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Filling the shoes of 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, who was traded to the New York Liberty on draft day, will be no small task, but No. 1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike, and an influx of other young talent in Alyssa Thomas, Chelsea Gray, DeNesha Stallworth and Kelsey Bone (in from New York as part of the swap) give the Connecticut Sun a much needed fresh start.  (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)
Filling the shoes of 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, who was traded to the New York Liberty on draft day, will be no small task, but No. 1 draft pick Chiney Ogwumike, and an influx of other young talent in Alyssa Thomas, Chelsea Gray, DeNesha Stallworth and Kelsey Bone (in from New York as part of the swap) give the Connecticut Sun a much needed fresh start. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images)

Eastern conference preview: All signs point to Atlanta

Contributor
April 28, 2014 - 5:45pm

The Eastern Conference grabbed most of the 2014 WNBA draft headlines, with all of its acquisitions.

Perhaps most notable was the blockbuster trade between Connecticut and New York that sent 2012 league MVP Tina Charles to the Liberty in exchange for Kelsey Bone, rookie Alyssa Thomas and next year's first-round draft pick. The exchange may swing the pendulum for the conference in uncharted directions. The Mystics' trade to Seattle of Crystal Langhorne for Tianna Hawkins and rookie Bria Hartley added extra intrigue.

“You have to be happy if you’re Connecticut with the fresh start. You’ve added three very good players, and one more to come,” said Richard Cohen, writer for WNBAlien.com

Beyond the trades, Connecticut and Washington infused a wealth of young talent to their rosters, making both teams likely to become enticing contenders as the regular season approaches. Still, the field is just as murky as last year, so a team who can go on a surge will draw favorable odds of making a deep post-season run.

Connecticut Sun

There is near-universal agreement that Connecticut got the best possible outcome in its predicament with a grumpy Charles, getting rid of a player who had told the team, through her agent, that she would not play in the league this season unless traded, and getting at least something of value back from New York as a result of the trade, according to Connecticut GM Chris Sienko. Additionally, the Sun added No. One draft pick Chiney Ogwumike, and fellow rookies Chelsea Gray and DeNesha Stallworth, which energized the partisan crowd who watched the draft unfold at Mohegan Sun Arena.

“This is the best young talent that assembled itself on one team,” said ESPN color commentator and analyst LaChina Robinson, who covered the draft.

Ogwumike figures to be the Sun’s starting power forward, as her ability to finish consistently in the paint is downright fearsome. Throughout her four years at Stanford, Ogwumike’s lowest field-goal percentage in a season was 57.4 percent - a mark set in her freshman campaign.

“She’s efficient around the glass, she can rebound, she is energetic. She also is a great mouthpiece for the league,” Robinson said.

Target Ogwumike, and Thomas can provide instant relief. She could substitute for Ogwumike at power forward, or hook up with her at center or small forward. Rounding out the youthful interior is Bone, who made the All-Rookie team last season and won a EuroLeague title during the winter. Collectively, the three could possess more potency than Charles did alone. On the down side, however, not one of the three possesses much range. Ogwumike, Thomas and Bone are all good primarily in the paint through the middle of the key, and though Ogwumike told Full Court she had been working on developing a 3-pointer throughout her senior season, of the 15 long balls she has attempted in game action, she has netted only four (.267).

The Sun’s biggest questions entering the year are the capabilities of coach Anne Donovan, following last year’s dismal 10-24 season, and the capacity of Sun guards. Donovan can hardly be forced to bear the brunt of the blame for last year's league-worst performance, in which an injury-plagued season saw seven Connecticut players miss a cumulative 78 games and the Sun dress a full complement of 11 players just twice. Historically, the Naismith Hall of Famer has the coaching chops, having led the Seattle Storm to the 2004 WNBA championship, becoming the first female coach in the league to capture the title. Donovan also led the U.S. National Team to the Olympic gold medal in Beijing, but still holds the dubious distinction of being the first U.S. National Team coach of the modern (post-1996) era to see the women fall short of the gold, at the World Championships in Brazil in 2006.

Donovan has had a history of strained relationships with players, several members of the Sun roster grumbled openly last year about the length of Donovan's practices which they blamed for some of the team's late-season injuries, and it is no secret that Donovan failed to win the hearts and minds of two of the team's key veterans, Charles, the 2012 league MVP, and Kara Lawson. This year, Donovan gets a fresh start with a new and largely healthy roster; her fate is in her own hands.

