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A blog on UConn women's basketball.

Wednesday, May 09, 2018

UConn alums make an impact at WNBA preseason tourney

The final totals are 95 points and five double-digit scoring games for the seven UConn alums who took the court at Mohegan Sun Arena over the last two days.

For the sake of full disclosure, I was not in attendance for Tuesday's doubleheader but did make an appearance for Monday's doubleheader. I was able to catch up with Natalie Butler, Kia Nurse and Azura' Stevens before they made their professional debuts as well as getting some time with Saniya Chong and Kelly Faris.

Considering that New York has five former Huskies on its roster (although Bria Hartley and Kiah Stokes were not here) and Dallas has three, it seems fitting that Dallas and New York were among the three teams joining the Connecticut Sun for the two day preseason tournament.

Nurse averaged nearly a point a minute (29 points in 29:47), Stevens was dynamic on Monday (19 points and nine rebounds) but had a quiet game on Tuesday. While it can be dangerous reading too much into playing time when it comes time to make cuts, Butler was only out there for 9:50 in the two games.

Faris had a solid couple of days making all six of her field goal attempts. It was a good sign that she played 45 1/2 minutes so the New York coaches are giving her a a chance to show what she can do.

The next week or so won't be easy for players like Butler, Chong and Faris as they look to stick around.

"I love the opportunity to play with this team," Butler said. "I am going to keep working, that has been my motto since day one and it has been working out well. Worry about the things that are in your control and take it from there. I would love to be a part of this fantastic (franchise)

"At the beginning of the year I had no expectations on how it was going to go, sort of play, enjoy my senior year."

Last year Chong defied the odds by making the Dallas roster as a third round pick. Butler joked that she hopes she didn't bother Chong too much as she solicited as much advice as she could get.

She got to square off with Stevens, who was taken sixth overall by Dallas, during practice and both are coached by Dallas assistant coach Taj McWilliams-Franklin, one of the best players in Connecticut Sun history.

"It's been great being back around Nat, going through training camp, being in a new place and both coming from UConn," Stevens said.

Chong has a different position coach this year as former Connecticut Sun guard Erin Phillips is working with the perimeter players. It's kind of ironic because it created a bit of a buzz last year when Chong made the team while Phillips was not a part of the roster. She was hired as director of player and franchise development by the team a week and a half after she was waived.

Chong headed over to Israel and she led Elitzur Holon by averaging 38 minutes per game. She ended up contributing 17.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game helping her team to a 17-9 mark in the regular season and a spot in the Final Four.

"I learned a few tricks from last year and I am still learning, I am really excited about year 2," Chong said.

"Erin has been in our position before, it has been really helpful, trying to be a point guard, trying to lead."

Speaking of decorated former players as coaches, both Faris and Nurse get to work with not only the legendary Katie Smith, who is in her first season as the Liberty's head coach, but also with Liberty lcon Teresa Weatherspoon. Two intense competitors, certainly they much like the fire that Faris and Nurse bring to the court.

Smith spoke about Nurse after her big game on Tuesday and here's the quote courtesy of the Liberty's official site.

"Kia is a skilled athlete," Smith said. "That experience against high-level competition that she came in with makes her well aware of what she can do and we as a staff know it too."

Although New York didn't play Connecticut during the tournament, it still had to a little strange for Faris, a former first round pick by the Sun and one of the last cuts by the team last year.

"One door closes and you have to look for the next one to open and you have to work for it," Faris said. "It wasn't going to be the end of my career, I just knew that it would be a good time to do something different and it would be a good time to let my body rest, train and work on my game."

While Nurse looked the part of a top 10 draft pick, it is going to be interesting to see how the minutes shake out in her rookie year once the Liberty has its full roster. One recent move was the signing of veteran wing Marissa Coleman adding another scorer to a talented roster for Smith's debut season.

"She has a ton of experience, been a lot of fun she has been open and willing to help me," Nurse said of Smith, who is the fifth all time leading scorer in WNBA history.

"We worked a lot of defensive things and offense in practice and Teresa Weatherspoon is doing a great job helping me out with some of my drives, people playing me for my shot so kind of working with that and understanding that everybody is a threat, if you are open knock down the shot," Nurse said.

As for the Sun, there is a preseason game on Friday against Atlanta at Bridgeport's Webster Bank Arena. Getting down to the maximum 12 player roster won't be easy.

Betnijah Laney, who played in 40 games for Chicago in 2015 and 2016, is making a strong push to make the team and if she does make the cut, the last spot could come down to Brionna Jones, last year's first round pick by the Sun, or Cayla George, who played in 66 regular season games with Phoenix in 2015 and 2017 before being traded for a second round pick in this year's draft. Phoenix used the pick to select promising Russian prospect Raisa Musina. There will be more on George in Friday's edition of the New Haven Register.

ATKINSON CUT BY MYSTICS
 New Haven native Tanaya Atkinson was cut by the Washington Mystics on Tuesday.

The former Temple star was signed as an undrafted rookie free agent. She had three points, one rebound and one assist in 6:31 of playing time in Washington's win over Minnesota on Sunday. I'd expect Atkinson to get a chance to play overseas and if she proves that she can make shots from the perimeter on a consistent basis, she could get another chance at making it in the WNBA next year.

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