- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Kara Lawson figures the Connecticut Sun fans must be doing a little polite fibbing. That, or they've been replaced entirely this season by new people, and the former fans have all shall we say, mysteriously disappeared?
She laughs about this because when chatting with the Sun faithful, Lawson finds that nobody wants to just 'fess up and say, "Um, yeah, you really annoyed the living daylights out of me at Tennessee, so I booed you when you were there. And also when you came here with the Sacramento Monarchs."
"They all say it wasn't them," Lawson said, chuckling. "Maybe those people are all gone."
Perhaps or it's just a bit of selective memory on their parts. After all, it was time to let bygones be bygones when Lawson signed as a free agent with the Sun in February, following the disbanding of the Monarchs.
Lawson, an East Coast native very familiar with Connecticut because of her work at ESPN as a college hoops analyst, had no trouble with the move. But it did take some time getting used to a team in which everything didn't feel like second nature, the way it did in Sacramento.
"You're talking about players you played seven years with," said Lawson, who was drafted by Detroit in 2003 but then traded to Sacramento before that season started. "I could pick right up where I left off in training camp. There wasn't this learning period of figuring out someone's tendencies. We had a group of players who stayed together for a long time.
"So when I came here, it was about trying to get a feel for all of my teammates, because they were all new to me except for DeMya [Walker, also from Sacramento]."
The Sun, as a whole, have a different feeling this season, as just five players remain from last year's roster. Most prominent among the departed was the face of the backcourt the past six seasons, Lindsay Whalen.
"The deal" -- something Lynx fans wished for long ago -- finally sent Whalen back home to Minnesota. But at a very hefty price. In fact, it would be hard to argue that Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault could have played this any better: Whalen helped take his team to the WNBA finals twice, and when he did trade her, he hit the jackpot.
No. 1 overall pick Tina Charles -- who's averaging 16.1 points and 12.4 rebounds and has considerably outdistanced the rest of the 2010 rookies, as expected -- and second-year player Renee Montgomery came to the Sun. Whalen and No. 2 pick Monica Wright went to the Lynx.
This is one of those trades in which one side needs more time to be completely assessed -- did Minnesota surrender too much? -- but the other side could be judged very quickly. It was a fabulous deal for Connecticut.
"It has been great to come back to a place where you're familiar with," said Montgomery, whose 2010 averages of 10.7 points, 3.8 assists and 1.5 steals are all up a bit from last season. "It was nice to be with the fan base of Connecticut again and be in this environment."
It is an atmosphere, though, that understandably wasn't so friendly to Lawson during her days with the "Orange Menace" and then in Sacto purple. No doubt, Lawson (9.2 ppg, 3.4 apg) is a Connecticut kind of player: uncompromising attention to detail, a business-like approach to practice, and a no-excuses mindset about preparation.
During her offseason work in broadcasting, Lawson says she still thinks of herself as a player, first and foremost, and makes all decisions and travel arrangements based on her training schedule.
"Everything gets structured around my workouts," she said. "I have to do the extra work because I'm not playing in Europe. So it takes a lot of discipline; I have a plan for every day, right down to when I'm going to eat."
Lawson says there are benefits and drawbacks to not playing overseas in the winter. The biggest plus, in her view, is about being fresh -- and that the mental part of that might well be more crucial than the physical.
"I don't have as much wear and tear as I would have, so that probably will prolong my career," she said. "But more importantly, you see players who have gone five years of playing year around, and sometimes lose the love of the game and the passion to work on it every day.
"For me, when I get to play in the summer, I'm so excited to play. So my passion every summer is just so high, because I go through that period where I don't play games and I miss it. When it comes to the end of April, I'm really ready to go."
Depending on the opponent and game circumstances, Lawson and Montgomery might be on the floor together or might substitute for each other. They're both hard-wired as point guards, although Lawson willingly ceded most of those duties to Ticha Penicheiro at Sacramento.
Lawson had no problem doing that, but she admits it has also been fun to be back in the driver's seat in Connecticut. Plus, she and Montgomery quickly adjusted to having another like-minded person on the court.
"She's got a lot of passion for the game, a lot of energy, she's very vocal," Lawson said of Montgomery. "She understands how to play the game the right way, which is a great compliment for a young player in this league. She's very versatile. So if I'm playing with her on the court, either one of us can bring it up the court and either of us can come off screens and shoot.
"It's been invigorating for me, because in college I played point guard my whole career, but had to be a 2-guard mostly in Sacramento. Here, I have more free reign to look at defenses and make play calls. It just feels normal to me."
Montgomery, who won two NCAA titles at UConn, appreciates Lawson's experience.
"It's nice, because she's older than me, and she's been through most of the stuff that I'm going to go through," Montgomery said of Lawson, who won the 2005 WNBA title with the Monarchs. "She's able to let me know what to be prepared for and what to look for.
"We spent a good amount of time together before the season started because of USA Basketball and also we made a couple of appearances in Connecticut and got to know each other."
With Tan White, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota (likely out until August after arthroscopic knee surgery) and Allison Hightower, Lawson and Montgomery have made Connecticut's perimeter solid and dependable. Which is really what's needed to pair with an interior game of three youngsters -- Charles is 21; Sandrine Gruda and Kelsey Griffin are 23 -- and the veteran former UConn standout Asjha Jones.
"I think this is, collectively, the most talented group of posts I've played with in the WNBA," Lawson said. "I know we had a really good group in Sac, but you look, for example, at what Tina Charles is doing as a rookie. What I love about her is she's a true post player. She mixes it up in the paint, she doesn't want to keep stepping out just to show that she can shoot from the outside.
"Asjha is at such a high level; she's the one who took me the least amount of time to learn to play with here. Players like that, they just do everything right and so you can anticipate what they're going to do. She's one of the best I've played with in pick-and-roll situations.
"Sandrine has played really well and is still young. And Kelsey was put in a hard situation as a rookie -- when we started the season, she was a 4 because Asjha and Sandrine weren't back. Now we've thrown Kelsey in the 3 spot, and she's such a perfectionist she wants to do everything right there. I think so much of our success lies in the depth of our interior players and their growth."
For any team to really get a grip on the hot potato that is the Eastern Conference lead, Lawson and Montgomery say it's going to take being aggressive nonstop and focusing on "the little things."
"I guess I came over to the East at the wrong time, huh?" Lawson joked about how, in most previous seasons, the West has seemed the more competitively stacked conference. "It's hard for me to compare years, but there were times in the West where I felt that all four teams that made the playoffs could win the finals. It seems like it's that way in the East this year."
As Montgomery said, "We don't want to be that team at the end that has to hope someone else loses so we're in the playoffs. We have to take care of business right now."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at email@example.com. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.
The Sun's interior players? Talented but mostly young. Connecticut's backcourt? Solid and dependable, now that Kara Lawson and Renee Montgomery have joined forces on the perimeter.