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During a pause in practice last week, Nykesha Sales walked over to Lindsay Whalen and tugged her jersey.
``World of difference,'' Sales told Whalen. ``World of difference.''
They had been back together on the Connecticut College court for a few days, starting training camp about six months after leading the Sun to the brink of a WNBA title in Seattle. Sales, having seen Whalen progress in 2004 from reluctant to dependable, decided it was time to show some appreciation.
``Yeah,'' Whalen said. ``A world of difference. That's what she told me. I think she was just referring to the player I was last year at this time and the player I am now. And I have to agree. It's different.''
After the Sun traded Shannon Johnson and selected Whalen with the fourth pick in the draft, there was an air of uncertainty. The new point guard, so dominant, so flashy, so stable in college but soon enduring a rocky introduction to the WNBA.
She came in to replace Johnson, an Olympian few figured coach Mike Thibault was wise to trade. Whalen was to be the floor leader of a team that included five rookies but was anchored by veterans. She was trying to live up to the hype in Connecticut and Minnesota, a state turned upside down with her success in college.
All the while, through an inconsistent first month and a three-game absence because of strep throat, she had pesky Debbie Black as a tutor, someone all over her in practice and showing her the ropes. Eventually, Whalen became an All-Star, averaging 8.9 points and 4.8 assists.
``And now, overnight it seems, everything is different,'' Whalen said. ``I still feel like the kid from Minnesota sometimes, but, really, I'm far removed from that.''
Whalen is viewed in a different light this year, held in even higher regard as a host of rookies and second-year player Jen Derevjanik compete for the spots behind her. She's expected to inject the energy once provided by Black, who retired.
``[Black] wouldn't allow it,'' Thibault said of a potential drop in intensity. ``You can't replace Debbie. But I've put it on all the players to make up for it.''
The off-season brought troubling news to a place Whalen always looked to for tranquility. When worn out from the spotlight in Minnesota, for instance, she often sought solace at the family's cabin in Bemidji, Minn. There was a lake to row a boat on, family to chat with. It represented a soothing escape from a life that doesn't allow her to walk the streets of Minneapolis without getting stopped every block.
In the worst school shooting since Columbine, a 16-year-old boy killed nine people and himself at an Indian reservation in Red Lake, Minn., about 20 miles from Bemidji. Many of the injured were taken to a hospital in Bemidji.
``This is an Indian reservation, very affluent,'' Whalen said last week at Mohegan Sun Arena. ``[Red Lake] is pretty depleted, a desolate area. We don't go there. You wouldn't get scared there but, actually, you wouldn't want to walk around there at night.
``That's just tragic. It's just so sad. I knew that area was bad, but you never think anything like that can happen.''
Still, Whalen went on to say, northern Minnesota remains one of her favorite places. Her father and brother opened the cabin last weekend, and she looks forward to getting back in that row boat, doing some fishing and playing some golf after her second season with the Sun.
What will this season bring?
``Just kind of knowing everyone in the organization, you just really get into more of a comfort zone,'' Whalen said. ``With Debbie last year, she was great. But this year I feel like I have a little more responsibility. I feel kind of good that I'm not at the bottom of the chain, so to speak.''
With Whalen's further emergence, the return of Brooke Wyckoff and the addition of Margo Dydek, the Sun could be a contender. Whalen will steer the project. Many say she's better equipped to handle it.
``Last year, she was great,'' forward Jess Brungo said. ``But she also learned so much.''
Sales specified what she meant by a ``world of difference.''
``You can't replace Debbie,'' Sales said. ``That fire, that energy. But Lindsay has stepped in really well. She's picked it all up so fast and you can see that. There's a huge difference with her, the way things are becoming second nature. She plays like a veteran.''
The Sun waived second-year guard Candace Futrell Tuesday. Futrell, who was selected in the third round last year out of Duquesne, injured her ankle playing this off-season in Israel and rehab from surgery will take four months. Futrell averaged 2.1 points in 20 games last year.
``If we were to keep her on our injured or suspended list, her salary would have counted against our cap,'' Thibault said. ``She has several months of rehab ahead of her, and we look forward to re-signing her when she is physically able to play.''