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Wednesday, July 6, 2011
WNBA stars on the rise

By Carolyn Peck

This is the 15th anniversary season for the WNBA, and we've now completed the first month of the season. As we celebrate the great players who made their mark and became stars of the league back in the day, some new faces are making their mark right now. Here's who we should keep an eye on.

Because I'm 6-foot-4, I have an affinity for the post players. Yes, Lauren Jackson, Candace Parker and 2010 rookie of the year Tina Charles are making the headlines. But watch out for Jessica Davenport.

This young woman barely got off the bench in her days with the New York Liberty. In her first two years in the league, she averaged little more than five points per game, and even in her first year with the Indiana Fever, she averaged only three points. But this soft-spoken, gentle player took her game overseas the past two seasons and became mean and tough in the paint -- and it is paying off.

The Fever Force, Davenport, is averaging 12 points and five rebounds a game this season. I don't know how long coach Lin Dunn can keep Davenport out of the starting lineup. Maybe it's a strategic move to have that kind of dominance to go to from your bench. Clever! And it's working: The Fever sit in first place in the Eastern Conference.

In second place in the Eastern Conference are the Connecticut Sun. Guard Renee Montgomery is a young star on the rise. In her rookie season in Minnesota, she played 22 minutes and averaged nine points per game. In her third season, she is bringing 18 points per game and shooting 45 percent from the 3-point line for Connecticut. When you have a young player contributing nicely, a veteran lineup and one of the most dominant posts in the league (Tina Charles), your team will be a contender. Keep an eye on Montgomery.

In the West, San Antonio sits unexpectedly in the lead of the conference race. We all know about Becky Hammon, Sophia Young and Ruth Riley. I recommend you watch the bench as well, as two of their top four scorers -- Jia Perkins and Danielle Adams -- come off the bench. Kudos to coach Dan Hughes for the trade he made for Perkins and for the courage to take Adams, the last player left in the room during the WNBA draft. Perkins, a starter the past two seasons with the Chicago Sky and in San Antonio, is now coming off the bench. In her seventh year in the league, she is averaging the second-most points of her career with the most talented team she has played on. She also brings a defensive presence, for which Coach Hughes' team is known.

Hughes traded center Michelle Snow for Perkins, a shooting guard. Most may think that was a risk, because he was asking a starter to come off the bench and giving up a great deal of size. Remember "Microwave" Vinnie Johnson of the Detroit Pistons? Call Perkins "Instant Offense."

Speaking of risk and size brings up a rookie whom several general managers passed on: Adams. She was the 20th pick in the WNBA draft. The questions were her height (6-1) and her conditioning. She is proving the naysayers wrong, averaging 16 points per game. She's a tough assignment for opponents because she will knock down the trailing 3-point shot and is tough to defend when she and Hammon are running the pick-and-pop or the pick-and-roll.

Superstar Hammon has taken the rookie under her wing and has reminded Adams that they share a similar story. Hammon was not drafted but landed a spot with the Liberty. Hammon's last college game was a loss to my former team, the Purdue Boilermakers, in the NCAA tournament in 1999. She knew her next opportunity was the WNBA. After not being drafted, she turned a training camp contract in New York into a successful 13-year career. She's helping Adams use her story as motivation.

After following Adams in the NCAA tournament and watching her lead Texas A&M to a national championship, I have to admit she is a new face who has dramatically captured my attention.

Fifteen years ago, some may have thought the league would not survive. Would a steady stream of talent be added to captivate an audience? Lisa Leslie, Tina Thompson and Cynthia Cooper were the pioneers to start this league. Davenport, Montgomery, Perkins and Adams are just a few names and talent who will not only keep this league around but also keep it evolving to greater heights.