Finding the Point
On Tuesday afternoon, she found herself heading into a similar situation, selected fourth overall in the WNBA Draft by Bill Laimbeer and the Detroit Shock.
“Obviously I’m on an emotional roller coaster. I’m on an emotional high,” Hornbuckle said via conference call from the draft in Tampa, Fla. “It’s been amazing, this last run at the Final Four with my teammates at Tennessee and waking up and getting ready for the draft and being drafted to Detroit. I’m just honored and blessed to be given that opportunity.”
The 5-foot-11 guard was an All-SEC First Team member in 2008 and guided the Lady Vols' attack, which featured No. 1 overall draft pick Candace Parker. Hornbuckle has the size and championship pedigree that Laimbeer likes to have in his backcourt.
“We like big guards, she passes well, she plays solid defense,” Laimbeer said. “She’s played in every big game there is in college basketball and we thought that would be a really good fit for us not only for the short but also the long term.”
The Shock currently have three guards under contract, starters Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan and reserve Elaine Powell. Entering her eighth season as a pro, the 29-year-old Nolan is the youngest of the three. Laimbeer made no secret of his desire to get younger at the position with a player who can contribute this season, as the Shock vie for their second WNBA title in three years.
“They’re a lot of good players who could have gone at the fourth pick but we really needed guard play,” Laimbeer said. “We went with a guard we thought could play the 1, 2, or 3 if necessary but more importantly guard the 1, 2 or 3.”
It sounds like the rookie guard is already on the same page as her coach. When asked what she can bring to the Shock, Hornbuckle, who had a team-high 104 steals, first mentioned, “the defensive intensity.”
Overshadowed in the Lady Vols’ offense by Parker’s 21.3 points per game, Hornbuckle averaged 10.0 and 9.9 points the past two years. This season she upgraded her 3-point accuracy - which Laimbeer favors in his offense - from 29.2 to 41.8 percent.
As a point guard Hornbuckle’s performance also improved from 2006-07, when she had more turnovers (96) than assists (70). This season she had 134 assists to 85 turnovers, a positive assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.58. Now she’ll learn the pro game from Nolan, an All-WNBA First Team member, and Smith, the leading scorer in the history of U.S. women’s professional basketball.
“I hope to learn a lot. Those are some great players, just watching them in WNBA All-Star games and such,” Hornbuckle said. “I have a lot of work to do to get to that level. I’m excited to learn from them and just grow as a player and a person.”
Hornbuckle said she didn’t work out for the Shock prior to the draft and has not met Laimbeer before. She’s heard about his reputation for being tough on players, of course, but that’s nothing new after four years under Hall of Fame coach Pat Summitt.
“Pat Summit gets us ready for any kind of situation and Coach Laimbeer is a very intense guy. Just watching Detroit play, they’re very physical, very up-tempo, very aggressive and I love that style of play,” Hornbuckle said. “That’s the kind of player I am, so I’m excited to enter into that program.”
The Shock drafted another guard at No. 28, Natasha Lacy from UTEP, after narrowly missing out on Wanisha Smith from Duke, who went one pick earlier to New York.
The 5-foot-10 Lacy will have to compete with training camp invitees, including Chrissy Givens and Nina Norman, for one of the backup guard spots. “I’d still like to look around for a guard somewhere down the road,” Laimbeer said. “We’ll have at least one guard spot or two guard spots that will be open for competition.”
For the second year in a row Laimbeer unexpectedly found himself drafting a player he didn’t think would be available at the 11th pick. In 2007 it was North Carolina guard Ivory Latta. This time it was three-time All-SEC First Team forward Tasha Humphrey.
When the expansion franchise Atlanta Dream passed on the 6-foot-2 senior from nearby University of Georgia at No. 8, Laimbeer realized there was a possibility she could slide two more spots.
“She was the player that we had put as our No. 1 choice of the remaining bigs if they were going to be there, so when it got to that (No. 11) choice, there was no choice,” Laimbeer said. “We had to take her.”
The Shock frontcourt is stacked at the top with All-Star starters Kara Braxton and Cheryl Ford backed up by WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year Plenette Pierson. But Humphrey’s long-range touch could help her find a role, especially playing the 5 in a “small-ball” lineup. She shot 35.7 percent (96-for-269) from behind the arc at Georgia.
“She has a 3-ball that is difficult to get in a lot of big players,” Laimbeer said. “She can pass well. She’s going to compete for time, which will be great for her.”
The competition got even tighter just seven picks later, when the Shock drafted another 6-foot-2 post player in Olayinka Sanni from West Virginia. “Really we were impressed with her athleticism for somebody that big,” Laimbeer explained. “She runs well, she runs powerfully. She can get inside and finish the shot using her body and her strength, which is a huge plus moving from the college to the pros.”
Though he sees Humphrey and Sanni bringing different assets to the Shock offense, Laimbeer said these prospects in particular “had the two biggest upside potentials to improve in the pro game because of their strength.”
Looking for size to replace 6-foot-8 Katie Feenstra, Laimbeer drafted a true center with his third-round pick, No. 42 overall. Valeriya Berezhynska, a 6-foot-4 pivot from Rice, will have a chance in training camp to win the back-up center role that was vacated when Feenstra was taken by Atlanta in the expansion draft. She averaged 17.3 points and 10.1 rebounds as a senior.