Sun's Future Looks Strong with Draft-Day Additions

The Connecticut Sun aren’t just building for the future. They’re building for now.

The Sun used the top selection in Thursday’s WNBA Draft to make Tina Charles out the University of Connecticut their new starting center. This was perhaps the most obvious selection since Candace Parker went first-overall to the Los Angeles Sparks in 2008.

Connecticut wasn’t even slated to have the top pick in this draft. That honor went to the Minnesota Lynx, who had acquired the spot from the New York Liberty in a three-team deal that sent Noelle Quinn to Los Angeles and Sidney Spencer to the Big Apple. On Jan. 13, 2010, however, the Lynx shipped that number-one pick to the Sun, along with Renee Montgomery, who was a Huskies’ teammate of Charles, for Lindsay Whalen and the number-two overall selection. It couldn’t have worked out better for the Sun, as Charles played her college ball just 29 miles away in Storrs, Conn.

“We are thrilled with Tina and had earmarked her as a must-have before the trade with Minnesota,” Sun general manager Chris Sienko said. “She was the best senior in college basketball and has the hardware to prove it. Now we feel she can work with our new roster, compliment them and help us move on to bigger and better things.”

Charles was a dominating college player, leading her team to back-to-back undefeated seasons that each resulted in national championships. She averaged 18.4 points and more than nine rebounds and two blocks a night for her Huskies squad. UConn head coach, Geno Auriemma, said Charles came into his program as an immature 18-year-old, but is leaving a different person.

“Tina was reluctant to change when she was a freshman,” Auriemma said. “My job as a coach, as a parent, is to get her expectations of herself to be much more. She had to learn that and obviously did.”

Charles, who hails from Queens, N.Y., a two-hour drive from the Sun’s home at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, Conn., has nothing but praise for her former coach.

“It was rewarding playing for him,” Charles said. “He challenged us and helped us all become better.”

It’s been a surreal couple of days for the 22-year-old, who on Monday won the Naismith Trophy, presented to the top college basketball player in the country, led the Huskies to a national championship on Tuesday, and was anointed the WNBA’s newest superstar on Thursday.

“The whole draft process was overwhelming,” Charles said. “I didn’t focus on being the number-one pick throughout the season though. My goal was to win a championship and then whatever happened afterwards would happen.”

Charles joins Sue Bird (2002) and Diana Taurasi (2004) as the other UConn players to both receive The Associated Press player of the year honor and have their name called as the top overall pick in the same season. Those three, along with Parker, are the only ones to ever go number-one overall and win a national championship in the same year. Auriemma says the Sun and their fans will have high expectations of Charles. It is, after all, a reality that goes along with being the first chosen in any sport. Charles has to be a dominating force in the paint if the Sun want to make the playoffs, which they missed for the first time in seven seasons in 2009. Auriemma is confident that the Sun will be successful, especially after taking one of his players.

“My players don’t play on losing teams. Most WNBA players of mine have had success wherever they go. That’s likely because they bring the same intensity and hard work ethic to the games there,” the seven-time national championship coach said.

After Charles, the Sun weren’t done. Six picks later, they selected Danielle McCray out of Kansas. Connecticut acquired that selection from the Tulsa Shock on Wednesday for center Chante Black and forward Amber Holt. The Sun also received a second rounder in 2011 in the deal.

McCray won’t be available to take the floor until August after tearing the ACL in her left knee in February. Despite the injury, Sienko said the team can afford to be patient with her, as they’ve done with others in the past.

“McCray is a player we can wait on. We have done it before with different players, most recently Sandrine Gruda, Erin Phillips and Megan Mahoney. Having an opportunity to grab a potential All-Star with the 7th pick was a plus and for us, a no-brainer.”

Sienko said the Sun had always planned on using their seventh selection on McCray, the fourth-leading Jayhawks scorer (1,934) all time, because they believed she was a Top 5 player on their draft board had she not gotten injured.

The Sun were still not done dealing in this draft, let alone the first round, this time acquiring forward Kelsey Griffin, who was taken third overall by Minnesota, for a first- and second-rounder in next year’s draft. It was a smart move by the Sun, who acquired one of the most talented young forwards in hopes that the reward outweighs the risk.

“We made the trade for (Griffin) because we felt this was a deep draft and there were some quality players available,” Sienko said. “We have no plans of being in the draft lottery in 2011, so we felt it made good business sense to acquire good players now rather than wait for next year.”

Griffin, the Big 12 Player of the Year in 2010, is as polished as they come. Many expected the Lynx to draft Stanford center Jayne Appel, but they instead used their No. 2 and No. 3 selections on guard Monica Wright out of Virginia and Griffin. Perhaps they knew all along they’d be dealing Griffin to the Sun.

With the third selection (15th overall) in the second round, the Sun got a steal in guard Allison Hightower from Louisiana State. A member of the All-SEC First Team in 2010, Hightower was projected to be grabbed in the lottery round by many. Hightower is a good scorer and perimeter defender, who will most likely come off the bench to start the year for head coach Mike Thibault.

Despite those projections that she’d go much higher, Hightower wasn’t bitter.

“I’m not surprised, I’m just thankful,” Hightower said. “The people in this draft are so talented. I’m just very thankful for this opportunity that they’ve given me. I’m just ready to get to work.”

Hightower believes she’s a part of a young core that can lead to a bright future in the Constitution State.

“I think they are building a future with the draft picks from today and their team right now,” Hightower said. “Tina Charles, Danielle McCray and then I get drafted. That’s just a great class so far. I think it will be an unbelievable training camp and I just can’t wait to get started.”

Connecticut used their third-round selection (27th overall) on Johannah Leedham from Franklin Pierce University. Leedham became the all-time leading scorer in Division-II women’s basketball this season after finishing her career with 3,050. That point total is fourth among all college divisions in the sport.

The Sun hope this new group can compliment the one they already have intact. This off-season the Sun not only brought in Montgomery, but they also signed free guard Kara Lawson. Team her in the backcourt with fellow veteran guard Tan White (9.5 ppg in 2009) and Thibault can allow them to lead the young players in front of them. Asjha Jones (16.7 ppg), Gruda (13.5 ppg), Griffin, Hightower and Charles will likely be frontcourt regulars.

It’s been a process for the Sun to get to this point. They’ve stripped away much of last season’s team piece by piece, both acquired and sent draft picks to add fresh, young talent and traded for a popular face in the Connecticut region (Montgomery). The future looks bright for the Sun. Then again, would you expect anything else from a team with that nickname?