Rookies share All-Star spotlight
NEW YORK -- Madison Square Garden sits somewhat quietly amidst Manhattan's sprawling skyline. When empty, the arena offers a quiet contrast from the crowded streets that surround it, a hushed vault of basketball memories no less impressive than Fenway Park in baseball or Lambeau Field in football. No matter the problems of any current tenants, it's a place where basketball history always lingers in the air.
On Wednesday night, with thousands of fans filling the seats and erasing the silence, it will serve as a memorable backdrop for a new chapter in WNBA history, as rookies Seimone Augustus, Cappie Pondexter and Sophia Young represent a new generation in the WNBA All-Star Game (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
As far as things to do the summer after finishing college, it sure beats backpacking around Europe with unwashed clothes and meager meal money.
But unlike Adam Morrison or J.J. Redick, NBA rookies who will have the summer months to recuperate mentally and physically from a long and ultimately disappointing final season, Augustus, Pondexter and Young had just a few weeks before the WNBA season got underway.
Luckily, adrenaline is a wonderful thing, especially when you're still several years shy of being able to rent a car in most states.
"I think you're too excited to be tired, because to play professionally is something you've always dreamed of and it finally came true," Young said after the Western Conference practice Tuesday.
And fatigue hasn't shown itself in the play of the three rookies. Each was selected as a reserve for the All-Star Game, suggesting each has already made an impression on the coaches who vote to fill out the roster after fans elect the starters.
Augustus has lived up to the hype associated with being the No. 1 pick in a deep draft. The soft-spoken Louisiana country girl is now the face of the Minnesota Lynx. She's averaging 23.2 points per game, tied for the league lead with Diana Taurasi, while shooting 47.6 percent from the floor and showing more consistent range from behind the arc than she did at LSU. But as easy as the transition to a new league appears to have been, she's well aware of her new surroundings.
"For one thing, this is a business," Augustus said. "In college, you get off the bus and you expect to go eat together and do all this. Once you get off the bus here, you're going on your separate ways and going to your house or wherever. The game, in general, is a lot faster. You have a lot of great players, each and every night you have to maintain focus or someone is going to bury you with their skills."
Pondexter is third in the league in scoring at 21.9 points per game and has quickly put to rest any doubt that she could coexist on the court with Taurasi. She ranks fifth in 3-point field goals and fourth in free-throw attempts, testament to one of the best all-around offensive games in the league.
The lack of downtime between the college and WNBA seasons posed potentially the biggest problem for Pondexter, who joined a Phoenix team adjusting to new coach Paul Westhead's physically demanding up-tempo style of play. But Pondexter feels the defensive intensity of C. Vivian Stringer's teams at Rutgers was actually the perfect preparation for running and gunning in the pros.
"The thing is, I was kind of used to it in college," Pondexter said. "Coach Stringer, she's definitely a disciplinarian. She pushed me to the max, she demanded a lot and it definitely prepared me for his program and just the WNBA in general."
It's tough to consider Young a true sleeper when San Antonio selected her with the fourth overall pick in the draft, but after leading Baylor to a title in her junior season, she had been viewed by many as a potential rival to Augustus as the No. 1 pick. A senior season that was solid but failed to meet almost impossible expectations pushed her behind Augustus, Pondexter and Monique Currie in the draft.
Not that the Silver Stars have any complaints. Young has silenced critics who thought she was too wiry to be an inside force in the WNBA. She's seventh in the league in rebounds per game, and her offensive contributions (11.2 ppg) have been almost as important in solidifying the inside game for a Silver Stars team in the thick of the playoff chase.
Each rookie earned a place on a roster that also includes seven members of the WNBA's 10th Anniversary Team. And each will undoubtedly make many return trips to the All-Star Game while crafting careers that could land them on any future anniversary team. But their participation in Wednesday's game is about far more than three impressive individual accomplishments. In taking up more than a quarter of the West's roster, the trio also represents the astounding growth rate of the women's game.
"The best players are in the younger generation," ESPN analyst Doris Burke said. "I really believe that's because they're playing year-round, they're starting earlier, the competition is better and their skill sets are complete before they get to college. They refine their skill set in college, so that when they get to the WNBA, they're ready. Their bodies are ready, their minds are ready and their skill sets have been ready for probably a couple of year. Seimone and Cappie both could have come out a year earlier than they did and played, no question."
Saying a first-year player doesn't play like a rookie is a common compliment. It's certainly an accurate assessment of the performances of Augustus, Pondexter and Young, but it's also increasingly true of almost every rookie who makes a roster.
Each year's rookie class enters the league with a little more polish than the preceding year's class.
"It's a passion, it's something you do every day," Burke said. "These women play basketball; that's what they do. What you see as a result of that is skill sets that are complete and bodies that are complete."
If the league's first 10 years were about the will and determination to carve out a place for a women's professional league, the next 10 years may well be about winning new fans by lifting that game to new heights of athleticism and skill.
"We've got to stick together," Pondexter said of her rookie teammates on the West squad. "When the veterans start going off and leaving, we've got to head the ship. That's what it's about. We're starting young and we're getting a feel and understanding everything."
Madison Square Garden has seen just about everything in its history. But maybe even the venerable arena will be witness to something new during Wednesday's game.
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com's women's basketball coverage. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.