- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- It is a measure of how long Kara Lawson waited for this that not only has she outlasted all but one other player selected in the first round of the 2003 draft, she outlasted four franchises that picked that day.
A decade after she entered the league, Lawson is still redefining her place in it. After too many seasons spent shoehorned into uncomfortable labels like combo guard, energy player or super sub, she is simply a point guard. Proof perhaps that good things come to those who wait, but inarguably evidence as to why good things are happening for the Connecticut Sun as they prepare to host Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals.
She is still a role player. It's just a leading role. And even on a team with the league's new MVP, Tina Charles, it might be the most important role in the days ahead.
"When you've waited nine years for something, when you get one chance it's probably going to be your only chance," Lawson said. "If you don't hit it out of the park, you're probably not going to get another one. I knew I had to play well this year, so that's what I prepared for. Nine months, the hardest training I've ever done this offseason. I came into this year really confident and felt like I could make a huge impact for the team."
Huge is close to the right scale of measurement. Lawson, who is also employed by ESPN as a college basketball analyst, is in the midst of the best season of her career and one of the best performances by any player in the league this season. Sixth in the WNBA in total minutes after not missing a game in the regular season, she also leads the Sun in assists and is second in points, easily exceeding her previous career highs in both categories.
In one of the best reads on a point guard's performance in running an offense, she is fourth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, behind only Danielle Robinson, Lindsay Whalen and Sue Bird.
And she is the only player in the league to average at least four assists and one 3-pointer per game while shooting 40 percent from the 3-point line and maintaining a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
It's a dramatic shift for a player who started 17 games in her first five seasons with Sacramento and never averaged more than 25 minutes per game prior to this season (she averaged 31.4 in the regular season and played 35 minutes in a playoff-opening win against the New York Liberty).
Lawson jokes that if people want to give Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers sympathy for waiting four years to get his chance, they should try waiting nine. But like Rodgers, who sat behind a flashy and accomplished fan favorite in Brett Favre, Lawson found herself fighting for minutes anywhere she could find them in Sacramento with Ticha Penicheiro entrenched at point guard.
"I had to kind of play however I could get on the court," Lawson said. "Unfortunately, I got branded as a sixth man or as a combo guard and as a spark plug, as an energy player. I knew that's not what I was. I had done a great job in college of playing at the highest level as a point guard."
She thought Connecticut was the place to find an opportunity to prove her point when the Monarchs folded after the 2009 season. Longtime Sun coach Mike Thibault knew her well after coaching against her for so many seasons and coaching her with the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. And the Sun were in the process of trading their established point guard, Whalen, to her hometown Minnesota Lynx.
But after one season spent sharing the starting backcourt with another point guard, Renee Montgomery, Lawson found herself back in a familiar role last season, coming off the bench 25 times in 33 appearances and ceding primary duties in running the team.
"She was coming off an injury, and she wasn't playing like she is now," Thibault said. "And I thought last year that I would try her back in the role that she had in Sacramento because she was so good at it. I know that frustrated her, because her intent was to be the starting point guard. At that time, I felt that it was something we were going to try."
He also told her after the season that the door wasn't closed, that she would get an opportunity to be the starting point guard if she came to training camp ready to seize the spot. Slowed by a knee injury in 2008 that she said took two years to completely heal and shoulder surgery after the 2010 season, she entered this past offseason healthy for the first time in a long time, able to work on her game getting better instead of her body getting better. She adopted an even more intense focus on health and nutrition and went vegan, a choice she credits for everything from needing less sleep to recovering more quickly.
As early as the first day of practice, she noticed she wasn't tired when other players were, when she would have been in the past. Only slightly off that pace, Thibault said it was apparent within a week or two what he would do.
Point guard is not an either-or proposition for the Sun. Montgomery was rewarded for her efforts this season with the WNBA's sixth woman of the year award and still plays important minutes, often alongside Lawson. It's having both options, along with regular backcourt starter Allison Hightower, that gives the Sun the perimeter stability needed to complement a young superstar post player like Charles. All three can handle the ball and make sure Charles gets her touches, and all three can knock down shots from outside when opponents cheat a little too much on the post.
But point guard, particularly when played at a high level, can be as much a state of mind as anything tangible, and there is no question that Lawson is this team's point guard. With that comes a freedom to speak up and lead on a team that leans heavily on young players like Charles, Montgomery and Hightower. She was always a veteran presence, but tenure alone doesn't necessarily confer the gravitas that comes with performance.
"In the WNBA, most of the good teams, for the most part, I think everybody really wants to get along," Thibault said. "And so there are times when it's hard to lead if you're afraid of stepping on people's toes. I think this year we've moved past that. If Kara wants to step up and say something in the locker room, or Tina does, our team has gotten past getting feelings hurt. But that's a problem on some teams."
At the very least, it's hard to argue that Lawson doesn't understand where a teammate is coming from. Few other players run the gamut of experience from Olympic gold medal to years of professional frustration.
"I appreciate the struggle," Lawson said. "And I think I'm in a unique situation because a lot of players in my position have never been on the bench, have never been the 10th player, the ninth player, eighth, seventh -- I mean, I feel like I've been every spot on the team coming from my rookie year. That's rare, so you have a unique perspective of what people are going through, what it's like to maybe not play in a game or get limited minutes to produce and maybe get yanked. Things like that, I can help give players that are in those roles perspective."
The perspective she brings and the point guard she is, both are why the Sun will return to the conference finals for the first time since 2006. And why she's loath to savor her own story until the job is done.
"She's worked really hard this year, and in the offseason, to get to this point," teammate Tan White said. "And I know for a fact that all of that hard work that she put into getting better and making herself a threat on the team is paying off. And this is what she wanted it for, the playoffs. We're all having that goal of winning a championship, and I think her work ethic that she brings to the table, everybody wants to have. And everybody wants to win for each other, starting from her, as a leader.
It was worth the wait no matter what happens next.