard she played all the time. Now, it's easy to see Catchings is one of the best overall skilled players in the league. She also has become an unbelievable passer and added a 3-point shot to her game, which forces foes to come out and guard her.

Anna DeForge, Fever (31, 6): Opponents consistently try to take away her ability to catch and shoot, but DeForge has too many tricks to get open without the ball. She is one of the finest at reading defenses and knowing how to get open.

Cheryl Ford, Shock (26, 5): Ford came into the league as a defensive specialist and rebounder. Now, coach Bill Laimbeer and the Shock run so much of their offense through her and around her. Ford is also spectacular at going to the rim with her left hand and has improved her step-through moves to the basket.

Deanna Nolan, Shock (27, 7): She has always had athletic ability like no other and often makes it look effortless whether driving inside or pulling up for jumpers. But Nolan has become a better defender, worked extremely hard on her ballhandling and added range to her shot to stretch the defender.

* Bird has undergone knee surgery and will not play in the All-Star Game, though she was the leading vote-getter.

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.