Roster signings completed, team has time to gel before Aug. 29

All the Right Moves

The Detroit Shock signed Tausha Mills, Ayana Walker and Tyresa Smith last August to eat minutes up as the key players rested for the 2007 playoffs. None of the three are in the WNBA this season.

Detroit’s transaction line has been just as full this August but the acquisitions have been of a considerably higher caliber: a seven-year center, a six-time All-Star forward and a 2007 first-round draft pick.

It’s the ideal outcome of necessity (following Cheryl Ford’s season-ending injury) and opportunity. The Olympic break gave Shock general manager and head coach Bill Laimbeer a lengthy timetable to work the phones and evaluate potential trade scenarios without the burden of game preparation. The hiatus from competition also allowed those new players to mesh with teammates before stepping into a game.

Detroit’s diligence netted a long-coveted asset: 6-foot-2 Taj McWilliams-Franklin, the closest facsimile to Ford that was available. Playing on an expiring contract, McWilliams-Franklin was unlikely to be re-signed by the Mystics, who are building for the future. What looked like a late-season rental became more substantial Tuesday when the Shock extended her through 2009.

“It was something that I wanted to do,” said McWilliams-Franklin. “I went to Coach Laimbeer and asked him about it, if he’d be willing to extend my contract. It’s a great opportunity for me. I want to continue playing and having another year to play, especially here in Detroit, is going to be great for me.”

Though she turns 38 in October, the WNBA’s second-oldest player may be it’s most consistent. She’s averaging 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds this season – nearly identical production (13.1 ppg, 7.5 rpg) to her first WNBA season – way back in 1999.

With center Kara Braxton returning to the starting lineup to play alongside McWilliams-Franklin at power forward, 6-foot-5 Kelly Schumacher may have found a more definitive role. Schumacher, signed shortly after Ford’s season-ending diagnosis, was initially brought in to restore some of the team’s frontcourt depth. A respectable two-way player with playoff experience, she could be an ideal backup to Braxton, who was prone to foul trouble when she started in 2007. Schumacher gives Laimbeer a veteran post presence that could hold her own at either end if Braxton draws early whistles.

The 2-for-1 deal – Detroit said farewell to Tasha Humphrey and Shay Murphy as well as a 2009 second-round pick to nab McWilliams-Franklin – also opened up a roster space. On Tuesday Laimbeer filled it with Ashley Shields, who just last April was drafted eighth overall by the Comets. The league’s first drafted player from a community college struggled with expectations, however, averaging 5.3 points and 1.3 rebounds as a rookie. Her Houston stint ended after only three games in 2008. Shields initially thought the phone call from Shock director of player personnel Cheryl Reeve was a prank. Now she’s smiling at a second chance.

“It means a lot because Detroit, this is a winning team, they're hungry, they have this mentality that they’re champions. That’s just something I need to be around, a group of girls like that and the coaches,” Shields said. “I’m just glad to be on this team and I’m just happy to get another opportunity.”

Fresh faces bring a healthy dose of optimism to the Shock, which entered the Olympic break reeling from the aftermath of Ford’s injury and suspensions related to the July 22 skirmish with Los Angeles. The players surely needed time off to regroup, and the infusion of new blood has helped propel the team forward. You’d never guess this is a team with a four-game losing streak to snap.

The Olympic break was most uniquely advantageous to the Shock in this regard: Laimbeer not only acquired new gears, he still has time to assemble the machine and work out the kinks. In an uninterrupted season the Shock likely would have continued to stumble as the new players tried to fit in. Instead they had weeks to learn the playbook and get acquainted with their teammates. That accommodation time makes a huge difference, even for an All-Star.

“I’m feeling so much better,” McWilliams-Franklins said Wednesday following a scrimmage. “It was a little overwhelming for me at first, and then came to practice the next morning and learned like 50 plays. … I’m so happy now, especially with the trade, that I can get two more weeks of just being here without any pressure about winning and losing games.”

AfterShocks: Elaine Powell participated in Wednesday’s scrimmage and appeared to be running at full speed and jumping with no discomfort in her left foot, which has kept her sidelined since June 11.