Saturday, July 7, 2007

Nakia Sanford hoped to become a full-time starter. But the Washington Mystics’ center didn’t expect, nor did she want that position at the expense of losing her close friend.

That’s what happened, though. Mystics general manager Linda Hargrove traded center Chasity Melvin to the Chicago Sky for Monique Currie on May 24.

After playing behind Melvin since the 2004 season, Sanford found herself in a starting role.

“You have to step up,” Melvin told Sanford a few days after the Mystics trade. “This is your chance. You’ve always dreamed of this opportunity.”

Melvin had mentored Sanford while the two battled against each other in practice. And they displayed the same aggressiveness when they played against each other on June 1.

Melvin and Sanford will match up for the second time since the trade when the Mystics (5-12) visit the Sky tonight.

Since the trade, Sanford has started in 13 games, averaging 28.8 minutes and 10.7 points. For the season, Sanford averages 10.1 points and 27.4 minutes a game, both career highs.

But she didn’t immediately feel comfortable with the new responsibility.

“I have to be honest. It was really, really hard,” Sanford said. “It was a very scary experience. When I played with Chasity, I could make a few more mistakes because I wasn’t a starter.”

Sanford averaged about three fouls a game, but her limited role allowed for such aggression. Since the Mystics now rely on Sanford to log as many minutes as possible — because of a lack of depth in the post — she can no longer play as a pesky spark plug.

“[Sanford] was foul prone and she was taking chances,” Mystics coach Tree Rollins said. “We constantly reminded her not to take chances, especially early.”

Sanford thinks she plays more aggressively during the second half because of the decreasing pressure to stay out of foul trouble. But limiting her physical play hasn’t been the only challenge Sanford has faced since Melvin’s departure.

When former Mystics coach Richie Adubato resigned on June 1 in part because of the Melvin trade, Sanford saw Adubato’s unhappiness with the trade as a lack of confidence in her play. Hargrove convinced Sanford the front office thought otherwise.

“We wouldn’t have done it we didn’t think you could contribute,” Hargrove told Sanford.

Though Sanford’s numbers consistently were in double-figures immediately following the trade, she felt unprepared for the starting role.

Sanford felt more exhausted after games because of the increased playing time, and pledged to rest rather than go out at night. She no longer views breakfast as an annoyance but a necessity.

“It’s funny. When we talk now, Nakia always says, ‘Now I understand everything you were talking about in practice,’ ” Melvin said. “I had to fight with Nakia in practice. She sees that and appreciates the hard work that goes into logging all of those minutes. She has more respect for the player I was and I think she learned a lot into how to be a starter.”

Of course, Melvin’s absence often lingers in Sanford’s mind. She misses the days when the two spent time shopping and going out to eat in the District. But at the same time, she has welcomed the new opportunity to increase her role with the team.

“We knew she could be a good starter,” Hargrove said. “But we knew as long as Chasity was here, she was going to be a backup unless someone was injured. She had mixed emotions about [the trade]. She and Chasity were good friends, but she looked at as an opportunity to grow as a player.”

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