Sun's Future Taking Form

Allison Hightower, Kelsey Griffin and Tina Charles
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images

When the Connecticut Sun walked away from the 2010 WNBA Draft with Tina Charles, Kelsey Griffin, Danielle McCray and Allison Hightower, the questions surrounding the team didn’t lean toward the “if” as much as they did the “when.” How long would it take for these rookies to mesh with the veteran presence of Kara Lawson, Asjha Jones and Tan White? How patient would Sun fans have to be as they literally watched a team grow before their own eyes? asked those same questions before the season tipped off.

The answer to both questions (with the exception of Danielle McCray’s recovery from pre-draft knee surgery): Not long at all.

“It’s kind of interesting,” said Sun head coach Mike Thibault. “With the draft, there were so many people all over the place wondering what kind of team we were going to have. Some people picked us for first, some people picked us for last. You just never know when you have that many new players.”

At 9-5, the Connecticut Sun remains a strong contender for first place in the Eastern Conference. The neck-and-neck race with the Atlanta Dream and Washington Mystics puts all three teams in a position where each win remains just as crucial as the previous one, and each loss stings twice as much.

Up until June 18th against the Los Angeles Sparks, the Sun had remained winless on the road. That one win triggered another, as they snagged a 'W' on the road two nights later against the Phoenix Mercury. As any playoff hopeful knows, winning on the road becomes a crucial asset in the postseason.

“In order to win big games you have to be able to win on the road,” said Griffin. “In order to compete for championships you have to win on the road. So that’s definitely a goal for our team; to be better on the road.”

Sunday night against the Liberty was an opportunity for the Sun to win another game on the road, this time at Madison Square Garden. It was the first regular season game of the season where the Sun traveled to New York, however during preseason play both teams played in a marathon triple-overtime game that the Liberty edged out 89-84. Sunday’s game wouldn’t require any time past regulation, but the Sun did lose by the final of 77-68. Thibault described the loss as a game in which the Sun was “bad offensively after the first quarter.”

Charles tallied a career-high 23 rebounds against the Mercury on Friday
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
While no competitive coach with a legacy like Thibault’s will be happy with a loss, the fact is it’s just another growing pain for a team that has yet to hit its full potential.

“They’re making it work,” said former WNBA player and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo. “I think that’s because they all trust coach Thibault. They know he’s one of the best coaches, if not the best coach, in the WNBA. He has a certain system that the players will understand and are understanding more and more as they play more for him.”

Surely as the system grows, so too will the players. Look no further than that of Charles, who not only set a franchise record for rebounds with 19 against the Sparks on June 18th, but then one week later against the Mercury came within just one more rebound of tying the WNBA single-game record of 24.

“She’s a willing participant in the lane,” said Thibault of Charles’ knack for rebounding. “She’s comfortable being a low-post player, so that helps her with offensive rebounds. And on defensive boards she just always has pretty good position. And she just has a good sense of timing.”

“It’s definitely been a whirlwind,” said Charles of the short span of time between Draft Day and the near-midway point of the season. “I think it just takes a lot of concentration knowing that when you get rebounds it leads to fast breaks and that leads to points.”

Fellow rookie Griffin summed up Charles’ leadership succinctly. “Tina makes other players better by her being on the floor.”

Griffin, who has shuffled between both small forward and power forward, fits in perfectly with the Sun system, much to Thibault’s satisfaction.

“She really keeps getting better,” said Thibault. “She can make the three. It’s not consistent yet, but it’s getting there. She’s obviously a great rebounder for the minutes she’s played. She has a knack for making big plays and she’s starting to prove to people that she can play defense.”

Hightower, who has had bouts with illness recently, is coming along a little slower than the other two rookies. However, Thibault is confident that her time will come. The simple solution to her progress on the court is to just keep doing what she’s doing in practice.

The Connecticut Sun is a young team; a growing team. To get every player on the same page, rookie and veteran alike, is a project coach Thibault is certainly qualified for. He expects the team to be where they want to be following the Stars at the Sun game on July 10th at Mohegan Sun.

“It’s been fun,” said Thibault on coaching and bringing along these rookies on the professional level. “Their youth and enthusiasm and energy is rubbing off on the veterans, and the veterans have been great with them in talking about the little things that they need to know in the league. I think it’s been a great two-way street.”

For Thibault and the Sun, that same two-way street may one day lead to a championship.