Fitter and focused, Shock rookie becomes unexpected starter

Humphrey�s Happening

Tasha Humphrey knew as soon as the Detroit Shock drafted her 11th overall that her rookie season might be spent on the bench.

The Detroit frontcourt was loaded with All-Stars Kara Braxton and Cheryl Ford and Sixth Woman of the Year Plenette Pierson. The Eastern Conference champions didn�t have minutes to spare for a first-year player, even a 6-foot-3 forward with decent range.

�I think everybody who gets drafted to a team, the first day they go look at the roster,� Humphrey said Wednesday. �I knew that (Detroit) had a lot of great players. And I looked at it as, I was either going to stay in the background or I was going to battle.�

Two weeks ago, Humphrey seemed destined for the background. She did not play in three of Detroit�s first seven games while other rookies were finding their niche. Alexis Hornbuckle set a Shock record with seven steals in her debut and continues to lead the league in that category. Second-round pick Olayinka Sanni�s hustle and low-post touch earned her a starting nod by the third game.

But the battling has paid off. Promoted to the starting lineup during the team�s West Coast trip, Humphrey scored 28 points in Saturday�s victory at Phoenix, the most ever by a Shock rookie. It was a sudden ascendance, to be sure, and in a nationally televised game to boot. But it didn�t happen overnight.

It happened while she was in the background, losing 17 pounds to a strict diet and conditioning regimen. It happened when she discovered the intense, two-way brand of basketball that head coach Bill Laimbeer demands. And, primarily, it happened because the opportunity arose.

�We found ourselves in a situation where we needed another scorer in the starting lineup. She was a logical choice to put in there,� Laimbeer said. �I like our bench players in Hornbuckle and Plenette and Braxton. I was searching for another scorer, and she was the one who could make shots.�

Humphrey averaged 18.0 points per game on 50 percent field goal shooting during her career at the University of Georgia. She also displayed a long-range touch, averaging 25 triples per season. That skill set made Humphrey attractive to Laimbeer, himself once a post player with range that extended beyond the arc.

Laimbeer made the switch after the June 7 loss in Seattle, where the Storm�s starting lineup outscored Detroit�s, 68-29. Detroit�s leading scorers, Deanna Nolan and Katie Smith, combined to shoot 8-of-33.

�We�re relying so heavily on our guards in our starting lineup that there�s too much pressure on them,� Laimbeer said. �If they�re taken away (by defenders), or having an off night shooting, we�re struggling to score with our starters.�

He approached Humphrey at the team�s first practice in Los Angeles. The offer came with the standard Laimbeer disclaimer. �Basically he said if I didn�t rebound and I didn�t play defense, I wasn�t going to play,� Humphrey said, �and that�s the mentality that they instill in everybody here.�

To be active defender and remain effective at the offensive end, Humphrey had to lose weight. It was a long and not particularly pleasant process that began in training camp, but Humphrey is so encouraged by the physical improvement that she wants to lose 10 more pounds.

�I knew it was something I needed to do as a basketball player, especially on this level,� she said. �If you take 17 pounds off a person, you�re going to start moving better. It eliminated a lot of the knee pain I was having.�

A trimmer Humphrey has been getting plenty of lift on her shot. In both games as a starter, Humphrey has converted early jumpers. She made her first three against L.A., finishing with 10 points on 4-of-5 shooting. For the year Humphrey is shooting an extraordinary 69.2 percent from the floor, including 5-for-8 from 3-point range.

�I think as a basketball player, you hit a couple shots early in the game, you get comfortable,� she said. �With our team - Katie, Deanna, Cheryl - they draw so much attention people sometimes forget about everybody else.�

Yet what surprised Laimbeer most about her play in Phoenix was how assertive she was. Shooting 10-for-15 on the road is not how a rookie shows deference to veterans. Even without the ball, Humphrey remained involved in the play. �I think her court presence was outstanding in the last game and even the game before that (in L.A.), I thought she felt comfortable on the floor in the game, and it showed,� he said.

The Shock return to Atlanta on Sunday to face the Dream. A native of nearby Gainesville with many friends still at UGA, Humphrey couldn�t get many tickets for the Dream�s sold-out home opener May 23. Her cheering section didn�t missed much. She played only five minutes in the 88-76 win.

Now she�ll return as Detroit�s starting center and with enough tickets for nearly 40 friends and family members, including her mother, Brenda Hill, and sister, Cortisha.

Humphrey admits she was surprised that the Dream didn�t draft her with the No. 8 overall pick, given her local ties. But with an expansion franchise she would have been thrust to the forefront, unable to work on her game and her body the way she has with the Shock. She realizes that working in the background has had its advantages.

Not that she plans to go back.

�It was a lot of hard work and I still have a long way to go,� she said of playing in Detroit. �But I want to be great, and I think this is the place to do it.