As for the guards, Chelsea Gray, who has suffered repeated knee injuries and underwent season-ending surgery in January, might be available by the end of the season. Gray twice saw her season ended prematurely due to injuries to her right knee while at Duke, though neither was the all-too-common ACL tear. In 2013, Gray disclocated her right kneecap after landing awkwardly on a rebound in action against Wake Forest, forcing her to miss the latter part of the season after undergoing surgery to repair the medial patellofemoral ligament, the ligament responsible for holding the kneecap in place. Gray, who had previously undergone ankle surgery at the end of the 2010-11 season, stayed at Duke over the summer, working with an athletic trainer to get back to top playing condition, but saw action in just 17 games this season before fracturing the same kneecap while playing against Boston College, again requiring reparative surgery.

Gray told Full Court she does not know how to compare the pain -- and length of the rehabilitative process -- between her injuries and an ACL tear. "Fortunately, I've only had this one," she said with a brave smile. But though Duke coach Joanne P. McCallie, has called Gray an "incredibly fast healer," Sienko indicated that the Sun plan to allow the rooki to take this summer to heal and rehabilitate.

Among returning backcourt players, Alison Hightower and Renee Montgomery were both hindered by injuries last season, and Montgomery still carries the reputation of a volume shooter.

What the Sun may lack in explosiveness could be made up in camaraderie, particularly with the injection of the personable Ogwumike into the mix, and if the rest of the team is willing to stick with Donovan, her second season could be much more positive.

“If Chiney comes in and is immediately good, this an interesting team. They’ve got talent and a little bit of depth,” Cohen said.

New York Liberty

The goal for any team who gives up a lottery pick in the draft is to acquire something tangible. In the case of New York, the Liberty picked up one of the league’s superstars in Charles by way of trade with Connecticut. Not only does this bring a native New Yorker home in the Liberty’s return to Madison Square Garden, but coach Bill Laimbeer may have also found a player to complement guard Cappie Pondexter in ways that a raw rookie tapped in the draft simply could not match.

All three of New York’s primary post players from last year are above the age of 30: Kara Braxton is 31, Plenette Pierson 32 and DeLisha Milton-Jone 39. Charles is 25 and has the kind of pedigree that New York is hoping will invigorate the interior.

“Tina Charles can hit the high-post shot. She’s not just a player who plays on the block. The versatility she brings to New York is definitely a plus,” said Christy Winters-Scott, who covers the league as a member of Washington’s broadcast team.

A change of venue for Charles could also revitalize Pondexter. Both players are coming off lackluster seasons in 2013, adding a tinge of uncertainty to Laimbeer’s transaction. Pondexter has also slumped recently in overseas competition, and a recurring theme with the Liberty has been the lack of assistance to make opposing teams pay for converging on the high-scoring Pondexter.

“[Pondexter] doesn’t seem to finish at the rim as well as she used to, but that’s part of bringing Charles in. The idea would be to take the pressure off each other,” Cohen said.

The Liberty also added two players in the draft: Georgia Tech’s Tyaunna Marshall and Tennessee’s Meighan Simmons. Though touted as a possible first-round pick, Simmons, the fifth player in school history to amass 2,000 career points, did not hear her name called until early in the third round, leading the assembled WNBA brass who had invited her to attend the festivities to breathe a collective sigh of relief and lend their own voices to augment the cheering of the diminishing Connecticut crowd of spectators.

Simmons' reputation as an often-erratic volume shooter who can at times become a black hole for the basketball undoubtedly undermined the value of her stock as a draft prospect, but some analysts believe that value was discounted too steeply. Two of the players to pass that 2,000-career-point benchmark before Simmons - Tamika Catchings and Candace Parker - went on to become cornerstones of the WNBA. And Laimbeer, to say nothing of WNBA veterans like Pondexter and Charles, may be able to instill a shooting discipline in Simmons that the Tennessee coaching staff was unable to inculcate.

Both rookies could give the Liberty a scoring threat at the shooting guard position, and with point guard Leilani Mitchell announcing last week that she would take this season off to focus on training with the Australian national team for the upcoming FIBA World Championship, both could see considerable floor time.

Another mystery the Liberty are hoping to solve is Essence Carson. The seventh-year wing was on pace for a breakout season last year until an ACL injury ended her campaign after just four games.

“We’ve seen flashes of brilliance from her,” Robinson said. “Injury continues to be the thing that sets her back.”

