Seimone Augustus and Devereaux Peters take questions on media day. Photo by Abe Booker, Stratman Photography.
Seimone Augustus and Devereaux Peters take questions on media day. Photo by Abe Booker, Stratman Photography.

Minnesota is loaded with talent and depth heading into the season

Contributor
June 5, 2015 - 11:00am
Coach Cheryl Reeve stops practice to make a point. Photo by Mike Peden.

Coach Cheryl Reeve stops practice to make a point. Photo by Mike Peden.

2014 record: 25-9

*Eliminated in Western Conference Finals by Phoenix

The Minnesota Lynx have emerged as the preseason favorite to win the 2015 WNBA championship, if only because they have managed to avoid the melodrama enveloping other teams during a highly tumultuous off-season period. The Lynx acted quickly when they learned Janel McCarville would sit out for the season, making a trade with the Sun to bring Asjha Jones on board.

Even with the swap in post personnel, six players will be entering their fourth season together: Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore, Devereaux Peters, Lindsay Whalen and Monica Wright. With most teams having to deal with at least a part-time absence within their rosters, Minnesota's continuity will offer an early advantage in the 2015 season.

"You're never quite sure when they make a mistake. They go so hard, they cover a lot of things up," Jones said.

KEY GAINS

Jones is returning to the WNBA after a two-year hiatus. Nagging injuries and the removal of Mike Thibault at Connecticut soured Jones' prospects of playing, but the Lynx acquired her cheaply, only giving up a 2016 second-round draft pick. In the Cheryl Reeve era, Minnesota is a coveted destination for players hoping to add a title to their accolades.

"I'm new here, but I also know these guys from playing with and against them," Jones said. "The hardest part was not being part of a team. I didn't realize I would miss it until it was gone."

Projected to replace McCarville as the starting center, Jones has a skill set similar to Brunson. Brunson is the more prolific rebounder, but she and Jones both have mid-range jumpers to frustrate defenders with. As a result, both are consistent double-digit scorers when healthy. Jones may not have the passing acumen of McCarville, but she can be a fierce leader and silent assassin on offense.

Anna Cruz is Minnesota's other notable acquisition. The Lynx made a draft day trade to obtain her, exchanging their first-round draft pick with the Liberty. Cruz won't be able to participate for the first month of the season due to a EuroBasket Olympic qualifying tournament, but her energy and intensity are emblematic traits of Reeve's teams.

KEY LOSSES

No one is quite sure why McCarville chose not to participate for the 2015 season; her agent cited a desire to rest, but her absence leaves Minnesota without an effective passer from the high post. McCarville led all centers in assist-to-turnover ratio in the last two seasons, so ball control will be watched more closely as the team pushes on without her. Defensively, McCarville understood how to use her body as a physical post presence, so the Lynx will face some uncertainties in that area, which could be problematic against top centers like Tina Charles and Brittney Griner.

Another key departure is Tan White, who did not re-sign with the team in the off-season. White was the only bench player to see floor time in all 34 games for the Lynx last year, averaging close to five points per game.

DEPTH CHART

CENTER

This preview will start down low and work its way up, because this position could be in flux when the season opens. Jones has not been cleared by trainers to participate in games yet, forcing her to miss both preseason contests. If she can't start, second-year Brazilian Damiris Dantas will assume that role. Dantas started 23 games at power forward in 2014, filling in for the injured Brunson. Her minutes dropped once Brunson returned, but now the two have been working together in practice and the preseason games.

"It's actually a nice combination as far as skill sets," Reeve said.

Dantas hasn't learned enough English to hold a conversation in that language, but she's a quick study on the floor, recognizing openings created by defenders who lean toward Minnesota's established talents. Posting 6.0 points per game, 5.1 rebounds per game and a field goal percentage of 51.1 in her rookie season, Dantas should provide reliable minutes as a starter or reserve.

Dantas and Jones dueled each other overseas, giving Jones a first-hand glimpse of the progress Dantas has made since the jump to professional play.

"She's versatile, she can play inside and outside," Jones said.

Jones is no stranger to Minnesota's core unit either. She played alongside Augustus, Moore and Whalen in the 2012 Olympic Games, representing the United States gold medal run in that tournament. Jones and Whalen were also teammates for six years at Connecticut.

Historically, Minnesota's centers are not the centerpiece on either side of the floor. McCarville and Taj McWilliams-Franklin both performed admirably in their short time with the Lynx, but their jobs usually eased the conditions for their teammates. The depth of talent on this year's team should help ease Jones in for her professional return while Dantas can continue to learn with less stress than most teams in the league.

