San Antonio angling for respect with new veteran presence

Veteran Monique Currie gives rookie Kelsey Plum encouragement as she comes out of the Star's first preseason game. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Stars.
Veteran Monique Currie gives rookie Kelsey Plum encouragement as she comes out of the Star’s first preseason game. Photo courtesy of San Antonio Stars.

The San Antonio Stars have always hung their hat on stockpiling guards who can score in bunches, as well as hard-working role players who fit neatly into their system.

That blueprint was good enough to earn them a trip to their first WNBA Finals in 2008.

But while there have been flashes of potential over the past two seasons, the wins have come few and far between since an appearance in the 2014 Western Conference semifinals.

Under new general manager Ruth Riley and first-year head coach Vickie Johnson, all signs point to the molding of the new young Stars into a carbon copy of that talented group of old, which will be foreboding for opponents.

During their final practice prior to Saturday’s 2017 season opener at New York, 12-year veteran forward Monique Currie shouted words of encouragement to rookie forward Nia Coffey, who then powered through the defense for a layup.

A few feet away, it was newly-acquired Erika de Souza instructing second year forward Isabelle Harrison on positioning after the two had just jockeyed for an offensive rebound.

Then there was the top pick of this year’s WNBA draft – Kelsey Plum – and three-year veteran Sydney Colson collaborating on how this season’s offensive plays would be executed.

All of these training camp snapshots illustrated a theme that San Antonio hopes will become the norm this season. But as talented as their young core of players are, the Stars believe that their development will be determined on how quickly they mix and create chemistry with the veterans.

Based on the roster moves Riley has made during the off-season, San Antonio looks to have patched up a few glaring weaknesses that left last year’s team at a disadvantage.

The Stars acquired de Souza from Chicago and Harrison from Phoenix through trades. In addition, they selected Coffey in the first round of the WNBA draft in hopes of solidifying a more physical presence this season.

Johnson, who was a player on the WNBA Finals squad and then served as an assistant under former coach Dan Hughes in 2016, knew it was an area that needed to be addressed in her first year as head coach.

“I made it a point to go after the players who I felt could play in the system I have created,” Johnson said. “These veterans will help mentor some of the younger players and help them and reassure them that if they just work hard and trust the process we will be successful.”

“When I played (in 2008) everybody on our team had their role – (former All-Star point guard) Becky (Hammon) was the scorer, Ann and I played defense, we had Sophia (Young-Malcolm) rebounding and Ruth was the go-to person for the pick-and-pop. It all came together at the right time.”

San Antonio may have lost to Detroit in the championship series that season, but their initial appearance on that stage set a precedent for the franchise.

It added to Hammon’s legacy as one of the greatest female basketball players to ever hit the hardwood, and it also helped the Stars slowly begin their ascent from the shadows of the city’s beloved Spurs of the NBA.

Whether or not new-look San Antonio can duplicate that feat will be determined in a few months, but in securing four driven interior players who can contribute immediately is certainly a positive thing for the team.

De Souza, who arrived in camp a few days ago after fulfilling her overseas commitment, is looking forward to embracing a leadership role both on and off the court.

“I love being in San Antonio because they have a lot of talented young players that have a lot of energy,” de Souza said. “I know I was brought here to be one of the leaders on this team and do my job. If any of the younger players need me I will be here to help them in any way I can.”

De Souza has been routinely among the leaders in rebounding during her 12-year career, which will help San Antonio improve upon a very lukewarm showing last season.

Harrison, who was traded after last year, has been impressive in team workouts thus far and scored 18 points in her first preseason game in Los Angeles.

“I came from a veteran team to a team that is relatively young,” Harrison said. “But there is a lot of talent here that people are going to be surprised about. To be successful in the WNBA you need a good mix of vets and young players. And I think we have that.”

Riley sees a plenty of similarities between the 2008 Stars – led by Hammon, Young-Malcolm and Ann Wauters – and the current group, which will host Phoenix in their home opener May 19.

“It’s the right mix of everything you need to win a championship – size, speed, offense and defense,” Riley said. “We had a veteran group that had those qualities, and we gelled at the right time. Adding the experienced players that we have will hopefully give us more leadership in the locker room and on the floor. We wanted players who can fit the mold of what we are trying to do here.”

While the trio of young back court players in Plum, Moriah Jefferson and Kayla McBride are expected to shoulder most of the scoring load, the nucleus of Stars vets will be counted on heavily to bring a sense of urgency, as well as a larger presence down low to San Antonio.

“We tried to bring in players that were interested in learning new stuff and who would fit into our system,” Johnson said.

“They had to understand before they got here that we may be really young but we are still trying to win a championship. We respect everybody in this league now it’s time for everybody to respect us.”

Now, the Stars will go to battle with the enforcers to make that dream a reality.