Whalen, Connecticut Doing Fine

There will be no quotes from Lindsay Whalen in this article, and with good reason. While the Connecticut Sun's rookie point guard should have been preparing for her team's Jun. 11 game at Seattle - and speaking with the media - she was instead in a local hospital, undergoing tests that confirmed that she had strep throat.

Whalen's rookie season was interrupted by an untimely case of strep throat.
Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty
The illness forced Whalen to miss the final three games of Connecticut's arduous four-game West Coast road trip as she recuperated in her native Minnesota. Without Whalen, the Sun was largely written off in those games - for that matter, prior to the season, Connecticut was written off even with Whalen - but the Sun played the Storm tough, pulled out an 83-76 victory at Sacramento a night later and forced the Los Angeles Sparks to overtime Monday, losing only when rookie Jen Derevjanik missed a potentially tying layup at the buzzer.

At 4-6, Connecticut has been stronger than most experts expected after replacing All-Star Shannon Johnson with Whalen at the point. As Whalen gets healthy and continues to develop, the Sun should only get stronger. No matter what happens, the Sun has already proven itself a resilient group.

"This is not the team that showed up in Connecticut a year ago," Sun Coach Mike Thibault, a former Sonics scout, told the Hartford Courant. "This team is tough. They showed that (Monday) night. They're not afraid of anyone."

That starts at the point guard position. In Whalen's absence, Thibault has split time between two players at opposite ends of their careers. 37-year-old Debbie Black is not only the WNBA's shortest player at 5-3 but also one of its oldest. Black has been backed up by Derevjanik, a 22-year-old rookie out of George Mason University who went undrafted after completing her college career this spring.

The Derevjanik story deserves to be retold. She wasn't on the WNBA map two months ago in the draft. WNBA.com profiled 61 draft-eligible players, and Derevjanik was not amongst them.

A native of Staten Island, Derevjanik paid $100 to attend the Sun's free agent camp. Out of the 39 players in attendance, three, including Derevjanik, were invited to the attend training camp. From there, Derevjanik had to survive six more cuts - including 2003 second-round pick Courtney Coleman and Ugo Oha, the Sun's second-rounder this season - before becoming just the second player in George Mason history to play in the WNBA.

"I'm confident," Thibault said before giving Derevjanik the keys to the offense on Friday. "She wouldn't be on our team unless I thought she could play. She's not some add-on, she's a pro player who can go out and play basketball."

Thibault needn't have worried. While Derevjanik looked like a rookie at times against the Storm, she has not been overmatched since Whalen went down, averaging 5.0 points, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals in the three games - despite playing against three All-Star point guards in Sue Bird, Ticha Penicheiro and Nikki Teasley. Derevjanik played a career-high minutes total in each of the three games as Thibault grew more comfortable with her at the point. At the same time, while Black remains one of the league's hardest-working players - she and Derevjanik both worked on their shot extensively on Friday evening before the game - she is simply no longer a scoring threat whatsoever, totaling six points in the three games. Derevjanik shot just 33.3%, but she forced the defense to take note of her.

There is little question that the Sun's best point guard is Whalen.

"She is the real deal," said Thibault. "She's got great vision, sees everything that's going on. In the men's game, she has the kind of vision on the court that (John) Stockton and Magic (Johnson) and those kind of people have. What she just needs now is game experience to learn what you can and can't get away with in this league. I think that's the biggest thing."

Of course, Thibault can be expected to be that laudatory of his team's top draft pick. The comments on the Storm's side before last week's game carry more weight.

"What I loved about Lindsay Whalen as a college player was that she was very competitive," said Coach Anne Donovan. "You never see her get too high, you never see her get down on herself. She makes everybody around her better. She's able to pass the ball extremely well in transition, and she's finally been able to do that. It seems like with Connecticut's tempo moving up, so has her game. She's very comfortable knocking down the three and she seems comfortable right now."

"She's a really good passer," said Bird of her point guard counterpart. "She really does a lot of good things out there. She creates for her teammates. She makes the players around her better."

Both coaches also agree that the biggest concern about Whalen's game entering the draft - her defensive ability - hasn't really been an issue.

"People said that, and she's been one of our better defenders," noted Thibault. "I don't know if that's an indictment of our team or the fact that she's pretty good. She works at it, she's really worked. From day one, all our perimeter people have really improved and worked on their footwork guarding dribblers. She's done a pretty good job of that. Nobody out here has embarrassed her at all."

Donovan echoed that comment, saying, "She's just working hard at it. What we've seen is she hasn't been hurt. That was the liability in drafting Whalen, you didn't know what she could do defensively, but her learning curve in the first month of the season has been very good."

The consensus is that, once she's back to full health - she's expected in the lineup Friday night when Connecticut takes on Charlotte at home - Whalen should be just fine in the WNBA. And if its performance without Whalen is any indication, the Sun should do pretty well itself.