Newcomers Renee Montgomery (left) and Kara Lawson will lead the Sun from the guard spots.
David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images

Season Outlook

The Connecticut Sun didn’t just assume that last season’s disappointing finish was a one-time occurrence. Instead, they went out and made moves to help prevent it from happening again.

Despite a 16-18 record in 2009, Connecticut is actually quite familiar with winning. Prior last year, the team hadn’t entered the offseason below .500 since 2001. They also made the playoffs each of the six years leading up to last season, reaching the WNBA Finals in 2004 (lost to Seattle) and 2005 (lost to Sacramento). With credentials like that, the Sun’s front office knew it had to fix what now was broken.

“I think for every team in the league, when you have an 11-person roster, staying healthy is a huge key,” Sun head coach Mike Thibault said. “If you have to play with eight or nine people too many times in a year, like we did and others have gone through, that's the first thing.”

Thibault believes the second area the Sun need to improve is when the ball is in their opponents’ hands.

“I think we'll score enough points most nights to win games provided we play well on the defensive end,” he added. “Part of that will be doing a better job of pressuring the ball, and part of that will be being a better rebounding team than we were in the early part of the year.”

The Sun used the phone and draft to compliment the key pieces already in place on their roster, namely forwards Asjha Jones and Sandrine Gruda, and guard Anete Jekabsone-Zogota. And it was just one trade that helped them land both one of the league’s top young guards and the most highly touted college player.

On Jan. 3, 2010, the Sun shipped guard Lindsay Whalen and the number-two overall pick in this year’s draft to the Minnesota Lynx for guard Renee Montgomery and the number-one selection. The deal made sense for both organizations since Whalen (Minnesota) and Montgomery (The University of Connecticut) each played their college ball in their new teams’ respective states. Montgomery was one of the league’s top rookies last season while coming off the bench for the Lynx. Thibault expects to have her in his starting lineup this season.

“Renee now has a year of experience in the league and has the ability to lead and knows what needs to be done,” he said.

The swap also assured Connecticut of landing the number-one rated women’s college basketball player in the country: Tina Charles, who also happened to be from UConn. In 2009-10, Charles averaged 15.4 points and nearly nine boards a game at the school, where she wrapped up her senior season with back-to-back national championships. With that impressive resume, she’ll immediately be penciled in as the team’s starting center.

While Charles and Montgomery bring an exciting new look to the Sun, the loss of Whalen cannot be overlooked. The two-time All-Star was a leader on the floor, especially in the assists stats column, where her 4.6 last season was fifth best in the league. Replacing that number will not be easy, but the addition of free agent guard Kara Lawson should help restore Whalen’s veteran leadership at the point. Lawson is entering her eighth season and already has one WNBA Championship to her name. That familiarity will prove valuable for a youthful Connecticut squad. The Sun also picked up one of Lawson’s former Monarchs teammates, forward DeMya Walker, in the Monarchs’ Dispersal Draft. Both were members of the Sacramento team that beat Connecticut in the 2005 WNBA Finals.

Charles wasn’t the only major addition the Sun made through this year’s draft. They also had the seventh-overall selection, which they acquired from the Tulsa Shock for forward Amber Holt and center Chante Black. Connecticut used that pick on forward Danielle McCray (Kansas), who will miss the season after tearing her ACL. The Sun knew this when drafting her, but hope she'll make a full recovery in 2011. In the second round, they grabbed Allison Hightower (LSU). The Sun then called up Minnesota again and dealt next year’s first- and second-round selections for forward Kelsey Griffin, whom the Lynx had taken third overall.

“We'll start the season with three rookies and there are things that they need to learn about the league, but they have showed in training camp so far that they have a maturity level a bit beyond their years,” Thibault said. “I'm not as concerned with youth as I am with learning to play together. I think any time you have half of your team being new, it has more to do with that than inexperience.”

With all of this player movement, there are a few key returnees who will call Mohegan Sun Arena home again this season. Jones, Connecticut’s lone All-Star last season, led the team with 16.7 points per game, while Gruda posted more than 14 a night. The addition of Charles allows Gruda to slide from center to power forward and Jones to the small forward spot. That threesome, at least on paper, looks to be one of the league’s top frontcourts.

“It's exciting to think of all of the possibilities we can do with them,” said Thibault, who also lumped Walker into that group. “You have posts that can play around the basket, you have posts that can step outside, and most of them can do both. We're trying to gear more of our offense to be more inside out than we have in past years.”

The Sun also has a slew of top-notch guards, including Jekabsone-Zogota (9.4 ppg, 2.2 apg) and Tan White (9.5 ppg, 2.2 apg). White has five seasons to her name, but Thibault mentioned that Jekabsone-Zogota, who is entering her sophomore season, could receive starter minutes this year. It’s not entirely out of the question to see a three-guard set on the floor at one time, especially with Lawson and Montgomery.

What appears to be a near-perfect mixture of youthful potential and veterans gives this Sun organization a bright future. Not just for this year, but many to come.

Scott Stanchak

Player on the Spot

The honor – whether good or bad, you decide – has to fall on Charles, whom the Sun chose in the top spot of this year’s draft. The 21-year-old was a monster on the boards in college and most who challenged her in the paint did not have good results. It’s that type of middle presence that teams drool over.

While a majority of rookies start their WNBA careers on the bench, Charles should not be one of them. Thibault wants to get the 6-4, 198-pound center on the floor right away to gain experience. Sure, it’s safe to assume there will be some growing pains, but Charles’ basketball I.Q. is greater than most first-year players. Playing under UConn head coach Geno Auriemma’s system should allow her to adapt quicker to the faster pace of the WNBA.

Another major plus for the Sun is that Charles knows what it takes to win. Not only was UConn undefeated her last two years, but they also won the national championship in each campaign. At this year’s draft, Auriemma said his players don’t play on losing teams. Essentially, he’s saying that winning is built into their brain.

The comfort of playing near home could also help ease Charles’ transition to the WNBA. She played here college basketball 90 miles from Mohegan Sun Arena and grew up 122 miles away in Flushing, NY. Regardless if you’re a professional athlete or not, being young and having friends and family nearby is a mental boost. It will also be nice to play at Madison Square Garden at least three times over the next couple of months.

While Charles certainly has the potential to be the difference maker, she might not feel the type of pressure most number-one picks do. Typically, being drafted first means the team you’re going to had the worst record the season prior. That isn’t the case with the Sun, who traded up into that slot. With a strong supporting cast, Charles will have time to grow into the superstar label.

Scott Stanchak

Projected Lineup

G.Kara Lawson
G.Renee Montgomery
F.Asjha Jones
F.Sandrine Gruda
C.Tina Charles

Players Added

C.Tina Charles
F.Kelsey Griffin
G.May Kotsopoulos
G.Kara Lawson
G/F.Johannah Leedham
F.Judie Lomax
G/F.Danielle McCray
G.Renee Montgomery
G.DeMya Walker

Players Lost

C.Chante Black
G.Kiesha Brown
F.Amber Holt
G.Evanthia Maltsi
G.Erin Phillips
G.Lindsay Whalen
F.Tamika Whitmore

2008 Leaders

PPGAsjha Jones16.7
RPGSandrine Gruda6.3
APGLindsay Whalen4.6
SPGErin Phillips1.34
BPGSandrine Gruda1.58

Team Stats

Points Scored78.0(4th)
Points Allowed78.1(7th)
Field-Goal Percentage.406(12th)
Opponents’ FG%.426(7th)
Rebounding Diff.-2.7(10th)