Another day, another in-depth look into ...
Averages: 6.6 points, 4.0 rebounds, 15.7 minutes
The Good: Gruda came into this season surrounded by hype, and she still is; Sun coach Mike Thibault has said she can be one of the WNBA's top five players during her career. The 21-year-old rookie is still a ways away from that, but she has given the Sun several things few other players can: Height, quickness at her position, tenacity in the post and an athleticism that's rare in this league. She's only improved, too, since arriving earlier this season. Since June 29, she's had four games of 10 points or more, recorded her first double-double against Chicago and has looked increasingly comfortable within Thibault's system.
Daily post-practice workouts with Sun assistant Scott Hawk have begun to produce results as well. Her post game and shot arsenal are developing at best, but she's broken out the occasional jump hook or drop step in recent games in addition to an already deadly jump shot. For a post player, Gruda has a touch on her jumper that I've rarely seen; with just a flick of her wrist, she puts so much rotation on the ball and considering that's where she's gotten the majority of her points from this season, it makes her shooting percentage (roughly 47 percent) that much more impressive. She's taken shots from the baseline and wings, but there's not a young frontcourt player in the league that can hit so consistently from the elbow as she does.
One final observation: Gruda's best offensive game (16 points, 5-of-9 shooting) came against a Sparks squad that was missing its entire Olympic frontcourt, so take from that what you will. But the fact that she was able to be a force when she should have been does say something. With young players, it's often difficult to predict when they'll exactly break out. Sometimes they're just feeling it, and because of the natural ups and downs of a rookie season, consistency can become a white whale. In Gruda's case, it was expected she should do well against L.A. that night. For her to take advantage of the opportunity instead of shrinking from it is meaningful, if that makes sense.
The Bad: That said, Gruda is still searching for consistency, especially defensively. That will come with improved footwork (a main area of focus) and when she gets a better handle on the league's personnel, and it's shown at times, as she leads the Sun in blocks per game (just under one per contest). But overall, her defensive game is far from where she is offensively at the moment. Thibault would also like to Gruda cut back on turnovers. There are stretches where she'll go games without costly mental mistakes, but there have been times where she's tried to force passes instead of just shooting it or read a defense wrong and forced the action despite the double-team. For example, in that L.A. game, she also had a season-high four turnovers.
I touched on this in the week after it happened, but Gruda also showed she's still has some maturing to do after letting her frustrations get the better of her during the Sun's win over Chicago on July 20. She bounced back nicely from it with the L.A. game, but considering she's played professionally for three years and has loads of international talent for her age, you can sometimes forget how young she really is. (She turned 21 in only late June.)
Outlook: Gruda's rapid, yet steady, improvements should only continue. The coaching staff has raved about her basketball I.Q. and Thibault has called her a "good visual learner."
"We can break the tape down and show her the mistakes and she tends to correct them pretty quickly," Thibault said after the L.A. game. "When we come back, she'll have another month of practice and individual (work) with coaches, getting more used to it. We'll get some scrimmages in against some guys. I think she'll be even better when we come back."
But how good can be this season? I think Gruda can be something similar to what Asjha Jones was her first and second season in Connecticut: A more-than-reliable frontcourt reserve with the ability to play like a starter on some nights. She's basically been that for the last month, but I don't think it's out of the realm to expect nine or 10 points and five rebounds a game down the stretch. (Remember, a main problem for the Sun last year was bench production, especially late in the season when Evina Maltsi and Kristen Rasmussen seemed to hit a lull.) Past that, Gruda may just become the player Thibault has touted her as. As for now, I mentioned this when I discussed Jolene Anderson, but the Sun also finish the regular season against several taller teams, and I wouldn't be surprised if Gruda gets the majority of the assignment in guarding San Antonio's Ann Wauters when Connecticut plays the Silver Stars, who have looked more and more like the favorite out West with each passing game.
On deck: Amber Holt
In the hole: Asjha Jones