Sometimes player trades work out so well that it’s hard to tell who has benefited most – the team or the athlete.
Such has been the case for the New York Liberty and Chicago Sky this season, who exchanged Cappie Pondexter and Epiphanny Prince over the winter. Both guards have become rejuvenated in systems that seem to fit them perfectly, to the delight of both themselves and their coaches.
As a result, both Pondexter and Prince are leading their teams in a fierce race for the Eastern Conference title. Going into today’s match ups, Prince and the Liberty are in first place, one game ahead of Pondexter’s Sky. And there is plenty of time left in the regular season.
“It’s a long way to go and you’ve got to stay healthy,” said Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer, whose team improbably fell last night to the Tulsa Shock. “We’re riding an emotional wave right now. How we respond to losses show what kind of a team we really are.”
Though Pondexter and Prince had different early career paths, the similarities between them the last few years are uncanny. Last season Pondexter was the second-leading scorer for New York, averaging 13.2 points per game. Prince was the number-two scorer for Chicago, at 15 points per game.
This year both are still second – Pondexter behind Elena Delle Donne and Prince behind Tina Charles – just as the other was last year. But both are averaging almost 16 points per contest, and this season each has seen their field goal percentage rise almost a tenth of a point, to practically the same mark.
Both players have been on fire at times, especially since the All-Star break. Last week Prince averaged 26 points over two games on 67 percent shooting, while Pondexter stepped up during a Delle Donne injury to notch 23 points in one game.
The two athletes – both Rutgers products – are doing their damage this year in different roles. Pondexter has gone from point guard to shooting guard for Chicago. Prince has remained at the point in New York, but has started only half of the Liberty’s games, coming in as a reserve for the rest.
Sky coach Pokey Chatman said the trade worked out perfectly for Pondexter, who wanted out of the point guard position, to come to a team that had a great one in Courtney Vandersloot, with a back up in Allie Quigley. Prince, who sat out a few games in Chicago last year to recover from emotional burn out, can share responsibilities in New York.
“Sometimes people are looking at sheer (stats), but there was a need for both players in different spots,” Chatman said. “Cappie feels that she’s experienced and wants the responsibility of being a leader. That’s what you’re seeing is both players in a different role.”
Chatman said Pondexter’s presence opens up opportunities for the entire team.
“We leave her at the 2, but she’s so versatile that she can flow with her at the 1,” Pondexter said. “We can play with three differernt players initiating the action. Allie can play the 2 or the 1.”
Laimbeer also gives the trade a thumbs-up.
“It’s been beneficial for both sides,” he said. “Both players needed a change of scenery.”
The move had an organic feel to it, as it sent the 32-year-old Pondexter to her native Chicago and Prince, 27, went home to New York.
The switch has been particularly good for Prince, who left college one year early, in 2009, to play overseas and make money to help support her family. Her difficulties last year sprung from playing year-round for a long time – an issue that is partially-alleviated now.
“This year is different. Last year I was more emotionally and physically drained,” Prince said. “I think all those years being away and playing overseas, and only seeing my family a few times a year took a toll on me. Now being able to see them whenever I want is really amazing.”
“It’s the best of all worlds: I get to do what I love and be around the people I love.”
Pondexter was drafted by the Phoenix Mercury in 2006. She had been playing for the Liberty for the last five seasons, where it was rumored she had an at-times contentious relationship with Laimbeer. She said she couldn’t be happier playing for the Sky.
“It feels good to be in a winning, positive atmosphere where everyone is trying to get to the next level,” Pondexter said. “This is a perfect fit for both Piph and myself.”
Both the Sky and Liberty have built their successes on the strength of last February’s trade. Chicago, who found themselves in the 2014 Finals after an injury-plagued season, was young, and had been looking for veteran leadership. New York, which has gone from conference worst to first, had sought youth for the roster. Each team now has what they needed.
“Cappie’s been better than I ever imagined,” Chatman said. “She’s playing in a system conducive to her skill set. We get up and down a lot. She’s good in transition. She does some things that I can’t teach, and I won’t get in the way of it. She’s not needing to play 30 minutes a game, she’s playing quality minutes.”
“Her ability to lead and help others like Vandersloot and Delle Donne, I can’t make it up. They’re enamored with her – she knows how to speak softly and put your hand on someone’s shoulder. She knows when to go hard. She knows what to say at the righ ttimes. That’s what doesn’t doesn’t make stat sheet.”
Similarly, Laimbeer said Prince’s defense, especially, is better than he had anticipated.
“We were going for the youth movement in our long-term plan when we got her. She’s playing really good D, and doing a good job, scoring-wise. She’s hard to guard – very versatile. She’s got every tool that there is,” Laimbeer said.
Pondexter relishes playing with what she calls a highly-skilled squad.
“Elena needed a running mate, and the way she and I play compliment each other,” Pondexter said. “Sloot has done a terrific job, and is one of the best PGs in the league. It’s been a great situation.”
Prince said she has benefited from less pressure.
“I like my role on the team,” she said. “I feel like we play well together even though we’re still learning each other.”
To be sure, the parallels between Pondexter and Prince are many. But in the expectations of their new coaches, there are vast differences. While Chatman is happy to let Pondexter, now in her tenth season, guide the team on the floor, Laimbeer is pushing Prince hard.
“Everyone knows she’s a prolific scorer. It’s the movitation factors to become a super-elite player that is my task now,” Laimbeer said of Prince.
“I asked her in practice the other day, ‘is this getting boring for you?’ and she was surprised. She doesn’t exert herself on the court the way she could. I told her, ‘I need you to take over.’ I’m encouraging her to score more. She’s quiet, and that’s the shell I have to break.”
Prince responded with a scoring uptick last week.
Laimbeer likened Prince to Deanna Nolan, who helped him and the Detroit Shock win two Championships, and has been called one of the greatest players in the game.
“When I got (Nolan), people said the same things about her that I’m saying about Piph. Nolan had all the ability in the world, and I had to get it out of her. Piph can do the same thing.”
The Sky have a chance to tie for first in the East today, as they take on the Sparks. The Liberty play next on Wednesday.