1. The Husky CONNection
The biggest theme of All-Star weekend has been the mini UConn reunion taking place with five former University of Connecticut Huskies among the 2009 WNBA All-Stars. When asked how many Connecticut questions she’s fielded in the past couple days, Sue Bird’s response was, “Oh, I can’t even count.”
Judging from what we saw Friday during the open practice and media availability session, expect to see plenty of UConn love from the fans at Mohegan Sun Arena during the All-Star Game.
“It’s Husky Nation, baby!” said Charde Houston. “The fans are so supportive. From the time I left until now they’ve been extremely supportive, both at UConn and over in Minnesota. So just to come back and play in front of them is just another way to give my thanks for all their support over the years.”
Houston and her fellow UConn alumnae – Bird, Diana Taurasi, Swin Cash and Asjha Jones – received the largest cheers from the fans in attendance at Friday’s open practice. Many fans were decked out in UConn gear, everything from T-shirts to Diana Taurasi UConn jerseys and even a Rebecca Lobo New York Liberty jersey. I guess even when you move from the court to the sidelines as a reporter, the love does not end.
“It’s always special to come out here, especially in front of the fans from Connecticut,” said Taurasi. “They love the game of basketball. It’s nice. It really is.”
Each of the former Huskies said that playing the All-Star Game here in Connecticut adds something extra to an already special event.
“It’s always an honor to be in the All-Star Game,” said Bird. “It’s a fun event, one where you get to play with the best players in the league, go up against some of the best players and also to just play in front of the best fans, which are WNBA fans, and particularly Connecticut fans. Obviously, I have a soft spot. It’s always nice to come back here so I’m really glad the fans voted me in.”
2. Interesting Lineups and Combinations
The UConn theme is likely to come into play on the court during Saturday’s game as well. In talking with West coach Dan Hughes, he said he’d like to put all four of the former Huskies on the West squad on the floor at the same time.
“I think the people here would love that,” he said. “I’m going to look for an opportunity to do that.”
It’s too bad we can’t do an All-Star Game trade to put Jones on the West squad for the day, so an all-UConn squad could take the floor together.
Playing all of the former UConn players together is just one of the many combinations that Hughes and East coach Lin Dunn can play around with during Saturday’s exhibition.
“I’m going to try to play players from teams together a little bit in the first half,” said Hughes. “You’re going to see Seattle playing with Seattle. You’re going to see Minnesota with Minnesota. You’re going to San Antonio with San Antonio. A pairing of Phoenix with Phoenix, that type of thing.”
There are seven WNBA teams with multiple All-Stars set to play on Saturday, led by Seattle and Chicago with three players each and followed by Atlanta, Indiana, Minnesota, Phoenix and San Antonio with two players apiece.
However, one of the best aspects of an All-Star Game is that it gives players the chance to play with players they normally have to play against. So while it is nice to have the familiarity of playing alongside your normal WNBA teammates, it’s even more interesting to put combinations together that have never happened before.
“(There are) some players I’ve always wanted to see play together,” said Hughes. “I’d love to run a pick-and-roll with Becky Hammon and Lauren Jackson, for example. Being a long-term member of the WNBA I’m just eager to watch a couple of these people play together. And I’m really excited that they’re on my team and nobody else’s.”
Veteran point guards Bird and Hammon have squared off against one another countless times during their WNBA and international playing careers, but Saturday will be the first time the two will play alongside each other.
“Oh yeah, I never thought about that,” said Bird. “That’s definitely going to be cool. I think we are going to make a good backcourt. That’ll be fun. I’ve always had the pleasure of having to go against her, so it’ll be nice not to have her running circles around me.”
“I’m actually looking forward to playing with her instead of against her all the time,” said Hammon. “I think if you have two distributors out there, people looking to get other people involved I think you can come up with some pretty good plays.”
While the West features a pair of true point guards in Bird and Hammon, the East roster is mostly filled with combo guards. It will be interesting to see who will emerge as the East's floor general. Players like Katie Smith and Alana Beard have played the point at times for their WNBA teams, but neither is a traditional point guard.
In fact, Jia Perkins leads the East All-Stars in assists per game at 3.39, which is 14th in the WNBA. Meanwhile, there are four West players ahead of her, including Taurasi (3.47, 13th), Hammon (4.92, 5th), Bird (5.65, 2nd) and league-leader Cappie Pondexter (5.76).
