All-Star forward confident Shock can win it all

Taj Comes to Town

Taj McWilliams-Franklin made her Detroit Shock debut Wednesday night. Just not on the basketball court.

The 6-foot-2 forward, acquired Tuesday from the Washington Mystics, joined her new teammates at the Roostertail banquet facility on the Detroit River, where the team hosted its appreciation party for season-ticket holders. But it was the 400 Squad Members in attendance expressing their gratitude, giving a rousing ovation to the six-time All-Star who has revived Detroit’s championship expectations for 2008.

“I’m very excited to be here and to start working with these young ladies,” McWilliams-Franklin told the audience. “I hope I can help some in the middle. I can’t replace, or try to replace, anybody. I’m just here to help out.”

No names were mentioned, but this crowd of loyal Shock fans needed none. They knew that when All-Star forward Cheryl Ford went down with a season-ending right knee injury July 22, Detroit’s title hopes momentarily dropped with her. Without the services of the WNBA’s third-leading rebounder, Shock head coach and general manager Bill Laimbeer acquired McWilliams-Franklin, who provides not just comparable statistics, but a similar mind-set.

“Definitely my defensive intensity,” she said when asked what she’ll bring to the Shock. “I’m serious about defense, and I think I can help in the post – help us win a title – because I can pretty much shut down anybody.” McWilliams-Franklin is averaging 1.0 blocks and 1.7 steals per game this season; no other Shock player averages at least one in both categories.

Taj McWilliams-Franklin Category Cheryl Ford
13.3PPG 10.1
7.3 RPG 8.7
1.6APG 0.9
0.525FG% 0.481
0.730FT% 0.560
33.2MPG 26.5
McWilliams-Franklin joked about her age, confessing that she’s the league’s second-oldest player behind Seattle center Yolanda Griffith. What’s not a laughing matter is that, at age 38, the 10-year vet has not won a WNBA championship. She came closest in the 2004 and 2005 finals, losing first to the Storm and then the Griffith-led Sacramento Monarchs.

The Shock ended the Sun’s 2006 season en route to their second championship. McWilliam-Franklin recalled Laimbeer’s playful banter with the Connecticut fans during the conference finals. She said the “Darth Vader” theme music from Star Wars accompanied Laimbeer’s entrance to the floor at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“So that’s not how I feel about him, but apparently, he likes that. It makes him coach better,” she said. “My experience has been just watching him coach the girls and when you win a title and you do it over and over again, you’re obviously doing something right.”

Little has gone right for McWilliams-Franklin since her trade to Los Angeles before the 2007 season. She was on a 10-win Sparks squad before an off-season deal to the Mystics, who are 10-16 at the Olympic break.

McWilliams-Franklin’s extensive time around U.S. professional basketball has given her plenty of chances to cross paths with her new teammates, which should help her acclimate to the first midseason trade of her career. She’s battled Katie Smith since 1997 when both played in the ABL, and she was teammates with Sheri Sam for four seasons and Elaine Powell for one with the WNBA’s Orlando franchise (now the Sun) between 1999 and 2002.

McWilliams-Franklin also played with center Kara Braxton last fall during USA Basketball’s college tour. Laimbeer said Tuesday he anticipates moving Braxton back into the starting lineup alongside McWilliams-Franklin, which is fine by the newcomer. With Braxton statistically having the best season of her four-year career (8.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 0.7 bpg), the 2007 All-Stars should be a formidable duo.

“I think that she’s really one of the sleepers for this team,” McWilliams-Franklin said of Braxton. “She’s going to be the reason we win the title.”

You can’t fault McWilliams-Franklin’s bold optimism. She’s on her best team since her Sun days, supported by Braxton and her primary backup, reigning Sixth Woman of Year Plenette Pierson. Nonetheless, don’t tell McWilliams-Franklin she has less of a burden to carry in Detroit. That falls far from the line thinking that has driven this 38-year-old to remain among the league’s elite forwards – and toward that elusive championship – for 10 years.

“It’s personal. The pressure you put on yourself is more than any pressure from any team or any coach,” she said.

“I’m always trying to be better, trying to do better things. And so with the trade, it’s a different job for me but it’s still going to be the same burden because every day I’m coming in expecting […] to prove I belong on the court and I can play with all the new young talents that are in the league now.”

AfterShocks: Laimbeer revealed to the Squad Members that he intends to sign one more player before the Shock’s next game Aug. 29. “I see a lot of bigs out here [on stage] so I’m probably going to get one of those” guards, he said.