POWER FORWARD

Minnesota's "machine," Brunson, has returned to full strength after playing in only 11 regular season games last year due to knee surgery. Remnants of her ailment lingered to the court, compromising her shooting accuracy. Brunson hit a career-low 39.5 percent of her field goals in 2014. In the previous three seasons, she was averaging 50 percent.

Numbers aren't a point of study for the 12-year-veteran, but she will likely be called on for lesson plans as one of the familiar faces in Minnesota's interior. Until Jones gets comfortable with the Lynx system, Brunson will be the team's most frequent guide in the post.

"We still want to accomplish the same goals. We didn't lose a lot of people. It's easy to integrate one person, and she's somebody who's willing to come in," Brunson said.

Even if her shot is off, Brunson remains one of the most ferocious rebounders in the league, ranking seventh on the WNBA's all-time list in that category. What she lacks in height, she compensates brilliantly with positioning.

"You can expect to see me out there being the one that's going to bring a lot of energy, being somebody who's going to continue to go after rebounders," Brunson said.

Another player hoping to rebound is Peters, who missed the start of the 2014 season with a knee injury. Her 2014 numbers were comparable to her previous seasons, but avoiding fouls was more strenuous as her timing and instinct on the court was lacking. As she enters her fourth season, the Notre Dame graduate was poised for a sensational run after a strong 2013 playoffs before last year's complications. Peters has proven she can provide reliable minutes off the bench, and that figures to be a goal as she enters the final year of her rookie contract.

"I haven't had any pain or issues with my knee thus far, so I'm really excited to be able to focus on my game and not worry about what my knee is going to do," she said.

The final slot in the post rotation goes to Reshanda Gray, the rookie from California. A first-round projection, Gray dropped to 16th overall, where the Lynx scooped her up as part of their draft day trade with the Liberty.

"We do get six fouls," Gray said jokingly about the college-to-pro transition. "One thing I had to adjust to was the change of pace. It's quicker and you don't have time to stop or pout."

Barring another slew of injuries, Gray's minutes will likely be limited to "stat-padding" time this year, but that's a sacrifice most players are willing to accept to be on a team that competes for championships on a regular basis. Regardless of when she is used, Gray should have an easier time finding shots on a team that can score from anywhere, a perk not always available at Cal.

SMALL FORWARD

If you don't know who the starter at small forward is for Minnesota, locals will identify Maya Moore for you in a hurry. Last year's winner for the regular season MVP award, Moore was the primary navigator to overcome an injury-plagued roster. Setting records for most consecutive 30-point games (4) and most 30-point games in a season (12), Moore's 2014 campaign was a symbol of her diverse approach.

"Maya's a tremendous communicator. Maya knows what's supposed to happen and she's so willing to share herself with other people," Reeve said. "Olympians have something a little extra."

One such extra is her shooting touch. Don't be fooled by Moore's career-low in three-point accuracy last year; Moore has a knack for hitting difficult looks. Whether it's an off-balance shot, defenders closing on her position, or both, the fifth-year veteran often finds a way to a scoring play. As Moore continues refining her assets, the only window of vulnerability is a game where she's struggling to find the basket.

"I feel like I've been trained, from a young age, on how to be a leader, mainly by paying attention and watching other great leaders," she said. "I have more of a responsibility every year I get older."

Most importantly, Moore views virtually every aspect of a game as a potential responsibility, an interpretation that suits the league's best all-around player. With the Lynx restoring their health, Moore's usage percentage and her stats will likely drop, but few will notice if her contributions lead to another impressive run in 2015.

Tricia Liston returns to back up Moore in the wing slot, which usually means coming in to give the three-time All-Star a short breather. Liston has a reliable perimeter stroke, hitting 40 percent of her three-pointers in her rookie season. In a preseason win over New York, Liston hit 5 of 9 shots behind the arc, setting up a nice fit on a team who often utilizes jump shooters.

SHOOTING GUARD

Minnesota's other sharpshooter, Seimone Augustus, will spend another season starting at this position. The 31-year-old has faced some inquiries about her age possibly affecting her play, but Augustus has been remarkably consistent over the last five seasons, averaging just over 16 points per game. Augustus has ranked 10th or higher in scoring in each of those seasons.

