With the WNBA season at the All-Star Break and just a few days before the football team begins its practices and the topics get serious and important, I thought it might be interesting to catch up on how some recent Terrapin graduates are faring in their American professional basketball careers. Currently, five Terps are on WNBA rosters: Crystal Langhorne here in Washington with the Mystics, Kristi Toliver and Marissa Coleman are out on the left coast playing for the L.A. Sparks, Lynetta Kizer is in her second year in the league and is baking out in the desert with the Phoenix Mercury, and Tianna Hawkins is a rookie playing with the Seattle Storm.
I want to thank Zack Ward from Swish Appeal for taking the time to sit down with me and chat about these Maryland greats and I encourage those of you who have an interest in the WNBA and women's basketball in general to check out this site for some of the best coverage around.
Todd: So Zack, let's start with Crystal. She was the sixth player chosen in the 2008 draft and has spent her entire career with the Mystics. But this year finds her playing for her fourth different head coach. What impact has this had on her game and her development?
Zack: I haven't asked Crystal specifically about playing for so many different coaches, so I can't say what her thoughts on that are. However, I do know that she is very excited to be back in D.C. with Monique Currie and Matee Ajavon - a core that many thought would get broken up after last year's 5-29 season. Crystal seems to savor being the one constant over the past six years, a span of time that has seen so many players and coaches come and go. And I think she is happy that Mike Thibault is now the coach because he is known for staying in Connecticut for a long time. She is not having the best season of her career right now statistically, but may be playing with the least amount of worries because of the stability Thibault brings. All the Mystics players know that Thibault is in it for the long haul. After he broke the all-time wins record at 212, he said he wants to go for 300 or 400 and I think he wants to do that in Washington.
Todd: Lang, as we affectionately call her, just played in her second All-Star Game. The Mystics haven't been a scoring powerhouse this year, breaking 90 in only 2 of their 18 games. The All-Star Game looks like it was a fast paced up and down contest. How did Lang fare and did she look comfortable with that style of play?
Zack: Well, a lot of the East's offense came from the eight combined threes made by Ivory Latta and Epiphanny Prince. Crystal wasn't the focus of the offense, but she made a nice contribution with six points off 3-6 shooting from the field. I think she was probably just happy to be there. At Swish Appeal, we thought she was right on the borderline of getting in and the fact that she did is a testament to the respect coaches around the league have for her.
Todd: And speaking of the All-Star Game, Kristi Toliver made her first appearance. From looking at the box score it seems like an impressive debut. Can you elaborate for those like me who didn't see the game?
Zack: I think a lot of people expected Kristi to have a big year this year after winning Most Improved Player last year. In the All-Star Game, people just got to see what she's been doing for a while now. She had 21 points and it was a pretty high honor for her to be the second leading scorer in a game that featured the best players in league.
Todd: KT had a tough rookie year in Chicago with the Sky but her game has improved every year since she's been with the Sparks. What's happened out west?
Zack: I think Maryland fans would probably say it was just a matter of time. I didn't get the chance to watch Kristi in college, but I know she was extremely popular and seemed to have high expectations surrounding her entering the pros. At the All-Star Game in her post game interview she said it has taken a lot of hard work in the gym to get to the level she's been at these past two seasons. One thing you can say about Kristi, Crystal and Marissa Coleman is that they're all winners. They're all champions and they all have that extra bit of determination. I think that gives Kristi an edge in the WNBA
Todd: Has playing with All-Star MVP Candace Parker helped raise her game a level as well?
Zack: Definitely. Kristi also talked about how good her chemistry is with Candace Parker in the post game interview. They could be the best tandem in the game right now - last year they finished second and fifth in WNBA.com's "Race to the MVP." I think Kristi definitely enjoys playing with Parker, who can do just about anything on a basketball court and definitely makes those around her better.
Todd: Let's talk a bit about another of KT's teammates, Marissa Coleman. Marissa is one of the great all-time Terps. She and Langhorne are the only players in Maryland basketball history - male or female - to finish with over 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds. ‘Riss also had the first triple double in the history of the women's program but she's been inconsistent as a pro. Any idea why?
Zack: Before the 2012 season when it was announced that Marissa and Kristi were going to team up in L.A., if you would have told me that one of them would be playing far above the other two years later it would have been hard to believe. Marissa is one of the greatest Terps of all-time like you said and probably one of the most versatile. She was picked ahead of Kristi at No. 2 overall in 2009 with similarly big expectations. And I still think she could have a breakout season at some point in her career like Kristi did. For now, she is a solid WNBA player and the fact that she comes off the bench for L.A. tells you what a scary team they have.
Todd: To date, her best year as a pro was 2011. This was a year the Mystics struggled to win games but Coleman was a regular starter and played the most minutes per game in her WNBA career. Is she the sort of player who needs to start rather than coming off the bench? And might she have better success if she found a team where she could be a starter?
Zack: That may be. She was on the right track before she left Washington and I still see people wearing her jersey at the Verizon Center. Seeing something like that lets you know that she is still a popular player who is capable of making it big in the league. She may not mind winning a championship in L.A. coming off the bench though.
Todd: That's a good point. And I know she has a close relationship with Toliver and Parker. Lynetta Kizer was drafted by Tulsa a couple of years ago but they cut her after a handful of games so they could pick up Courtney Paris. She found her way to Phoenix where she averaged 7 points and 3 rebounds in just 15 minutes per game. Her minutes and production are off this year, why?
Zack: I remember going over all the ACC players who were drafted in 2012 while I was covering Maryland women's basketball and when I got to Lynetta I was surprised at how good her rookie stats were for someone taken in the third round. I think her minutes are off this year because Phoenix has changed. They are one of the frontrunners now and they have too much talent ahead of Lynetta for her to play a lot. But it is only her second year, so she has a lot of time to build off what she did in 2012.
Todd: Well, I know Netta has a great work ethic. I watched her completely reshape her body in her four years at Maryland. What do you see for her future?
Zack: She's going to make it in the WNBA and be a solid contributor for a while I think. That would be good to see after she was drafted so low. The WNBA is a league where the early draft picks usually have all the success. The top 10 of last year's "Race to the MVP" was made up of entirely top 4 draft picks.
Todd: This I didn't know. There's another player who really put in the hours in the weight room and who came out of Maryland looking like a different person than when she came in, that would be Tianna Hawkins. She's getting some minutes for Seattle, mostly coming off the bench. How do you see her adjusting to the pro game?
Zack: Tianna has had a quiet start, but she has a great coach in Brian Agler and two of the greatest WNBA players ever (Tina Thompson and Sue Bird) surrounding her. They will help her adjust and I think she is going to learn a lot this year.
Todd: Both real veterans. Interestingly, Tianna's rookie year seems to be mirroring Crystal's. Lang made a huge leap after her first winter in Europe and came back to win Most Improved Player in 2009. Do you think Tianna has this upside potential?
Zack: Yes, I think so. Tianna was such a feared scorer as a senior at Maryland and I think there's a reason she went in the first round. The thing that I think will benefit her is her versatility. The WNBA has become a league that values post players who can shoot and I think Tianna fits that description. She and Crystal were both taken sixth overall, so it is reasonable to have big expectations for Tianna.