“We’re never picked to do well,” says San Antonio coach and general manager Dan Hughes, and this year is no exception. Not only did the Silver Stars lose their leading scorer and rebounder to injury (Sophia Young, 16.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg), the West now has three of the strongest rosters ever assembled in the same conference.
“When you have No. 1 picks in good years for talent,” says Hughes, “you’re going to accumulate some incredible talent,” which is just what Phoenix, Minnesota and Los Angeles have done – and leaves, according to the experts, San Antonio, Seattle and Tulsa battling for fourth place and the right to get swept in the first round of the playoffs.
Hughes, not surprisingly, doesn’t see the high draft picks and elite talent on other teams as a huge stumbling block. “Our culture is such that our players look at star power differently,” he says, but that said, his team still must find a way to replace Young’s contributions, especially on the boards. San Antonio was outrebounded last season, and Young was the team’s best on the boards.
The Silver Stars also rely on veterans such as Becky Hammon and DeLisha Milton-Jones, who have somehow managed to maintain a high level of production despite being 36 and 37, respectively, but are more vulnerable to injury and a sudden decline than most WNBA games.
Point guard - Danielle Robinson, Yvonne Turner, Davellyn White
Though Hughes is obviously a bit biased, his opinion of his point guard, Danielle Robinson, is high: “She’s one of the best point guards in the league,” he says. “She’s gotten better in everything since her first year.”
And though those who feel perimeter players should be a perimeter threat might balk at Robinson’s three-point efforts (zero for seven in 2012), her combination of speed and size helped her average 9.9 points and 4.3 assists a game.
And though San Antonio has usually used Hammon as the backup point guard, Hughes is looking for more help at that spot. Yvonne Turner, who Hughes said is playing well in Russia, and 5-11 rookie Davellyn White are both candidates, even though White was more a two-three in college, and had 147 turnovers in 30 games.
“The backup guard to be productive has to play some minutes at the point,” says Hughes, and with only 10 spots on the roster, there doesn’t appear to be room for both Turner and White, which should make for an interesting training camp.
Shooting guard - Becky Hammon, Jia Perkins
“I don’t know that I’ve ever met a player with her internal qualities,” says Hughes of the apparently ageless Hammon. “Whatever’s inside that mind is what makes Becky Hammon Becky Hammon.”
Her more tangible assets are long-range shooting, great floor vision and toughness, and there’s really no reason to expect much decline from her 2012 14.7 ppg and 43.5% three-point shooting in 2013. “I really don’t notice a big dropoff,” says Hughes.
Her backup will be another veteran, 30-year-old Jia Perkins, who scored 10.6 ppg and had a 2.3 A/TO. “She has a sweet spot with us,” says Hughes, as Perkins may come off the bench but played 23 mpg and took the third-most shots on the team.
So if Hammon has to slide to the one and be Robinson’s backup, playing Perkins big minutes at the two won’t dim the Silver Stars’ offense.
Small forward - Shameka Christon, Shenise Johnson
Shameka Christon wasn’t all the way back in 2012, but at 30, she may be as recovered as she’s going to get. “What you have in Shameka is a gifted shooter,” says Hughes, but he’s also considering playing Christon more at the four this year. That would open up some time for last year’s No. 5 overall pick, Shenise Johnson, to build on an adequate rookie season.
“I think she’ll grow in year two,” says Hughes. “She’ll relax a little bit. She was on a pretty good team last year, and we didn’t lean on her.” In other words, Johnson has always been a featured player who knew that a couple missed shots wouldn’t cut into her playing time; but on the Silver Stars, her minutes were limited and she had to adjust not only to the league, but to a brand new role.
Power forward - DeLisha Milton-Jones, Danielle Adams
It’s simple: “DeLisha Milton-Jones is coming in to be the starting four,” says Hughes of the 14-year veteran. “We love her defense and her rebounding,’ but her best year on the boards was a decade ago, and even then, she didn’t average as many rebounds as Young did last year.
Rookie surprise Danielle Adams also matched Young’s rebounding on a per-minute basis, but she has to stay on the court longer than 20 mpg to make up for Young’s missing rebounds. She also will have to guard quicker players at the power forward slot, but Hughes is confident she can make the adjustment. “We knew she had good feet,” he says of Adams, but the Silver Stars were pleasantly surprised “she could score on the block in this league.”
With Christon also in the mix at the four, the Silver Stars can give opponents a variety of different looks and create matchup issues – but at the same time, they need to rebound well from this spot if they want to challenge the West’s big three.
Center - Jayne Appel, Kayla Alexander, Ziomara Morrison
Jayne Appel didn’t get much love last year, and Hughes concedes she needs to finish better, but San Antonio still was very happy with her progress. “We offered her a role last year” – rebounder, screen-setter – “and she accepted that role. That role elevated her in the pro game,” if not necessarily in the eyes of San Antonio fans, who remember the missed bunnies more than the solid picks and consistent screen-outs.
Rookie Kayla Alexander and second-year player Ziomara Morrison will battle it out for the backup spot, as again, saving a roster spot for Young means the Silver Stars can only carry ten. Morrison shot just 42.3 percent last year, which is way below average for a post, but she does have 30 games of WNBA experience. Hughes feels Alexander will shoot better close to the hoop, which would give the rookie an immediate advantage on a team that has to replace 16 points a game.
But regardless, it’s hard to see San Antonio vaulting past Phoenix, L.A. or Minnesota either during the regular season or in the playoffs, though Hughes thinks there’s more to the story. “We approach every year to get the players the best seed possible,” he says, “ and we control our destiny more than people think.”