MINNEAPOLIS — The WNBA has crafted a marketing campaign around a trio of rookies whose popularity has helped boost interest in the league.
The WNBA’s leaders aren’t part of this “Three to See” brand, but that’s fine with the Minnesota Lynx. Their unwavering focus is on winning another championship this fall, and they’re in prime position after the first half of the season.
Those rookies — Brittney Griner, Elena Delle Donne and Skylar Diggins — were big names before they stepped on the court for their first pro games. But Seimone Augustus, Rebekkah Brunson, Maya Moore and Lindsay Whalen have been doing this for a lot longer.
For the “Three to See” and the rest of the WNBA, there’s a “Four to Fear.”
“Those three have walked into some really bright lights, and I think for the most part they’ve handled it really well,” Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve said of the standout rookies. “At the same time — and this is what you’re going to see in the end — this is a veteran’s league.”
The Lynx filled four of the 11 spots on the Western Conference All-Star team, which will be coached by Reeve and her staff Saturday. At 14-3, they’re two games ahead of every other team in the league.
Their seven-game winning streak is the longest in the WNBA this season. They’ve got a franchise-record run going of 16 straight victories at home.
“The players look like they really enjoy playing with one another, and I never feel like one player’s agenda is bigger than what they are trying to accomplish as a unit,” former WNBA standout and ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said in an e-mail interview. “They are loaded with star players but carry themselves with a quiet humility that I find appealing. Add that to the fact that Seimone Augustus is one of the top two one-on-one breakdown players in the league, along with Cappie Pondexter, and Lindsay Whalen has become the heir to Sue Bird as the best point guard in the country. And I haven’t even mentioned Maya Moore and Rebekah Brunson.”
The WNBA released this week its list of top-selling jerseys, and the top three were no surprise: Griner of Phoenix, Diggins of Tulsa and Delle Donne of Chicago. They were the first three picks in this year’s draft, and the league would’ve been foolish not to tout this young talent at every turn of the season. Moore was fourth and Augustus was seventh, for the record.
Of the most popular team merchandise, Tulsa, Chicago, Phoenix, Washington and Indiana made up the top five. No sign of Minnesota.
“We don’t really care. Coach always said we kind of resemble the San Antonio Spurs in that sense. You never really hear of people talking about the Spurs, but then at the end of the year, playoff time they’re right in the hunt for everything,” Augustus said. “So let them stay out in L.A. and Phoenix and wherever else they are, and we’ll just continue working here.”
The Lynx was 13-4 at the break the past two years and finished 27-7 each time, winning the title in 2011 and losing in the finals in 2012. Houston finished 27-3 in 1998, when teams played four fewer regular-season games than they do now, for the highest winning percentage in WNBA history. Los Angeles won 28 games apiece in 2000 and 2001, as did Seattle in 2010. That leaves the Lynx poised for another push for that all-time best record.
Another championship is the only goal they’re truly chasing, though.
“Coaches and players enjoy finding anything they can to use as motivation. I would imagine that the Lynx players feel a little overlooked and disrespected and use that as fuel,” Lobo said.
“To be honest, most players we’ve talked to who aren’t named Brittney Griner have expressed a notion of feeling disrespected by the ‘Three to See’ hype.”
Augustus and Moore were voted by the fans as All-Star starters and the Lynx had the same four players picked for the showcase two years ago, so it’s not as if the Lynx are off the national radar. They’re just not right in the middle of it.
“The rookie class this year has done great. Honestly, they’re super talented. They bring a lot of talent and hard work to the game,” Whalen said. “But at the same time, when you have years of experience, when you’ve been through it, when you’ve been through the travel and everything, it definitely makes a difference because you kind of know a little more about what to expect.”
To outlast Los Angeles and Phoenix in the Western Conference, the Lynx will need to tighten up their defense, find more production from their reserves to keep the top six players, who include Janel McCarville and Monica Wright, from tiring, and of course, stay healthy.
They’ll go as far as their point guard can take them, and Whalen has been building what might be the best season of her 10-year WNBA career. She has led the Lynx in scoring in six of their last nine games, including four in a row with 20-plus points.
“She’s got this great bounce in her step right now,” Reeve said.
So do the rest of her teammates.
“This looks to me like 2011 in that we have really strong recognition of who we are,” the coach said. “And each game we’re applying those things, and I think we’re pretty hard to play against.”
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