"Since I hit the age of 30, everyone here has been like 'Retirement! Retirement!' It just depends on your mental and physical state," she said. "I'm trying to win games."

Mid-to-long range shots remains her specialty, and her marksmanship is strong enough to withstand any defender within her space. The longer three-point line has led to Augustus taking more two-pointers, and fans can expect more shots of that variety as Augustus enters her 10th season.

Monica Wright will occupy the back-up slot at this position, and the sixth-year guard is aiming for a resurgence after injuries inhibited her contributions in 2014. How Wright performs this season is partially dependent on the amount of playing time she will receive, but she is capable of putting up strong offensive numbers. Wright used the off-season to heal from her injuries, using the recent USA Basketball camp in Las Vegas as a means to work her way back on the court.

"Right now, I'm just trying to get back in the swing of things. Coach Reeve does a great job of pointing things out to us, and then we get back into the lab and we get better," she said.

Whoever is assigned to cover this position will have to deal with the craftiness of Augustus or the usually stingy defense from Wright, making the shooting guard slot the toughest to contain.

POINT GUARD

Here is where you'll find one of the league's great visionaries: Lindsay Whalen. Her assist-to-turnover ratio last season was an astronomical 3.1, and that poise in handling the ball explains why she has never fallen below third place in the season standings for assists since coming to Minnesota. Coincidentally, Whalen ranks third on the all-time list for assists.

Whalen also represents the breed of point guards who can create offense for themselves. Her patented drives to the rim usually results in a layup or a chance to score from the free throw line. Whalen's attacking gesture has been the focal point for a more assertive offensive stance in the last two seasons, averaging more than 14 points per game.

"I'm having so much fun and just love coming to play basketball, and love being around this team. As long as I'm feeling good, I'm going to be playing," she said.

Whalen's off-season was a metaphorical equivalent to a halftime break, having just one week to transition from her overseas commitments in Turkey to the friendly confines of Minnesota. The year-round grind has been heavily discussed in the off-season, with several players choosing to miss all or part of the 2015 WNBA campaign, but don't expect Whalen to be among that contingent anytime soon.

"It's a routine that we get in to. I was the latest one this year, but it's been other years where it's been different people. I feel like I'm in pretty good shape," she said.

Cruz will likely take the back-up spot when she arrives, but until then, Wright will likely spend some time at this position. Another option available for the Lynx is Jennifer O'Neill. The Kentucky graduate went undrafted, but a solid training camp and preseason session helped the 2015 SEC Sixth Woman of the Year make the final roster.

"It meant that my hard work didn't go unseen in college. I was supposed to go to the Puerto Rican national team, and then I got the call to come to training camp," O'Neill said. "I watch Whalen a lot. I watch what the superstars do so that I can learn and don't have to ask so many questions."

One of O'Neill's goals is to develop an attacking move to the basket, making Whalen an effective subject of study.

OUTLOOK

Following the loss to Phoenix in last year's Western Conference Finals, Minnesota encountered the usual clich├ęs of sports reporting: was the championship window closing? Is this team too old to compete? Reeve is particularly weary of hearing how old the Lynx supposedly are, and most of the veterans noted how much they're asked about the future since turning 30.

For the Lynx, age may be less about numbers and more about endurance. The core of Lynx All-Stars (Augustus, Brunson, Moore, and Whalen) bear the responsibility of carrying the team forward, translating to a lot of minutes on the floor. Understandably, Minnesota is built to win, so Reeve will strategize for that purpose. Finding reliable bench players to alleviate some responsibilities would be a plus, but the work ethic from a group of athletes familiar with each other had Reeve glowing during the preseason period.

"Paying attention to detail and not making any assumptions. None of those players are looking to get out of drills. None of them are looking for days off," she said.

Health remains the ever elusive key to success, and the Lynx have first-hand knowledge of what can happen when that goes awry. Had they not suffered so many bruises a year ago, the outcome of last year's playoffs could have been significantly different, but Minnesota has a reputation for responding strongly to setbacks. As other teams retool their identities, the Lynx know they have the talent and morale to make a big push in 2015.

"Anytime you go through adversity, and you meet it head on, you're stronger for it. All we do is take the next challenge...and we do it collectively. We have many faces of our franchise," Reeve said.

Minnesota's most likely challengers in the Western Conference will be Phoenix, who made sweeping changes to compensate for their departing players, and Los Angeles, a team with better balance on its roster. The Lynx have consistency on their side, and that steadiness will be apparent as the 2015 season begins.