McWilliams-Franklin back to mentor Peters
MINNEAPOLIS — Before the 2012 WNBA draft, Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve received an email from one of her players.
There were pleasantries, of course, from the Lynx's oldest veteran, but the message was clear. This was not a thank-you for another year on the court or a reassurance that the 41-year-old would be in peak physical shape. It was a dose of reality. "Coach, I'm old," forward Taj McWilliams-Franklin wrote, and that simple message went a long way in shaping this year's draft and the team's future.
For McWilliams-Franklin, and even for Reeve, "old" is a complex term. Old is sore knees, sore hips, sore ankles, sore wrists, sore everything. Old is 16 seasons of professional basketball, 4,737 points and 2,836 rebounds in the WNBA. Old is being called "Mama Taj" by teammates nearly 20 years younger, acting as a mentor and role model to younger women.
Old is thinking forward to a future career, to life after basketball, and there lies the opportunity of age amidst its drawbacks. After McWilliams-Franklin's first season with the Lynx in 2011, her one-year contract was up. As a player who might want to coach in the future, the veteran was already thinking about what might come next when Reeve told her she wanted her to return, regardless of whom the team drafted or acquired. In doing so, Reeve wasn't focusing on the past over the team's future; rather, she was giving the veteran player a chance to consider her own future while helping shore up the Lynx's next generation by evaluating its eventual first-round pick, Devereaux Peters.
"Cheryl Reeve pretty much convinced me, so I'm back again -- to mentor," McWilliams-Franklin said. "As I ride off into the sunset, I'm going to mentor."
But McWilliams-Franklin's role as a mentor is nothing new. Maya Moore said that the forward is as much of a mom off the court -- she has three daughters, Michele, Schera and Maia -- as she is on it, always watching her teammates and making sure they're doing the right thing. This offseason, though, McWilliams-Franklin took a further step in her career, playing an active role in assessing some of the players the Lynx were considering drafting with their third-overall pick.
While she was playing overseas in Turkey this offseason, McWilliams-Franklin was assigned a 6'2" Notre Dame forward to evaluate. At the time, Peters was nothing more than her stats to McWilliams-Franklin, merely height and weight, 9.6 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. But with the help of game tapes and a program called Synergy -- which separates a player's game into categories so that a viewer can watch every assist, every rebound, etc. -- McWilliams-Franklin quickly became an advocate for Peters. Knowing that the team was considering drafting a potential replacement for her, the veteran was pleased to see similarities between herself and the 22-year-old, and when the team picked Peters, McWilliams-Franklin was happy that it had heeded her advice.
"Watching the tapes, I see a lot of younger me in her, and I think she can help the Minnesota Lynx for many years down the line," McWilliams-Franklin said. "She's an unselfish player, great on defense, has a tenacity and kind of a swag that a lot of players don't have in that four position."
Peters can play both power forward and center, as can McWilliams-Franklin, and she's also a good passer, which will be valuable if she's to assume some of the veteran's minutes and facilitate the team's offense. In addition, McWilliams-Franklin said, the rookie is one of the rare players who can contribute without having to score, which she became known for as a part of Notre Dame's dynamic offense. However, Peters will need to improve at the high post and learn to be more of an offensive threat so that when Moore and Seimone Augustus are double-teamed, she can be a scoring threat.
A week into training camp, Peters is upbeat. She's every bit the wide-eyed rookie, encouraged by what a good fit the Lynx team seems to be and eager to do whatever it asks of her. That's easy to say in a week in which she's yet to be really challenged, before players like Rebekkah Brunson and McWilliams-Franklin arrived at camp, but in those first practices, Reeve was pleased with what she saw.
"You hope that what you see when you evaluate in college is actually what you get, but you don't know until you're in the trenches with that player," Reeve said. "To this point, exactly what we evaluate is exactly what we've seen in practice. We anticipated that her skill set would translate to the WNBA, and I would say that to this point it has."
But that was just five practices into training camp, not even a month into Peters' Lynx career. Thus far there'd been little competition, few chances to get feedback from anyone other than a coach. Those might have been the rookie's first days with her team, but they're not likely to be the most memorable or valuable.
The days that matter will come later, as soon perhaps as this week. McWilliams-Franklin arrived at camp Monday and met Peters for the first time as her makeup was being applied for media day photos. Just weeks ago, the rookie was a girl on a tape, a college player who'd just lost in her second NCAA championship game, and it was almost fitting for the two to meet at the height of the spectacle of a post-championship media circus. Peters is growing up, and McWilliams-Franklin will be there for every step of the process this first year.
McWilliams-Franklin is eager to continue to mentor the team and scale-back her on-court presence, but Peters might be more excited to learn than the veteran is to teach. Until she was drafted and the comparisons with McWilliams-Franklin began, Peters had never noticed the similarities between herself and the veteran, but now that they've come to define her identity with the team, she's ready to make the most of them and learn through competition.
"That's what you get excited for, that competition that's a part of what you love about the game, so it's going to be nice to ... really see where you stand," Peters said of working with McWilliams-Franklin.
So yes, there will be techniques and logistics. Peters will study McWilliams-Franklin. She'll guard her and run drills with her. She'll become a better player because of her, but the veteran's impact should extend off the court. As much as Peters should emulate the skills of the successful veteran, she would also be wise to study her composure, the way she handles her emotions and the ease with which she carries herself. It'll likely be years before the agreeable but uncomfortable rookie approaches the woman who breaks out into song mid-interview, but the more that McWilliams-Franklin's easy comfort rubs off, the better.
The past few months have offered something new to both women, no matter that they're separated by nearly a generation. For Peters, they're the beginning of a career; for McWilliams-Franklin, they're an end that's starting to hint at a new beginning. And as much as Peters will learn from her older teammate, McWilliams-Franklin has already begun to evolve into more of a mentor and a leader, something between player and advisor, even coach. That evolution has highlighted an element of responsibility, an obligation that McWilliams-Franklin feels toward a team and a coach that have had so much faith in her.
She wants Peters and the team's other rookies to know what it feels like to win a championship, and she wants to help them achieve that. She wants the franchise to succeed, and she feels that she needs to contribute beyond just her efforts on the court.
"I really want this franchise to continue doing well for years to come," McWilliams-Franklin said. "For me it's about the future. There's a lot of players that continue to play and never give anything to the people that put faith in them by signing them, and I don't want to be that kind of player."
Peters might be one part of that future success, but she's still an unproven rookie. Evaluating her was just one part of McWilliams-Franklin's commitment to the team; now she will mentor and instruct her and the other young players. If the veteran can pass even a fraction of her outlook and commitment along with the basketball skills she's modeling everyday, the team will be the better for it.
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