- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Alana Beard was a major reason Julie Plank was attracted to the Washington Mystics’ vacant coaching position in the offseason.

Plank wanted to take over a team with a solid foundation, and in Beard she saw a franchise player whose skill set fit her emphasis on defense and transition offense.

A third of way through the season, Beard has been at the top of her game. The swingman, who was announced Tuesday as a starter for the All-Star Game, ranks fifth in the WNBA with 19.1 points a game and third in steals with 3.0 for the Mystics, who are in second place in the Eastern Conference.

“She’s the leader of our team, and we feed off of her energy,” forward Monique Currie said. “She accepts that role, and she executes it well. When she’s scoring and when she’s hustling and getting steals and easy baskets, it brings up all of our intensity levels.”

Beard has bounced back nicely from last year’s disappointing campaign. She faced constant double teams because of Washington’s undermanned lineup and as a result shot under 40 percent for the first time since 2005, her second season. And as the losses mounted, the grind of the season wore on her.

But Beard has been rejuvenated in 2009 en route to her fourth All-Star appearance. She believes in the franchise’s new direction under Plank and first-year general manager Angela Taylor. Gone are the melancholy, sometimes tearful postgame venting sessions, and back is the excited, energetic player who led the Mystics to the playoffs in 2006.

“I’m walking into the gym every day and I’m smiling,” Beard said. “A lot of that comes from the coaches. They walk in every day, and they’re going to demand the best from every single player. Everyone’s in here going hard, we’re competing with each other, and we’re having fun together.”

Added Currie: “In previous years here, even when she was doing well, it’s not as fulfilling when you’re not winning games. Now that we’re winning games and she’s playing well, I think she’s able to enjoy the ride a lot more.”

Not only has Beard been the Mystics’ most reliable player this season, but she has been clutch as well. Plank has called on Beard with the game on the line, and Beard has delivered, hitting a game-winning jumper against San Antonio on July 1.

The first-year coach also has turned to Beard in the first quarter to ignite the often slow-starting Mystics. On Saturday, Beard scored Washington’s first 13 points against the Los Angeles Sparks.

“I like getting her some touches early,” Plank said. “I like to get her involved and run some things that we normally don’t run. She does a great job of that. She’s delivered early in a number of games, and that’s something I have a lot of confidence in.”

Beard’s burden has certainly been eased by an improved supporting cast. Two teammates - point guard Lindsey Harding and forward Crystal Langhorne - also are averaging double figures in scoring, and four others have dropped at least 14 points in a game this season.

“Other teams’ game plan for us is either ‘let Alana score and hold everyone else’ or ‘double-team Alana and let everyone else score,’ ” Beard said. “It’s like this year everybody can score, and it can be anybody on any given night. … Everyone is doing their part, and it makes the game so easy.”

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