2011 WNBA All-Star Game: East Practice Notebook

Jul 23 2011 10:05AM
San Antonio, Texas -- There is a transition period taking place in the WNBA. The movement should be gradual, but instead it’s happening very fast. 2011 might not be the pinnacle, but it could be extremely close.

This WNBA movement is something of a baby boomer-type event, where youth is everywhere. In this year’s All-Star Game (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET, ABC), there are four rookies in addition to four players with two full year’s experience or less. Out of 22 total players, that’s a large percentage. While All-Star Games are built around big-name talent, these youngsters are establishing themselves early in their careers.

Atlanta Dream forward Angel McCoughtry is making her second trip to All-Star Weekend (2010’s USA Basketball versus the WNBA All-Stars doesn’t technically count as an A.S. Game). By the middle of her junior season, the Louisville product has cemented herself as one of the premier players in the league, having led Atlanta to the WNBA Finals in 2010. McCoughtry has a unique take on the WNBA’s progression.

“I always say women’s basketball is like evolution,” McCoughtry said. “You ever see the evolution chart where the mammal grows into a man?”

This one?

“That’s how women’s basketball is. Look at 20 years ago. It’s way quicker, stronger now and more girls are dunking. Let’s go to the next 20 years… I’m sure it will double. It raises and raises. Look at Danielle Adams and Maya Moore. Good God, look at (Elizabeth) Cambage. She’s six-eight and can move.”

One of the brightest young stars is McCoughtry’s East teammate Tina Charles. The reigning Rookie of the Year from the Connecticut Sun is having an MVP-type season, sitting fourth in points (18.3 ppg) and second in rebounds (10.1 rpg). The 22-year-old center is the only player in the league averaging a double-double.

“I’m just happy to be among these players and play with the players I haven’t had the chance to play with yet,” said Charles, who also took part in last year’s USA vs. WNBA Game. “This is a great time for us to come together. We don’t get to see each other often, especially if you have friends on the West Coast.”

Charles’ regular-season teammate Renee Montgomery also took part in last year’s special event. Montgomery, who played with Charles at the University of Connecticut, was voted onto the East squad by the coaches thanks to her nightly averages of 15.5 points, 5.3 assists and 1.4 steals.

“Last year was a different experience because I was with the USA team against the All-Stars,” the third-year guard said. “It’s always great to be a fan favorite, but to be voted by the coaches that played the game and see the game, it has a special feel about it.”

Connecticut finished among the bottom teams in the East last season. Charles and Montgomery have the Sun in second place at this year's break with a 9-5 record and a half game behind the Indiana Fever.

Two other teammates who are making their official All-Star debuts – neither played in 2010’s game – are the Chicago Sky’s Epiphanny Prince and Courtney Vandersloot. The backcourt duo has the Sky three games out of first place.

“I credit my coaches and my teammates,” said Prince, who is in her second season. They both put me in great positions to be able to score the ball and be successful on the court.”

“I was actually just thinking about that. It’s crazy how it’s all come down,” the rookie Vandersloot said. “It’s still really hasn’t hit me yet that I’m in the WNBA, let alone an All-Star. It’s quite an honor to be here. To be amongst these players in a great experience for me.”

As the WNBA continues this progressive movement, these youthful stars will develop into veterans. If McCoughtry’s prediction is correct, an All-Star roster with eight rookies may not be too far down the line.

Now that would be evolutionary.

Rookie Remembrance: This year's All-Star squads boast four freshman: Vandersloot, Moore, Cambage and Adams. New York Liberty guard Cappie Pondexter, a five-time All-Star, talked about her first trip to the midseason event during her rookie season. That was 2006, which also featured four rookies.

"The last time we saw that was in 2006 with my class with me, Seimone (Augustus), Sophia (Young) and Candice Dupree, and now we have Vandersloot, Epiphanny Prince, Maya Moore to name a few. It just shows you the transition that we’re going through right now in terms of the skill level. Rookies being All-Stars, that’s not common, so to have it is great and great for the league."

You Take the Good, You Take The Bad: Washington Mystics forward-center Crystal Langhorne is having a mixed season. Her numbers (18.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg) are among the best in the game. Her team’s (3-11) is among the worst.