Indiana Fever

With two first-round picks at its disposal, Indiana used one for now and one “for later.” With the No. 5 pick, they claimed Natasha Howard from Florida State. Four spots later they scooped up Notre Dame forward Natalie Achonwa, with full knowledge that she will be unable to play this season due to an ACL tear she suffered in the NCAA tournament. (For those who are worried that Achonwa will re-declare in next year’s draft under the new rules of the Collective Bargaining Agreement, Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis is only 142 miles away from Notre Dame’s Joyce Center, linked by a rabid devotion to basketball. She’ll stick around for a while.)

The Fever have employed a “small-ball” formula with great success over the last few years, including their 2012 championship season, and their choices signal a continuation of that strategy.

“What they get with Howard is staying mobile and quick at the forwards," Cohen said. "She fits in with the way they play, someone who can move around and attack off the dribble."

The use of Howard could alter the Fever’s lineup when the season begins. Her playing style is considered similar to that of veteran forward Erlana Larkins, which will add presence to Indiana’s interior. Howard could allow All-Star Catchings to weave between wing and power forward.

The deployment of Catchings will be even more deeply affected by the loss of Katie Douglas, and the pick-up of free agent Marissa Coleman, at the wing.  By the numbers, Coleman, who averaged just 4.6 points per game off the bench for the Sparks last season is no substitute for Douglas at her best, but the Fever was forced to manage without Douglas in all but four games last season. By all accounts, head coach Lin Dunn has high expectations for a much-expanded role for Coleman in the Fever lineup.

Catchings has stayed on par with her production since moving to the four, and with numbers like her 17.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and league-leading 2.8 steals per game in 2013, one must assume that the Fever will want to keep Catchings at power forward unless the void on the wing proves too great a liability. In that case, the 6-3 Howard will offer a reliable back-up to Catchings, as well as to Larkins, who though just 6-1 and nominally a forward, has been playing the center position for the Fever for the last few years. Indeed, Howard might even be able to provide the scoring punch that Larkins, valued for her team-high 10.3 rebounds per game last season, too often lacks (10.8 ppg).

What the Fever may have needed most from the draft a high-quality true center, but what they failed to garner in the draft they have picked up elsewhere. Two candidates for the role are in training camp: Six-four Victoria Macauley, a WNBA rookie, graduated from Temple in 2013 ranked fourth in school history in blocks (211), ninth in rebounds (740), and 22nd in points (972). Macaulay spent the past season at Lavezzini Parma in the Italian A1 league, where she  averaged 15.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 1.4 steals per game and was named an Italian League All-Star, but what might appeal most to Dunn is her nomination to the A-10 All-Defensive team in her senior season at Temple. Also in camp is 6-4 Chilean center Ziomara Morrison, who rode the bench for San Antonio in 2012, averaging 2.0 points and 1.2 rebounds in 5.5 minutes per game, but was waived in training camp in 2013. Morrison had a similarly disultory European season in 2012, but came into her own in 2013, when she was named MVP of the Spanish league finals after exploding for 39 points and 18 rebounds. This year the 25-year-old international averaged 16.3 points and 9.5 rebounds per game for Ceyan Bid in Turkey.

Poised to make a major impact is Shavonte Zellous, who became the starting player at shooting guard while Douglas was sidelined last season. "Phenomenal" would accurately describe the last 18 months for the sixth-year veteran out of Pitt. Following a brilliant 2012 playoff run, Zellous had career highs in scoring (14.7 ppg) and rebounding (3.1 rpg) in 2013. Overseas, she picked up a EuroLeague championship with Galatasaray.

In short, while the Fever did not gain much immediate help in this year's draft, the pieces for yet another playoff run are still in place. Underestimate coach Lin Dunn’s approach at your own risk.

“This will still be a team that wins games. They know how to win, even when they’re short-handed,” Cohen said.

Washington Mystics

On the surface, Washington's draft day trade of marquee player Crystal Langhorne for two, as yet unproven, newcomers in rookie Bria Hartley players, and first-year veteran Tiana Hawkins, might appear ill-advised. Upon closer examination, the deal is a continuation of Mike Thibault’s remodeling of the Mystics into a young, up-tempo, guard-oriented squad.

Hartley will mitigate Tayler Hill’s maternity leave, and the chemistry she has with former UConn teammate Dolson should ease the jump to a level where blowouts aren’t guaranteed as easily; the two UConn standouts were roommates throughout their college career.

