Sun set sights on return to playoffs
Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault figures it takes at least until the third year for point guards to really establish who they are as pro players. And he's not just saying that because Renee Montgomery is in her third season.
But if his assessment does apply in regard to Montgomery, it's pretty good timing. The Sun have missed the playoffs the last two seasons and, last year in particular, the Eastern Conference was a free-for-all in which little lapses made a big difference.
Thibault doesn't expect it to be much different in 2011, which means the steadier Montgomery is, the better off the Sun will be. This is her second season with Connecticut. Montgomery started her career in Minnesota after being drafted by the Lynx following the perfect 2008-09 UConn season.
Then, Montgomery was sent to Connecticut as Lindsay Whalen went home to Minnesota in a requested trade, which also included a swap of 2010 draft picks that meant UConn's Tina Charles was picked by the Sun.
This past offseason, Montgomery played in Israel, where she was the principle scoring threat for her team. Thibault probably would have preferred she would have played for a team on which she had to be the distributor extraordinaire, but it's not so easy to orchestrate such things.
The bottom line is Montgomery is as confident as ever and very geared up to get the Sun back into the playoffs. And she is happy that Connecticut didn't make a lot of changes in the offseason.
"It would be easy for the coaching staff and management to look at last year and say, 'You only won half your games, so we have to do something to fix that,'" Montgomery said. "The harder thing is to say, 'They're a good team, they just need a year under their belts.' You want your team to win, and there's pressure. You're looking at last season and maybe you weren't good enough. But I'm glad they had patience with us."
The margin for error in the WNBA, especially in the East last year, was slim. The Sun, at 17-17 in 2010, ended up on the wrong side of that margin too often, particularly on the road. The Sun were 5-12 away from home.
"Last year, I probably undervalued the trait of being a more mature team," Thibault said. "I thought we would get better quicker; that because we played hard and did the right things for the most part, the wins would follow.
"But we made mistakes at the ends of games that, watching film later, you could tell were youthful mistakes."
Thibault says he can see the difference now in training camp with players such as Charles and Kelsey Griffin, who was also a rookie last season.
"They are easier to communicate with, more open to being who they are as people and players," Thibault said. "I think we've ended the Kelsey-at-3 experiment; we're keeping her at the power forward spot. I think it's eased her mind. I can see a bounce to her that maybe wasn't there the second half of last year, when maybe she was second-guessing herself a lot.
"And Tina, I think, in learning to be on her own overseas, it was a growing-up process that was good for her, on and off the court."
Then there's Danielle McCray, who will be a WNBA rookie but has pro experience. Thibault liked McCray's ability so much that he drafted her last year -- even though she couldn't play after suffering an ACL tear that prematurely ended her senior season at Kansas. McCray was around the Sun last season enough to learn some things then played overseas in Israel.
Thus, Montgomery faced her during the winter months and is glad she's back healthy for the Sun.
"She's a very physical guard; I like how she brings that toughness to the game from the guard spot," Montgomery said of McCray. "A lot of times, you get that from the post, but it's nice to have guards who can be physical on defense and box out. And she definitely has a lot of offensive skills as well. I think we got her as a steal because she was injured and teams passed on her. We got lucky."
Of course, Montgomery is also glad to have another former UConn teammate in Kalana Greene, who was obtained from New York in a trade. At the risk of overplaying the UConn storyline -- which is almost impossible to avoid with the Sun -- the value of the former Huskies' shared experience could be one of the factors that makes a difference in those down-to-the-wire games this summer.
Thursday, the Sun defeated the Chinese national team 101-63, with Montgomery and Kara Lawson as good complements to each other in the starting backcourt. Montgomery had 12 points and six assists, Lawson nine and five. Starters Greene (13), Charles (10) and Asjha Jones (11) scored in double figures, as did Griffin (13) off the bench.
Thibault does not expect to have Sandrine Gruda, who is staying home in France, this season. And that is a loss. But in general, he's hopeful this is a pretty strong group. Montgomery, who averaged 13.3 points and 4.1 assists last year for the Sun, is very eager to be a strong threat while also helping everyone continue to develop.
"There's something about having that responsibility that I love," she said. "That's the kind of player that I feel like everyone wants to be. Where game in and game out, people are depending on you, because you deliver."
Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at voepel.wordpress.com.