“It’s tough because it’s a team sport and it doesn’t matter how well an individual plays, if you’re not winning, to an extent sometimes it doesn’t matter as much because you want to win,” Langhorne said. “It’s been tough. But, we have a hard working group of people and we’re going to keep working hard, keep trying to win games.”

Langhorne expects the Mystics to get better though.

“I think we’re continuing to get better. We just have to figure out how to close out games. I think that’s our problem right now. We’re not closing them out. We’re not getting blown out, but at the end people are making plays and we aren’t.”

Backcourt Buddies: The Sky underwent a coaching change this offseason, which Prince credits as opening the door wider for her to earn minutes. That’s perhaps because coach Pokey Chapman is a former guard herself and knows strong play at that position. If that’s certainly the case, it’s also why she’s thrilled to have Vandersloot in her backcourt as well.

The two guards have built relationships on and off the court. This bond could be attributed to the Sky’s success in the first half.

“Me and Courtney get along really well off the court, on the court,” Prince said. “I always tell her she’s taking care of me. On the court, she’s finding me. Off the court, she’s a lot of fun to be around.”

“Epiphany and I are really close,” Vandersloot added. “I think a lot of it is she’s one of the teammates you love to play with. She’s always got your back on and off the court. She’s still young too and I forget that because I look to her to find out what to do next. She’s looking at me with the same look. It’s good to play with somebody like that. She helps me be more comfortable out there.”

Speaking of Prince: The former Rutgers guard headed overseas for a year before becoming eligible for the WNBA Draft. When asked which level of her career has been the toughest, you may be surprised: “They all have their growing pains. I want to say, the pros and overseas was the same. College was really tough on me.”

And Vandersloot: The former Gonzaga standout is a huge fan of Seattle Storm guard and fellow All-Star Sue Bird. Vandersloot would travel to Storm games every so often to watch Bird play. On Saturday, she’ll stand on the same court as her hero, and likely guard her at points.

“I got a chance to say hello,” Vandersloot said. “I’m excited to be out here with her and against her.”

The two played each other for the first time earlier this week, with the Sky grabbing the 78-69 win. Vandersloot finished with 11 points and seven assists. Bird, meanwhile, dropped 26 points. Round One to the veteran.

Call it Change: Prince isn’t the only one thriving under a first-year coach. New York Liberty forward Essence Carson is in her fourth season, yet none have been as good – 2009 was close. Her 13.4 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.9 assists are all career highs.

Carson, a first-time All-Star, explains what coach John Whisenant brings to the table.

“He lets us play” she said. “He lets me play real confident. Because of that confidence, you see the elevated play from many of the players on that team.”

"She wasn’t picked by the fans, but she was picked by the coaches and GMs so they recognized the talent that she has," Pondexter said. "It’s fun for the fans to interact and get to pick who their favorite players are, but when you get that recognition from the coaches and GMs, that’s major in my opinion.

Remember When: It's been nine All-Star Games since Indiana Fever guard Tamika Catchings made her debut. The four-time Defensive Player of the Year is almost a lock to make the Eastern Conference squad each season. But she still remembers her first trip like it was yesterday.

"I was nervous. I was like ‘what is going to happen,' just not really knowing what to expect," Catchings said. "Then you have the veteran players and you’re like 'okay, how are they going to take me being here.' It's kind of a scary experience, but at the end of the day it’s all about having fun."

As for this year's freshman: "They are a little timid, kind of nervous, trying to feel out everything and figure out where they fit in."

First Time For Everyone: This is nowhere near the first All-Star Game for Indiana Fever forward Katie Douglas. The 10-year veteran has been to five All-Star Weekends, even taking home MVP honors in 2006. This is, however, the first time she's been voted on to the team by the fans.

"It's a different kind of honor and I’m very appreciative and grateful for the fans to recognize myself and perhaps the Indiana Fever," said Douglas, who is averaging 14.5 points for the first-place Fever. "I got notified a little earlier so that was nice. It’s always nice to be a part of it and especially since this is a traditional East-West All-Star Game."