- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Among a new head coach, Alana Beard’s nagging foot injury and the addition of four rookies to an already young rotation, it’s not surprising that the Washington Mystics have faced an uphill battle early in the season.

However, as Trudi Lacey gains confidence in her young reserves, she might be able to give her starting five some more help.

Before welcoming the Indiana Fever to Washington on Tuesday, the Mystics’ bench — which consists primarily of four rookies — had combined for only 53 points in the team’s first five games. Karima Christmas, Ta’Shia Phillips, Victoria Dunlap and Jasmine Thomas make up one of the most intriguing benches in the WNBA, but they’ve spent nearly three times as many minutes on the bench as they have on the court.

“As we get used to playing with each other more, we can play the bench a little bit more [and] reduce our starters’ minutes — that’s the progression,” Lacey said. “The young players get more experience, and we try to keep them out there longer and sub a little bit more often.”

Lacey has opted to ease her bench into action, referring to the rookies’ minutes as “on-the-job training.” At the same time, players such as Christmas, who notched 11 points, three rebounds and three steals Saturday against Tulsa, are beginning to warrant more time on the floor.

“It’s kind of a learning experience, but at the same time it’s also frustrating because you come from different programs where you had to be the person playing all those minutes,” Christmas said. “So now it’s just seeing what they go through and trying to be able to help whenever we do get in the game.”

When the Mystics’ last game (a 77-59 defeat) got out of hand, Lacey began giving her rookie quartet some experience. They responded by winning “the bench factor,” a combination of points, rebounds, steals and other statistics that the coaching staff tracks to see which team’s bench has a greater impact on the game.

“Although we had a horrible game as a team, I think the rookies did a great job of stepping in and being the steady factor that we needed,” said Beard, who watched from the sideline as she continues to nurse her injury. “I’m not worried about the bench by any means — they work hard every single day, so they’re only going to get better.”

Because all four of the key bench players are rookies, they have been able to lean on one another and build chemistry among the second unit. Christmas and Thomas especially are on the same page after playing together at Duke last season.

“It’s good to just have people there in the same boat as you — we’re all trying to learn at the same time,” Christmas said. “We’re always trying to help each other out. We’re keeping our ears open on the bench, trying to figure out what we can do to help when we get in.”

Lacey has stressed the importance of better shot selection and stronger perimeter defense all week, but a potential solution to both may be right at her fingertips.

Giving more frequent rests to players such as 32-year-old Kelly Miller, who is on the court for more than 37 minutes per game, may give the Mystics a late spark that they could desperately use after scoring just nine points in the fourth quarter Saturday.

“They’re learning, [and] they’re getting better,” Lacey said of her bench. “We’ve been getting off to slow starts so it’s hard to put the young players in, but I think as we continue to play more games together and jell that it’ll balance itself out.”

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