3. The Minutes Game
The biggest job for the All-Star coaches on Saturday will be divvying up the minutes to allow each player to have some time in the spotlight, while still trying to execute and put on a good show and even try to win the game.
They may draw up a quick play or two in the huddle during a timeout, but the most important task for Hughes and Dunn on Saturday is finding a way to utilize the talents of all 11 players on their teams and give them an opportunity to showcase their skills.
One player that does not expect to see much time on the court tomorrow is Jackson, who has been nursing a strained Achilles’ tendon that forced her to miss a pair of games in the past week. She returned for Seattle’s three-overtime thriller against Los Angeles on Wednesday and logged over 40 minutes in her first game back.
“I don’t feel great, but I’m here and enjoying the All-Star break, which is all in fun,” Jackson said prior to Friday’s practice session. “I think they are looking to not play me very much, but that’s good because I don’t think my coach would be very happy if I did unnecessary damage (laughs).”
In addition to Jackson playing limited minutes, Hughes also does not have the services of Lisa Leslie, who is sitting out due to her injured knee. That takes away two of his top bigs and with a wing player in Nicole Powell being named the replacement for Leslie, Hughes will be a little light on the frontline. If Hughes wants to play a traditional lineup, expect to see a lot of Nicky Anosike, who is the only true center left on the West squad. Another option would be for Hughes to go small and turn the game into a track meet.
Also, with Leslie unable to play, it was up to Hughes to choose her replacement in the starting lineup. He decided to replace one Spark with another as Tina Thompson gets the starting nod for the West All-Stars. This will be the second straight start in an All-Star game for Thompson despite not being voted in by the fans. In 2007, West coach Jenny Boucek gave Thompson the starting nod when Bird was unable to play due to injury.
4. The First-Timers
The 2009 WNBA All-Star Game will feature eight first-time All-Stars. When you consider that there are only 23 players named to the All-Star teams (11 per team with one replacement player in the West), that means that over a third of the players are on this stage for the first time in their career.
The amount of new faces at this event is just another sign of the depth of the talent pool in the WNBA. While Anosike, Houston and Sylvia Fowles are appearing in their first All-Star game in just their second season in the WNBA, most of the first-timers have been in the league for a number of years and have now taken their games to new heights and were rewarded for their efforts by the coaches.
When talking with the players on Friday, they admitted to being a little nervous and anxious about playing in their first All-Star Game. We asked the veterans what advice would they give to the newbies this weekend and the most popular response was just to try to relax and have fun. If the practice sessions are any indication, they should handle everything fine.
One thing that Friday’s practice showed us is that if the game comes down to a half-court shot, put the ball in the hands of first-time All-Stars Fowles and Anosike. The two sophomore centers proved they have range from outside of the paint as they were the ones that won the half-court shot contests at the end of their respective practice sessions.
5. When Do Things Get Serious?
Yes, this game is just an exhibition. That’s right, it does not count. It’s not like baseball, which uses its All-Star Game to determine home-field advantage in their championship series. The WNBA All-Star Game, like most All-Star Games, is simply a showcase for the league’s top players and an opportunity to have fun and put on a good show.
But at the same time it is still a basketball game and one common trait shared about elite players is that they hate to lose. So even though this game will do nothing to change the standings, will offer no advantage to the winner, when the fourth quarter rolls around expect to see the intensity go up a notch or two.
The bench rotations may shorten a bit. The coaches may even draw up plays during timeouts. Because while the game does not count in terms of what will happen the rest of this season, it does count in terms of bragging rights.
Taking a quick glance at the history books shows us that the Western Conference dominated the early years of the All-Star Game, winning the first six contests from 1999-2005. Since then the East has won back-to-back All-Star Games with wins in 2006 and 2007. Since there was no game last year due to the Olympic Games, the East will look for their first All-Star three-peat on Saturday, while the West looks to get back to its winning ways.
"Of course we want to win," said Beard. "We want to make it three in a row for the East. But I'm sure when you talk to everyone it's a different approach from when you are playing a regular season game. You can go out and have fun the night before, then come in and go hard and not worry about it. It's just an easy, light type atmosphere."
Diana Taurasi and her fellow UConn alumnae were popular among the fans and media during Friday's practice sessions.
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