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Sancho Lyttle is among the league leaders in a number of offensive and defensive categories.
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images
Sancho Lyttle doesn’t have any stories of carrying around a basketball at a young age. She didn’t even start playing the game until she was 17. But that hasn’t stopped Lyttle from making up ground to become one of the WNBA’s fastest rising stars.
The Atlanta Dream forward is playing the best basketball of her five-year career this season. With an average of 13 points, seven rebounds a game, Lyttle’s name is getting mentioned among the early MVP favorites. But despite scoring at least 10 points in nine of 10 games this year, Lyttle says her number-one focus is not offense.
“I’m not looking for points,” Lyttle said. “The one thing that I try to do is rebound the ball and give my team a fighting chance.”
Lyttle’s focus may not be putting the ball in the basket, but her teammates are still finding a way to get her the ball. Scoring is all about shot selection for the fifth-year pro out of the University of Houston. Her eyes search out open lanes; anything else and she looks to dish the ball off.
“I don’t want to take any ill advised shots,” the West Indies native said. “Otherwise, I’m probably going to be sitting on the bench.”
Up until this season, the bench is where Lyttle had been making her living in the WNBA. Of the 120 games she played in prior to 2009, she started just 36 of them. Being a reserve didn’t bother Lyttle so much. After all, she was still relatively new to the game. The 28-year-old didn’t start playing basketball until her senior year of high school after making the switch from track.
“It wasn’t really getting out of track as much as trying to learn something new,” Lyttle said. “That’s when I started to pick up basketball as a hobby to try and learn the fundamentals of it.”
Lyttle’s short-lived high school basketball career led her to Clarendon Junior College (Clarendon, Texas) for two seasons before a scholarship offer came from the University of Houston. Despite a light basketball resume, coaches there saw potential due to her athleticism and height.
It didn’t take long for Lyttle to get noticed. On Nov. 21, 2004, Lyttle’s first game with U of H, she took the ball to the basket, past a group of Gonzaga defenders, for a dunk – a rare feat in the women’s game. The slam got her national attention.
“That was a bet thing and I was feeling good that day,” Lyttle, who had her bags carried for her the following weekend, said modestly.
Don’t count on seeing Lyttle dunk in a WNBA game anytime soon. She says her hands are too small to palm the ball; plus, “two points is two points,” so she doesn’t want to risk blundering the play.
Over the next two years, WNBA scouts came out to watch Lyttle perform. The voices close to her were a constant reminder that playing professionally was a strong possibility. Then, her senior year, Lyttle led the country in rebounding and finished among the leaders in points. Her stats were good enough to garner an invitation to the 2005 WNBA draft in Secaucus, N.J.
Lyttle didn’t know where she was going to be picked. She knew there were players who understood the game better than her, not to mention, had been playing for many more years. But she had potential, a quality teams love. With the fifth overall pick, the Houston Comets selected her. Lyttle had been hoping the Comets would call her name.
Houston was a perfect fit for Lyttle. She didn’t have to call a moving truck, just friends to tell them she was staying in town. Immediately, she became a sponge, sucking up knowledge on and off the court, trying to better herself anyway she could.
“Coming into the WNBA was a rude awakening,” she said. “These people have been here and they’ve worked hard for what they wanted and they’re the best.”
“Whenever I got a minute, I played it. Whenever I got a second, I played it. In Houston, because of who they had, I just had to take what I got.”
Over four seasons and 120 games with Houston, Lyttle averaged 5.5 points and 4.8 rebounds per game. But numbers are deceiving, and people around the league noticed the more she played, the better her stats became.
When Houston ceased operations prior to last season, Lyttle didn’t know where she was going to play. Her name surfaced in the Comets’ dispersal draft, and she was selected No. 1 overall by the Atlanta Dream. The Dream saw potential – there’s that word again – in Lyttle and brought her on board to provide a strong inside presence for their young club.
In the Dream’s first three games this season, Lyttle came off the bench. Her numbers during that stretch (34 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks) gave coach Marynell Meadors no choice but to start her rising star. Lyttle responded with back-to-back 20-point games against Connecticut and Washington. She also grabbed 28 rebounds between those two contests.
“The numbers speak for the minutes,” Lyttle said. “If you go in there and play as hard as you can, the numbers increase.”
Lyttle’s stats have remained strong since taking over the Dream’s starting forward spot in early June. She’s now playing ahead of Snow, who was in front of her in Houston. The team, meanwhile, already has as many wins (4) as they had all of last season. There’s still a lot more basketball to play this year and Lyttle believes there’s still room for improvement.
“Every night we step on the floor, we have to have the same intensity,” Lyttle said. “It’s early in the season so we’re hoping that it’s not too late before we figure it out.”
The Dream have plenty of time left to continue to build on this progress. Lyttle is at the forefront of this movement, and she’s exactly the type of player they need on the floor right now.