WNBA players discuss the resumption of the season

Kara Lawson, Taj McWilliams-Franklin, Nneka Ogwumike, Ruth Riley and Tina Thompson answered questions from the media today about the second half of the WNBA season, which begins Thursday. Here is the transcript:

Q. You have been charged with keeping the home fires burning while some of your teammates have gone to Olympic glory. How have your practices been going, and how do you think you’ve done in working to maintain cohesion and team chemistry during this long break?

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: Well, this Olympic break is interesting because as a rookie I understand that people aren’t used to this break. It was really nice, though, after the first half of the season to be able to go home and kind of relax.

But when we got back to LA we’ve been practicing pretty hard, not too hard, but kind of keep our team cohesiveness going. We’ve had nice days off, but for the most part, Coach Carol Ross and the rest of the staff have us working well, and it’s also helpful that Candace (Parker) was the only person who wasn’t on the team during the break. Although she’s a huge part of the team, it’s good for us to been able to keep virtually our entire team together and get better individually and collectively.

Q. The Sparks were positioning themselves quite well as contenders in the West. Have you or your Sparks teammates been able to completely detach yourselves from the challenges that are coming and enjoy the Olympics or have you guys expressed that you might be interested in getting the WNBA season going and see how it all shakes up, and what have your coaches said to you to keep you focused during this break?

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: I think we’ve definitely been able to enjoy the break. Obviously we wanted to cheer on not just Candace but all of the other renowned players that represented our country and won the gold.

But the near future isn’t far removed from us. We’re working to get better the second half of the season. I think it was in May that we kind of had a slump, and we talked about that and how we don’t want to go back to that point when we had that stretch of games where we weren’t playing well and we’re trying to nip it in the bud early and understand what is necessary to succeed as a team. The coaches have been encouraging me to keep doing what I’m doing, had me working on individual skills as well as a lot of team skills to get better as a team coming this weekend.

Q. Tina, you’ve obviously had experience coming off the Olympic break as an Olympian and coming back to the league. Can you talk about that experience that your teammates coming back will be going through in terms of energy and focus and sort of redirecting everything back to their WNBA team?

TINA THOMPSON: Well, my experience has always been great. When you come off of a high like winning an Olympic gold medal then everyone is very high-energy and kind of looking forward to just getting back to a little normality, as well. Olympics are really tough, and it’s pretty much of a grind. You’re playing every other day against like really high competition. So coming back home and kind of getting — becoming a part of the WNBA schedule again — is actually a little more relaxing than kind of being in the Olympic environment.

I know Sue (Bird) as well as Lauren (Jackson) are going to come back really excited to be here, but their energy level is going to be high, as well, simply because of the occasion that they are coming from.

Q. With Sue and obviously Lauren, who hasn’t been with you guys yet, what does that change for the Seattle Storm… you guys had some momentum going into the break, so what’s your expectation with Lauren coming back?

TINA THOMPSON: It’s pretty high. Lauren is a big part of this team and just how we’re going to move forward, so having her back is great. Everyone is just kind of excited for her return and just kind of getting her acclimated with the offense and working on our cohesion. Sue, of course, she ended the break really well going into the Olympics, so having both of them back is going to be really good for us. It’ll definitely team our take to another level.

We were pretty, I don’t want to say excited, but happy about the fact that we kind of changed our picture as far as the WNBA season goes and pulling it together going into the break, so we want to use that momentum going into the second half.

Q. Taj, now that the second half is about to begin, what does the Lynx in your opinion need to do, what little things to resume their skills, their progress – you had a little bump before the break started – to get back on track?

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: I think that a lot of the things we did towards the end — after the little bump of the four-game losing skid that we endured during the first part of the season — I think that as a team we found a lot more cohesion in our defense than we had even when we were winning previously. So for us it’s going to be just about building on the things that the eight of us worked on during the Olympic break and adding in our three Olympians and resuming what we’ve done well before the break, and that’s as it is for many teams in the WNBA, much of the same things: working on our defense, being aggressive defensively and leading to easy baskets on the offense.

Q. Taj, how have you been doing because you’ve been playing a little more minutes this year because of the injuries to Amber and Jessica?

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: Well, I’m doing what I always do, plugging away. For me it’s really about maintaining, making sure that every part of my game is solid and straight, and that’s normally off the court what I do anyway, my swimming … during the break we’ve done a lot of Pilates and yoga, non-impact things, which is really helping. As an athlete I do pretty much what everybody else does, so for me it’s just been about maintaining my normal body type, my conditioning, which includes a lot of non-impact, off-the-court workouts.

