Lynx frontcourt stepping up despite injuries to key players

Lynx center Janel McCarville, shown here in a file photo, looks to pass during a game at Target Center.  

Marilyn Indahl/Marilyn Indahl-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS — Frontcourt warmups have been a lonely endeavor for Janel McCarville so far this season.

Whenever the Lynx prep for a game, there’s the veteran center, taking passes from a ball boy and squaring up in front of assistant coach Jim Petersen.

Behind her, two rookies — one who speaks hardly any English — with a combined 10 games of WNBA experience repeat the same drill.

It’d appear Minnesota is in a bind. Posts Rebekkah Brunson and Devereaux Peters remain out indefinitely with right knee injuries, leaving 31-year-old McCarville and green bigs Damiris Dantas and Asia Taylor to comprised an apparently makeshift frontcourt.

The Lynx’s perfect start, however, says something different.

"(They’ve responded) very well," coach Cheryl Reeve said.

Minnesota owes its WNBA-best 5-0 mark in part to the exploits of its thinnest position unit at the moment. In Brunson, it’s missing a near double-double power forward that’s started all but four of the Lynx’s regular-season games the previous three seasons. In Peters, they are without a reliable backup who averaged 18.6 minutes, 4.1 points and 4.4 rebounds per game a year ago.

But an increased workload for McCarville and surprisingly efficient career beginnings for Dantas and Taylor have filled in the gap. So far.

"I’ve been impressed with everybody," said Peters, who like Brunson and guard Monica Wright underwent preseason knee surgery. "We don’t have a lot on the bench right now. We’ve played some pretty great teams, and we’ve been able to dig it out.

"No losses — what more can you ask for?"

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In victories over Washington, Connecticut, Tulsa, New York and Chicago — three of which we were decided by one possession — McCarville, Dantas and Taylor average a combined 17.8 rebounds per game, nearly a rebound better than the trio of McCarville, Brunson and Peters did last season. It’s a small sample size, but so far the three have been up to the task on the boards.

Scoring is a different story. With Brunson’s double-digit potential stifled by a heavy brace on her right leg, Minnesota’s frontcourt averages 15.4 points per game; Brunson, McCarville and Peters combined for 21.3 per contest last summer.

But the currently healthy group has done enough, albeit in some nailbiters, to keep opposing forwards and centers honest on both ends.

"We kind of have this saying ‘by 1 or by 21,’" Reeve said. "We don’t care (how much we win by)."

A first-round Lynx draft selection in 2012, Dantas came in from Brazil to training camp as one of the roster’s greatest unknowns. Despite a severe language barrier and little familiarity with Reeve or her teammates, the 6-foot-3 forward made the roster.

Once Brunson and Peters went down, she was suddenly thrust into the starting lineup. Since then, she’s scoring 5.6 points, pulling down 8.2 rebounds and playing 31.9 minutes per game.

"She’s in a tough spot not speaking English," said McCarville, who along with her teammates has brushed up on some basic Portugese. "She’s picked it up pretty fast."

McCarville herself has been a little more volatile but able to perform in clutch moments. Shooting just 29.4 percent from the floor, the former Minnesota Gopher and 2013 trade acquisition averages 6.2 points, 7.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.

"Coach has asked more of me: score more, rebound more, basically do everything I did last year, just a little bit more," said McCarville, who tallied 6.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists a contest during the team’s 2013 championship run. "We’ve obviously been missing a lot with Brunson out rebounding-wise, point-wise. She’s a near double-double every game, so that’s a big gap to fill."

Taylor, a 6-1 forward drafted in the third round out of Louisville this past summer, has made less of a noticeable impact on the season box score. She does play 11.2 minutes per game, though, and scored 10 points in Minnesota’s win Sunday against the Liberty.

Peters and Wright, meanwhile, both practiced in a limited capacity Thursday, a day before the Lynx host San Antonio at the Target Center. Neither is expected to be available this weekend.

Brunson isn’t, either.

"It’s kind of getting back into more of a routine for these guys. We’ve been away, so Dev and Monnie haven’t had a chance to get in stuff," Reeve said. "I just told (team trainer) Chuck (Barta) ‘if I see them out there, they’re out there,’ if not, it’s just whatever (the trainers) want to do. So we have them in things here or there, but our focus is obviously on the group that’s going play."

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