“Hartley will help out in the perimeter rotation. She could easily end up as the first guard off the bench,” Cohen said.

While Hartley will mix it up with veteran guards Ivory Latta and Kara Lawson, Stefanie Dolson will hopefully do the same with Kia Vaughn, and possibly Michelle Snow. Dolson’s sophomore-year commitment to improving her fitness reaped massive benefits over the last two college seasons, which she finished averaging close to a double-double (12.5 ppg, team-high 9.3 rbg, plus more than two blocks per game) as a senior.

“Stefanie Dolson’s work ethic is unmatched at her position. She has a personality that people love to be around. It’s a great move for Washington to get that true post presence in the interior,” Winters-Scott said.

Winters-Scott views this year’s Washington team as a special blend of young players sprinkled with mentors who can quickly teach them about Thibault’s style.

“You’ve got a lot of veterans who respect the game and have a very high IQ. You have these young players who possess those same qualities, but just don’t have the professional experience yet, but they’ll gain that,” she said.

Langhorne will be missed by fans, especially for weathering the ineptitude of former coach Trudi Lacey, but the Washington faithful also trust Thibault’s maneuvers. Some speculators see this move as possibly giving up a near-term playoff spot to be more competitive in the long-term, but don’t overlook factors like Latta’s career-best assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.3 last year.

The Mystics do not feature a “superstar,” but their collective talent can generate victories.

Atlanta Dream

If the draft were assessed by power of personality, Atlanta would probably win the day. Louisville sharpshooter Shoni Schimmel, who has risen to near-cult status not only among Cardinals fans but for Native Americans throughout the country, was scooped in the eighth overall slot, where she will join fellow Louisville product Angel McCoughtry, a powerful personality in her own right.

“Schimmel should give them some perimeter scoring and someone to help out with the ball-handling,” Cohen said.

The Dream had a space available with Armintie Herrington going to Los Angeles, and tapping into Schimmel’s resonance with the Native American community could boost attendance in the too-often near-empty confines of Philips Arena. Schimmel, who fell a few inches short of returning the Cardinals to the Final Four when her Hail Mary trey rolled off the rim in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, provided a better glimpse of her long-distance form earlier this month, winning the State Farm College 3-point championship for men and women.

Robinson, who covers the team locally through FOX Sports Net affiliate SportSouth, noted that Schimmel is not alone among the perimeter pickups for Atlanta.

“I like the addition of Shoni Schimmel and Inga Orekhova, two lights-out three-point shooters. That’s an area where Atlanta has struggled over the years to find consistency. The flashy, fun and exciting play of Shoni is something we all look forward to seeing,” she said.

Encouraging Atlanta to shoot the ball will not be an issue, but getting players into a synergetic state has been the long-missing component preventing this team from clearing its post-season hurdles.

The Dream have qualified for the WNBA Finals in three of the last four years, and in all three of those seasons, McCoughtry stood near the top of the league in field-goal attempts. Such traits are translated to a “take-over” gene in the regular season, but in the playoffs, and especially in the Finals, McCoughtry’s desire to shoot the ball constantly would backfire, as her individual numbers would be overpowered by the collaborative efforts of opposing teams.

Reductions in efficiency offer no favors either. McCoughtry shot a career-low 31.4 percent from the floor in the 2013 playoffs, posing no threat at all to Minnesota during the championship series where she shot an even worse 28.6 percent from the field and 25 percent from beyond the arc..

The big question is whether the talented personalities in question will complement one another on the playing floor or lead to clashes of egos in the locker room. Averaging close to a double-double in her senior season, Schimmel’s road to the pros is a strong echo of her Louisville predecessor.

“If you’re good enough to be drafted in the first round, then you’re a star on your college team. When you’re coming into a pro team, you have to be more complementary,” Cohen said.

Robinson believes new Atlanta head coach Michael Cooper can instill greater cooperation and ball distribution among his charges. Cooper himself understands the flashy setting from his Los Angeles Lakers “Showtime” days.

“His ability to relate to players and get the most out of them truly excites me when you think about him taking the task to get the most out of Angel,” she said.

Speaking of flash, another player to watch is Celine Dumerc, the French native whom Atlanta signed in March. Despite a wealth of experience in international play, Dumerc, whose up-tempo play and near-magically well-timed passes are bound to entertain spectators, will enter the WNBA for the first time, having prioritized play for the French national team when called up in the past. If Dumerc can translate her international credentials, which include a silver medal in the 2012 Olympic Games, the Dream could have a strong set-up presence to feed the likes of McCoughtry, Schimmel, Erika de Souza and Sancho Lyttle.

