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Dishin & Swishin with Mike Thibault: The Sun Always Rises in the East

Asjha Jones may be the most important player on the 2011 Connecticut Su
Asjha Jones may be the most important player on the 2011 Connecticut Su

We are around 20% through the WNBA season, and it appears the playoff race in the Eastern conference is already taking shape. Four teams - Indiana, Connecticut, Chicago and New York - have already put some separation between themselves and the remaining two teams. However the jockeying amongst these teams is likely to go on throughout the season.

The Connecticut Sun face an important and potentially very difficult, stretch leading up to the All-Star game July 23rd. Beginning with tonight's game on ESPN2, the Sun play three straight against three of the top four Western Conference teams (Los Angeles, Seattle, and Minnesota), followed by home and away matchups against both Indiana and New York. Combined these teams are 23- 15, a .605 winning percentage. Can Coach Mike Thibault and the Connecticut Sun build on their early season success?

When 2011 season started, many questioned the makeup of the Sun roster. After all, this was a team that finished last season with a 17-17 record, including a 5-12 road record, and they lost two important parts of their lineup, center Sandrine Gruda and shooting guard Anete Jekabsone-Zogota. How would the Sun make up the 19 points per game the two provided? However, talented the pair is though, replacing them wasn't that much of a concern to head coach Mike Thibault. Having Gruda in particular, has its benefits, but it brought its own set of problems as well. Coach Thibault discussed the dilemma that goes with having the very talented, but less-WNBA dedicated center on your roster.

Dishin & Swishin: Mike Thibault on Sandrine Gruda

In fact, one look at the Sun roster tells volumes about the feelings management had about facing not only this season, but also the 2012 season (when the Olympic Games will be held), wondering about whether or not foreign players will show up for the WNBA season. The team that in prior years had European and Australian players Gruda, Jekabsone-Zogota, Svetlana Abrosimova, Evanthia Maltsi, Erika de Sousza, Laura Summerton, and Erin Phillips, has a roster of only American players.

Dishin & Swishin: Mike Thibault on Having Foreign Players on Your Roster

The Sun has actually been scoring more this season than last, with their "big three" of Tina Charles, Ash Jones and Renee Montgomery all increasing their scoring from last season. Charles, last season's rookie of the year, has already won Player of the Week this season, and poured in 22, 31, 26 and 19 points over a four game stretch where the Sun went 3-1. She has improved her shooting percentage drastically, from 48.7% to 52.3%, resulting in an increase to 19.4 ppg from 15.5.

Montgomery, who came in with the pressure of being the expected replacement to star guard and fan favorite Lindsay Whalen, has made the biggest improvement, raising her scoring from 13.2 on 40.1% shooting to 19.1 ppg on 44.2%r shooting, including 48.6% from three. She has been playing at an All-Star level, including an impressive 33 points in a loss to Chicago. An off-season in Israel has clearly increased her confidence.

Perhaps the biggest difference between this year and last year, however, is the return to health of All-Star power forward Asjha Jones. Jones only missed four games last year with her injuries, but it was clear to all who saw her that she was far from being really healthy. Jones averaged only 25.8 minutes per game, her lowest amount since becoming a starter in 2007, and averaged 10.8 ppg, her lowest total since 2005. Coach Thibault estimated she wasn't even 80% back until the end of the season, and talked about how important she is to the success of the team.

Dishin & Swishin: Mike Thibault on the Health and Importance of Asjha Jones

Kara Lawson has been the steady veteran the team expected when they signed her as a free agent before last season, and combined with Montgomery, has been an outstanding point guard duo. Neither is ever going to put up huge assist-turnover ratio numbers, but they are being more protective of the ball and are improving the offense's consistency.

Coach Thibault seems pretty determined to keep Kelsey Griffin at her natural power forward position as much as possible. Griffin is an intangibles type of player, playing aggressively, rebounding, setting screens, but seemed out of place last season on the wing. Instead a trio of players is making the Sun the most athletic at the wing they've been in a few years. Tan White was a nice surprise last season, scoring 10 ppg, but while she is struggling offensively right now, her defensive presence has still been strong. White is joined by two newcomers to make for an interesting threesome. Kalana Greene came over via a draft day trade with the Liberty, and is a defensive player that tends to do the little things efficiently, but doesn't provide much offense. Danielle McCray, a first round draft choice that sat out last season with a knee injury, is a work in process. She is going to have to earn her time on the court, and build some consistency. Coach Thibault is cautiously optimistic about his small forwards.

Dishin & Swishin: Mike Thibault on the Athleticism of His Small Forwards

Last season was a disappointment for the Sun, as the franchise had gotten used to playoff appearances with regularity. The trades that had brought in Charles, Montgomery and Griffin, along with the signing of free agent Lawson, had fans, writers and the coaches very optimistic about their chances not only for divisional success, but also a shot at the WNBA championship. In the end, growing pains took their toll, and the team's youth and inexperience cost them, especially on the road. I talked to Coach Thibault on how frustrating last season was, especially in light of the fact that while their record kept them from making the playoffs in the East, it would have put them all the way up in second place had they been in the West.

Dishin & Swishin: Mike Thibault on last season's frustration and the building process

So this next stretch of games will be important to the Sun in several ways. First, while the West is widely considered to be a stronger division this year, the Sun is hosting top teams LA and Seattle minus two of the best players in the WNBA, 2010 MVP Lauren Jackson of the Storm, and the Sparks' Candace Parker, who many predicted to be this year's MVP. Then the Sun go on the road for three, vs. the Lynx, Fever and Liberty, and they have to put last season's road woes behind them. They are already 1-3 on the road this year, and those three losses are by a combined total of only 14 points. Unfortunately, they have all been to Divisional opponents.

Dishin & Swishin: Mike Thibault on Playing with confidence and winning on the road

It's easy to get excited about the early season success of the Sun, but you have to remember, this is still one of the youngest teams in the league, and there will still be those growing pains. The confidence is certainly higher this year than last, and the health of veteran star Jones will have to be a difference maker. Montgomery and Lawson need to continue to protect the ball with consistency, and Charles needs to continue playing at such a high level. The potential is there to achieve greatness, and for the Sun to continue to be successful. With continued confidence, sustained effort on both ends of the court, and continued health, who knows how far the Sun can go?

One thing is certain, each day the Sun will rise in the East.