Q. Kara, Coach (Mike) Thibault has talked the last couple years about this franchise building, growing. He was relying on some younger folks to grow into roles. You guys went into the Olympic break on a high, and I’m wondering how you about the second half. Do you feel like this franchise is sort of blossoming in the way that you were hoping that it would and does that bode well in terms of making a potential long playoff run?

KARA LAWSON: I think we like where we ended before the break for sure. You know, we have the bulk of our rotation that’s third-year players and that came in as rookies and got a lot of experience in their first two years in the league. So we’ve made some huge strides, probably bigger strides from year two to year three than we did from the first year to the second year.

So we feel good about the second half of the year, understanding that everybody got healed up over the break and everybody feels like they’re ready for a good second half. I mean, I don’t think there’s a team out there that doesn’t think they’re going to improve.

I just think the intensity of the games will be a little bit higher here as everyone tries to position themselves to be playoff teams. I guess it remains to be seen. Hopefully we make the Playoffs, and we’ll see if we’ve grown enough to actually win a playoff game because we haven’t done that the last two years.

Q. Ruth, you guys probably — I know a lot of teams were affected by injuries, but you guys were definitely dealing with some injuries. Has the time off been good for you guys in terms of you probably went into the break a little bit more on a down note and maybe are looking to turn that around in the second half of the season?

RUTH RILEY: For teams that have momentum going into the break, I’m sure they’re not looking forward to it. But teams like us, you know, where we heading into the break with a lot of injuries. It was a blessing for us to get Piph (Epiphanny Prince) healthy and able to join us because if it was a regular year, Piph might have been out the whole season. But because it’s an Olympic year we had the rare opportunity for her to get healthy and to rejoin us; and we’re a much better team with her on the floor.

Q. Taj, for veteran players is this month off during the break good for you guys? I know you play basketball year-round but how is this month break for you?

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: I think most veterans would say that they love the break. The first few days — the first seven days that we had off where we were really just relaxing, having some quality downtime — was great for us, great for me. But coming back in and just slowly acclimating back into our normal practice times, practice speed has helped tremendously as far as saving your legs, being able to play harder, longer, in the end while you’re vying for a playoff spot, having allowed your vets to rest now, you have a bigger push during the final part of the season, during the Playoffs.

For me, my perspective, it can only help us because we do get that extra rest after you’ve been playing overseas and previously before that the WNBA season.

Sometimes most of the vets play year-round for more than one year, so any type of break is definitely a welcome break for us, whether it’s mental or physical.

Q. Does it take long for you guys to get back up to speed, or does that depend on the team you’re on?

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: I think that’s each individual person actually and the team they’re on. For me I’m a basketball junkie, so during the off time I’m still watching some of our DVDs of the games we played where we had mistakes or losses. I’m looking at the teams we’re going to play as we come up into the first part after the break. So I don’t really take a serious break, but physically I do. It really depends on the individual, I believe, and their team.

Q. For Taj and Tina, specifically about the rookies and their development over the course of the season, I’m curious what kinds of things you might see from Devereaux (Peters) and Shekinna Stricklen after the break and how this might hurt or help their development in their first year?

TINA THOMPSON: I think this break was great for our rookies. They got to go on vacation a little bit and go home, and that was good. I mean, we’re pretty tough on our rookies here, so I think that that break was good for them physically and mentally. They came back energized and ready to work. I’ve seen so much improvement with them already with their game and also with confidence. We’re really excited that we got to have this break simply because it just gave us an opportunity to get better.

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: For Devereaux, she was injured at the end of our first part of our season, so for us, it really was just about getting her healthy with the break in her hand, so she really didn’t do much when she came back on the court. She just recently was able to go with us full-out this past week.

For Devereaux and her mental aspect of the game, it was great for her mentally just to relax after playing the whole year NCAAs, making it to the Final Four, and then coming directly into the WNBA. She had an opportunity now during the break just to take a mental break and relax and take it all in and go see her family and hang out. She came back in, and she’s been rehabbing her hand and getting, I think, acclimated to — I think Coach Reeves has about 50 play — so just getting acclimated to the bulk of the offense and the intricacies of our defense and our schemes that we do in the WNBA, and I think that’s helped her more than just playing, because we haven’t had enough people. We had three Olympians so we only had eight players here, and so we couldn’t do as much as other teams were able to do.

Q. Just a follow-up on Devereaux learning the plays, how much of that playbook has she really acclimated to during training camp and the early part of the season?