Chicago Sky

Chicago, which had its best-ever season in 2013, saw its situation take a  turn for the worse two weeks ago, with the team announcing that perennial All-Star Sylvia Fowles would undergo hip surgery. No time has been set for a possible return, and with Swin Cash still unsigned, Chicago’s lack of depth becomes far more problematic.

Why is health of the Sky starters an imperative? Four of the top seven positions in net plus/minus for 2013 were held by Chicago players. Epiphanny Prince had the highest mark of any player last year, with Rookie of the Year Elena Delle Donne finishing second.

The Sky bench fell on the opposite end of the spectrum: Sky reserves occupied three of the lowest five spots in the plus/minus tally, a situation that adds pressure to the athletes up front. If Fowles is out for a lengthy amount of time and Cash decides not to rejoin the team, production from the rest of the starters could be heavily compromised, especially with Delle Donne’s success the result, in part, of switching her away from defensive threats.

“What Cash gave them was flexibility defensively. If you have to replace Cash, you don’t have the same options and Delle Donne is forced to guard the big forward,” Cohen said.

Inside, first-round draft pick Markeisha Gatling likely goes from sporadic back-up to starting center until Fowles can return. Gatling’s 6-5 frame sets her up easily for shots down low, where she hit two-thirds of her attempts in her senior season at North Carolina State. Vying with Gatling for the starting slot in Fowles' absence, in Georgia product Sasha Goodlett, a two-year veteran picked up from Indiana in the off-season. Goodlett was pretty much a nonfactor with the Fever where she averaged having averaged just 2.4 points and 1.6 boards in roughly seven minutes per game off the bench over the course of her WNBA career. Also new to the Sky from Indiana is 6-3 forward  Jessica Breland, a former Tar Heel signed as a free agent, who had a more successful stint for the Fever, where she averaged 5.3 points and 4.0 rebounds in 14.6 minutes per game off the bench in her first full season in the league after previous abortive engagements with the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun.

While Gatling is as yet untested, and Breland and Goodlett are no Sylvia Fowles, any of the three would give the Sky a much-needed presence at the rim.

“Her positioning was really tough for anyone to guard,” Winters-Scott said of Gatling. “You can still shoot, keep that size and have the advantage in the middle.”

Pokey Chatman’s approach this season had included moving Delle Donne to a more permanent spot at small forward. However, discussions of the second-year player moving to the five will be inevitable in Fowles’ absence, should Gatling, Breland and Goodlett fail to fill the bill. At 6-5, Delle Donne certainly has the size to fill the position, and its hard to argue with  her 1.8 blocks per game which ranked fifth in the league in 2013. If forced to make the shift, however, the Sky would give up the defensive mismatch Delle Donne so effectively created at the wing last year.

No matter what the rotation proves to be, Chicago needs to get deeper. Whether that comes from free agent acquisitions or later-round draft picks like Cal forward Gennifer Brandon and Southern Mississippi guard Jamierra Faulkner, there is a persistent sense that the Sky are always one injury away from a playoff spot.

Eastern Conference Prediction: No one is quite sure who will assert themselves as the top contender in the East, as each team has a precarious postulate to solve in order to be successful.

Atlanta needs to spread the ball more often and more evenly; Chicago has to up its bench production; Connecticut must forge cohesion; Indiana’s roster remains a bit shallow, especially on the perimeter; New York is hoping to reverse the downward trajectory of its stars; and Washington could use more consistency.

Factoring recent events, New York has a slight edge with its dynamic crop of established competitors.

“Cappie Pondexter has not performed well as of late. I think she’s due for a breakout season, and what better time than being alongside Tina Charles,” Robinson said.

With Pondexter no longer forced to carry the team solo, she should be in better position to perform. If Essence Carson resumes her path prior to her season-ending injury last year, the Liberty could go from slight favorite to heavy favorite.

Also atop anyone's list of preseason favorites would have to be Atlanta, the most intact team from 2013, despite losing two key contributors during the off-season. Getting a fresh start with Michael Cooper, the Dream need fewer adjustments than casual fans might think to become dominant. As usual, Angel McCoughtry’s activity will be monitored closely, but reaching the Finals on a continual basis is no fluke.


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