The Sun open their eighth season tomorrow against the Chicago Sky (3:30 p.m., Mohegan Sun Arena), but they'll do so with just nine players, no Asjha Jones and, as expected, no Sandrine Gruda.
Jones, who is still recovering from surgery on her left Achilles' tendon, has stepped up her rehab in recent days and said her ankle feels stronger. But she is far from actually returning to full game mode and joked that she was still out of shape following practice on Friday.
"It’s about building strength, so every day you push it to the max and it recovers and that’s how it gets stronger," Jones said. "I’m totally out of shape. (laughs) That’s probably the hardest part, getting back into shape. But it’s getting stronger. It’s hard to predict, to give you an exact day (of when I’ll return). It’s more of a day-to-day thing."
Fortunately for Jones, the Sun don't play again for six days after Saturday's opener. They visit Atlanta on Friday, May 21. Asked if she could return by then, Jones said, "If it keeps recovering the way it is now, I think so.
"I’m going for that," she continued. "You don’t want to do too much and put it out there. ... But you have to have your long-term goals and your short-term goals. That’s a long-term goal for me. The short-term goal is every day going a little more and a little more."
Originally, both Jones and Thibault called the season-opener a possible return date. Jones said it's frustrating not to be playing, but that target date "wasn't a definite thing" in the first place.
"That’s what I’ve been learning in dealing with this thing for a while — nothing’s definite," she said. "Just try to keep it in perspective. The point is to be there down the road and not to rush back. Right now, that’s what we’re trying to do: Keep everything in perspective, just really focus in and realize that I want to be there at the end. I wasn’t there at the end of last year and it wasn’t good for our team. That point is to be there to finish it out."
With Jones out and Friday's cuts of May Kostopoulos and Judith Lomax, the Sun will open the season with just nine players. Why did the Sun put themselves in a position, knowing Jones and Gruda wouldn't be playing? The salary cap forced their hand. As Thibault explained it, with the salary being reduced by $52,000 this year and the Sun buying out a portion of Tamika Whitmore's contract, it left the team $10,000 short of their salary cap. Either Kostopoulos and Lomax, however, would have cost roughly $32,000.
"But what we can do," Thibault said, "is apply to the league, because we have nine players, for a hardship and you can pay them on a per-day basis that they’re here on a minimum salary. I don’t know if we’re going to do that right away. I don’t need them for this game. I’ll wait until after the weekend, see where we are health wise and see if I wanna do that next week. I don’t know. But we had to cut them first and let them clear waivers before we bring them back."
Don't expect another team to pick up Kostopoulos or Lomax. They should clear waivers before game time Saturday.
Thibault, however, isn't too concerned with having only nine players as he is missing two starters.
"I guess I have a different perspective," he said. "I coached in the CBA, where we had a 10-man roster, guys went and down to the NBA sometimes on a weekly basis. And I would go and pick up a new player and I would figure out how to do drills for 4-on-4. ... I think I’ve learned because I’ve been through it, how to adapt. In general, you only play nine or 10 players in a game. You’re not going to play all 11 most nights. It won’t be that I’m running out of players to play in a game. It’s probably more of an issue of (not) having your best players here and practice situations."
Still, Thibault is confident with the players he has.
"That doesn’t mean you can’t win games" without these players, the coach said. "That just means you might not be as good as you can be. We’re only a couple weeks from the first week of June; Sandrine will be here. Hopefully Asjha will play by game three or four.
"We’ve got good players. DeMya Walker has been a starter. We’re bringing Tan White off the bench, who’s a good player. Kelsey Griffin’s going to be really good right away. She’s really good."
Some extra notes entering tomorrow:
* Renee Montgomery, Kara Lawson, Anete Jekabsone-Zogota, Walker and Tina Charles will start, Thibault said.
* Charles' first pro test comes against one of her biggest nemesis in college, Sylvia Fowles. Charles famously kept a picture of Fowles in her locker room throughout college as motivation. The No. 1 overall pick averaged 19.3 points and 10.3 rebounds during the preseason, albeit against lesser competition than Fowles. More on this tomorrow.
* Jones said the hardest thing to do right now on her ankle is back-pedaling and stopping, as such putting all the weight on her recovering Achilles'. But on Friday, she did start taking lay-ups to test jumping off only her left foot.
* Thibault, who has agreed to a new two-year contract, said he wouldn't have been worried if he and the team hadn't come to an agreement for this season, which would have been played under the option on his old contract.
"I haven’t worried about a contract (since I've been here). I haven’t worried about any of that stuff," he said. "I figured if somebody doesn’t want me some day, I’ll find something else. But they’ve been great to me. Everything about it has been great."