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: Well, Devereaux is really smart so she picks up things really well. I think for her more it was about her confidence in her abilities and our coaching staff teaching her some nuances of the game that’s a little different than college. I think as a vet, and the spot that she plays is the same spot that I play, just teaching her some things that I might know that the playbook does not teach you … that I know you can get away with this when you’re playing in a game and you can’t do that in a game, so just being able to sit down and say, hey, that play works great, but if you tweak this it’ll work even better and it’ll get them an open shot. That’s as far as learning the plays and the nuances of the offense and what we do here in Minnesota.

Q. Kara, you’ve been there, as well. How do you think your gold medal teammates will be coming down from this, and one of them is very young, coming down from this global spectacle in London and focusing on the remaining WNBA season that’s ahead of them?

KARA LAWSON: I think they’ll be fine. I mean, they’re both super goal-oriented and both of them really want to win a WNBA Championship. So I think they’re just both really focused on coming back in and enjoying playing with us and enjoying trying to keep the momentum that we established in the first half.

You know, players have an easy time separating. I don’t think it’s that difficult. You know, you do what you’re supposed to do and all of the emotions are positive, it’s not like there’s negative emotions coming back. So they’re excited, and I got a chance to see them today, and they’re ready to go.

Q. Taj, what’s your view of how the West is going to be a little different in the second half if you’ve got Lauren (Jackson) back for Seattle, if Diana (Taurasi) comes back to Phoenix and plays? How does it change the West in the second half?

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: Well, thanks (laughing), it makes it much harder. I mean, gosh, you just — you’re talking about the greatest players in the world. They proved it in the Olympics. Bringing back Lauren Jackson and Diana Taurasi full speed, it’s just going to be harder and harder for the Minnesota Lynx in the West.

For us, though, we’re going to take all the challenges that we have to take to prove that we deserve to be in first place, and I think that’s one of the things that we’ve been showing as we’ve been playing, that this is for real. We’re serious about our goals and being the best in Minnesota. It’s going to be much tougher because those are such great players, and their teams rely on them. But for us it’s another challenge, another step to try to become a consistently great team.

There are teams that are great for periods of time, but we have to work on our consistency with believing that we deserve to be mentioned in the top teams in the league this year, and I think with all the great players coming back who have been on break, who have been in the Olympics, who took the year off to get ready for the Olympics, all of those great players that are flooding back into all the teams all around the league, it makes it that much tougher for not only the Minnesota Lynx but for every single team in the league to do what we did in the first half.

So we’re definitely … everybody is going to have to be on their P’s and Q’s. And I know every one of us that’s on the call, and every other team … everybody has definitely been working on defense and their defensive intensity. It’s going to be some great battles, some great games coming out for this second part of the season, and I look forward to it. As a player, as a competitor, that’s what you want, and you can’t wait for it to start.

Q. Ruth, to sort of follow up on what you said earlier, we saw (during the Olympics) Sylvia (Fowles) still looks like she’s not 100 percent, so she’s going to come back without having that break, and you guys are still trying to get over that hump of the franchise making the playoffs. How much is your experience as a veteran who’s won in this league, who knows what it takes in the clutch and at the end of the season, how much do you think you’ll be able to maybe help this group get to a place that Chicago hasn’t been to yet?

RUTH RILEY: I hope my experience is going to help a lot. I’ve been on great teams. I’ve had the opportunity to go through a lot of battles that you face to be successful, and I see … you know, we have a lot of young players, and it’s been a while since I’ve been on a young team. I think a lot of the games that we played early on we were making obvious mistakes that you can’t make if you’re trying to get into the playoffs.

But I think we are growing in the league. We have a lot of new faces here in Chicago, so it takes a little bit of time to get to know each other on the court. I think my job is just to bring the experience and come in here and help our young players view the game and see where we can get better to make our team a contender.

Q. Nneka, at Stanford obviously you guys dominated, Pac-10, Pac-12, regular season competition. What’s it like now you’re in the WNBA and you’re in a conference that is extraordinarily competitive, it’s every game is such a fight. How has that been for you, and how much are you looking forward to the second half of the season, sort of experiencing that battle just to try to win the Western Conference?

NNEKA OGWUMIKE: I think it’s great. I think as Taj mentioned, the competition is strong, and it’s going to be even stronger now that most of the players are returning. I don’t think necessarily that the Olympics will really affect the productivity of the players that are coming back. I think it’ll boost the morale of a lot of teams, both in the West and the East.

