Roster Overhauls Are Seen as Way to the Top


It was a given that, with a deep college draft and another team (Cleveland) disbanding and dispersing its players throughout the league, there would be sweeping roster changes throughout the WNBA.

Indeed, according to league officials, only 80 of 155 players -- 51.6% -- are playing on the teams they were with last year.

But few teams had the radical turnover that took place in Connecticut and Minnesota, two teams that reached the playoffs last year.


The Sun and the Lynx each opened the 2004 season with seven new players on its 11-woman roster. And each was carrying five rookies until Minnesota recently waived forward Gwen Slaughter to make room for veteran Svetlana Abrosimova.

Each team’s mind-set regarding its youth movement was shaped in part by trades.

Connecticut gave up four-time All-Star guard Shannon Johnson and its second- and third-round picks to San Antonio for four draft picks, including the fourth overall selection. The Sun then traded the eighth pick to acquire second-year forward Asjha Jones from Washington in a three-way deal that included Phoenix. Connecticut also traded its eighth pick in the dispersal draft for Houston’s second-round pick in the college draft.

Minnesota sent veterans Janell Burse and Sheri Sam to Seattle for veteran Amanda Lassiter and the Storm’s first-round pick. The deal gave the Lynx the sixth and seventh picks in the draft.

“There was a lot that went into getting two first-round picks,” Lynx Coach Suzie McConnell Serio said. “We were looking to move up, potentially, because of Lindsay Whalen from Minnesota being in the draft. But also, if that didn’t work out, knowing that there would be two post players. And with the post players in this year’s draft, we’d be very happy with the choices we’d have.”

Connecticut took Whalen, so Minnesota got the size McConnell coveted in 6-foot-4 Nicole Ohlde and 6-5 Vanessa Hayden.

“Nicole Ohlde has been tremendous, very consistent, and she brings a lot to our team at both ends of the floor,” McConnell Serio said. Hayden, who was slowed early by a broken foot, “is just starting to come along, but she brings a different presence to this team.”


McConnell Serio initially wasn’t expecting to shred her roster. The 2003 team set a club record for wins (18), and had pushed the then-defending champion Sparks hard in the playoffs.

But the more she saw of rookies Tasha Butts and Amber Jacobs and former Cleveland guard Helen Darling, whom Minnesota picked up in the dispersal draft, the more she liked them. So the revamping of the Lynx lineup began in earnest.

“We still thought we were strong with our veterans Teresa Edwards, Katie Smith, Tamika Williams and Michele Van Gorp,” McConnell Serio said. “And throw in Amanda Lassiter, who is a veteran in this league. So we knew within our top five players we’d have a lot of veteran leadership. We felt our rookies would learn in our training camp and would be able to contribute.

“Did we ever expect Nicole Ohlde to be our starting center and thrive like she has? I don’t think we did. But she’s been a tremendous addition; she makes things happen right from the beginning of the game. So we weren’t concerned about having too many rookies.”

Connecticut Coach Mike Thibault had a different thought process to reach a similar conclusion.

The Sun, playing its first season in Connecticut after relocating from Orlando, reached the Eastern Conference finals before losing to Detroit. But afterward Thibault took a long look at his roster, and thought that team had gone as far as it could.


“Detroit was the young, up-and-coming team in the league and they won the championship,” Thibault said. “They weren’t going to get any worse, and the [East] teams around us were going to get better through the drafts. I felt if we stood still we weren’t going to improve.”

Along with Whalen, Thibault restocked his roster with first-year players Jessica Brungo, Jennifer Derevjanik (who made the team after showing up at a tryout camp), Candace Futrell and Le’coe Willingham. And Thibault was more interested in Jones, who played on NCAA championship teams at the University of Connecticut, than any Cleveland player he might have gotten picking eighth in the dispersal draft.

Thibault’s changes seemed riskier than McConnell Serio’s only because his team was in a new market trying to develop a fan base.

But “we kept the core players of our team that we were associated with,” he said. “You add a dynamic rookie in Lindsay Whalen, then bring home a former UConn player like Asjha Jones who fits our style, so we didn’t lose any fans. They miss the talent of Johnson, but they’re happy with who we replaced her with.”

What remains to be seen is how these experiments play out, how much teaching and growing must happen before the Lynx and Sun are elite teams again. Minnesota is 4-4, and Connecticut is 4-6.

But Thibault is secure in his belief that the WNBA is going to last as a league, and he will be able to develop the team.


“Some organizations are in the ‘win-now’ philosophy, and I’d like to do both,” he said. “But I think we’re going to win anyway.

“You also have a balance now in our league thanks to the salary cap. If you have too many what I call middle-salary older players, it’s hard to rejuvenate your team. Whereas we can pay our best players pretty well, and have a young bench that can add to our team.”