It’s definitely different because at Stanford we were so used to kind of being a top-tier team, the team to beat, and when you come into the league, it’s interesting, as well, because the rosters are shorter. Everybody who is on the team can play. The competition is wild, and it’s exciting. I think it’s really great for the league.

But at the same time, it gives kind of a feeling of you’re working hard for what you really want because everybody in this league is great, everybody is talented, the teams are solid.

Q. Nneka, you’ve had a chance to look back on the first half of your first postseason, and it has been a very successful start to your career. But does anything jump out at you in terms of adjustments or improvements that you will be trying to make when play resumes?

NNEKE OGWUMIKE: I’m definitely grateful for these past few months, ending at Stanford, graduating at Stanford early and being a part of the Sparks and also starting off the season right. Granted, we had a slight slump in May, but I think those are the best times for you to learn, and I’ve been through some experiences that I haven’t been through before on any other teams, but I think it’s maturing my game and myself.

For the most part, I think a lot of the success that I’m seeing individually is because of my team and my teammates, the coaching staff and the overall Sparks organization because a lot of the people here believe in me, and it really garners confidence in myself, and I’m just really excited to be a part of this program.

In terms of things that I look forward to enhancing in my game, I think I’m looking more forward to being — more of a leader. Despite me being a rookie, I think I can contribute to the leadership aspect of the game, and I always want my teammates, every time I step out on the court, I have fun, and I want my teammates to have fun playing with me. I want them to have fun when they’re out there. So I try to make everybody’s jobs easier by being the best teammate I can be.

I look forward to being more of a leader and also possibly more of an offensive threat as we kind of develop as a team in the second half of the season.

Q. Ruth, Chicago started the season really strongly and then kind of limped into the break once Epiphanny went down. Now that she’s scheduled to return, can you talk about how you think that’s going to impact the team as well as the race in the East?

RUTH RILEY: Well, obviously she’s a huge part of our success and she was playing at a really high level and I think leading the league in scoring before she got injured, so we miss her tremendously. I think that while she was out, we learned a lot about ourselves and what we need to get better as a team without her, not expecting her to take over games. I mean, she made some unbelievable plays winning three games down the stretch in a row.

But I think we’re a better team with her on the court and look forward to just having her back for the second part of the season.

And the East is tough. I mean, Atlanta is possibly going to get better as I think we all saw. With all the teams coming back, everyone is focused; it’s going to be a race; a lot of games in a few days. It’s really anybody’s ballgame right now.

Q. Ruth and Taj, about Liz Cambage, I don’t know how much of the Australia games you watched, but maybe just some outlook on her performance, comparing what you saw from her during the Olympics this year versus what you saw last year and some areas of growth you saw in her game playing with Australia this year.

TAJ McWILLIAMS-FRANKLIN: I definitely have seen a maturity level in her game that was not there her first season in Tulsa. I think she’s stronger on the block. Her moves are much more defined. She’s not floating around as much. And when she does shoot jumpers, she’s shooting them with a confidence she didn’t have in Tulsa.

I think she’s still really young and still really raw and has a long way to grow. But from Tulsa last year to what I saw in the Olympics, and I watched all of their games except for one, she has really developed a confidence in herself that might have been lacking. Given her young age and the fact that it was her first year overseas – well, for her overseas – and in the pros and we’re really physical here in the WNBA, so with all of those different factors, I think now the Liz Cambage that I saw in the Olympics is a force, and it’s a force that each team is going to have to look after when she comes back to Tulsa. I think they are really lacking that person that I saw in the Olympic games. That’s the player that Tulsa needs right now to kind of complete their game that Coach Klop (Gary Kloppenberg) is trying to get them to understand.

I think that strong, physical inside presence will open up a lot of stuff for them on the outside. I’m really excited. I’m always excited about players in our league coming in and being stronger and better because it only makes the WNBA stronger and better, and she’s one of those players that I am really thrilled to see has developed her game and made history as she’s developing. So I’m excited for her to come back.

We play them Sunday, so I can’t — I hope she’s going to be with them, and I’m going to come up and tell her how excited I am to see the rest of her game evolve as the years go on.

Q. And Ruth, if you had any comment on Liz Cambage as someone who also plays the post?

RUTH RILEY: Absolutely. Taj pretty much summed it up. I would say that there’s definitely growth, but there’s also a comfort factor playing with your national team. Coming over to the WNBA for the first time as a young player is not an easy transition. So for her to go back to Australia and play in a system that she’s familiar with and with players that she’s familiar with, I think that gave her a little bit more of that confidence that Taj was talking about.

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