Welcome back, Renee

By Ned Griffen
Updated: January 13, 2010

CONNECTICUT — Last fall, Connecticut Sun coach Mike Thibault received a phone call from Lindsay Whalen during the Team USA basketball camp in Washington, D.C.

“Lindsay says, ‘You need to get the first pick (in the 2010 draft),’” Thibault said. “There’s a girl up at UConn (Tina Charles), kind of a big center, (who is) playing down there.

“(Whalen) said, ‘Tina is pretty good.’ I said, ‘Well, what do we have to give for the first pick? She said, ‘I don’t know.’” It turned out that “what” was Whalen.

Connecticut sent Whalen home Tuesday to the Minnesota Lynx, trading the point guard along with the second overall pick in the 2010 WNBA draft.

The Sun received both the No. 1 overall pick and a player it coveted in last year’s draft – former UConn All-American point guard Renee Montgomery. Sun officials strongly hinted Tuesday that Charles, a 6-foot-4 senior at UConn, would be their No. 1 choice.

It was a difficult and emotional trade for Connecticut. Whalen has been a franchise player, a catalyst and, for Thibault’s family, a second daughter.

“It’s a tough day to trade somebody you really like,” Thibault said. “It is difficult. I can’t lie about it.” But Thibault added that as much as it hurt, it made perfect business sense.

“This is our once-maybe-in-a-lifetime (chance) to change the course of what we do, and we jumped on it,” Thibault said. “Not easily. Not quickly.

But we did jump on it finally.”

Montgomery, who helped UConn win the 2009 national championship, was drafted fourth overall by the Lynx last year.

“It’s a bittersweet moment for me, and I’m sure for Lindsay Whalen as well because you build a bond with the people that you go to in the beginning,” Montgomery said.

“I know she loves Connecticut, and who couldn’t. It’s also a sweet moment because you get to come back to a place that you love.”

Whalen has been the Sun’s point guard for six seasons. The Hutchinson, Minn., native is beloved in her home state, having led her high school to three state championships and the University of Minnesota to the 2004 Final Four, its first and only appearance.

“As excited as I am for the chance to play home and play in front of friends and family, I’m really going to miss the Sun and the relationships I’ve made with everyone there,” Whalen said in a telephone conversation from Prague in the Czech Republic, where she is playing this winter.

“I’m forever grateful and thankful to them all. I always thought I’d get a chance to play professionally in Minnesota as a pro. It just kind of happened.”

Whalen averaged 12.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.6 assists during her time with the Sun. She helped the team to the 2004 and 2005 WNBA finals and was second in the 2008 league MVP vote.

During Tuesday’s press conference, Thibault pointed out that nearly every WNBA champion has benefited from a combination of high draft picks in both the collegiate and dispersal drafts in the same season.

Thibault also looked at the last eight drafts and saw that 41 of the 48 players selected with the top six picks were still in the league.

Only 29 of the 60 players taken in the rest of the first round are still playing.

Connecticut now has forward DeMya Walker (acquired in December’s Sacramento Monarchs dispersal draft), the No. 1 pick and a promising young point guard.

“We felt that everything you could do to maximize where you drafted was important,” Thibault said. He noted that the time was right for Whalen, too.

“Up until this past year, I think Lindsay was always in a position that she was very comfortable with everything (here),” Thibault said. “Over the course of the last couple of months … it became clearer that she was also thinking about what she could do after her career (in Minnesota).

“In one of our conversations, she said, ‘If I ever had to go anywhere else, if you ever had to trade me, I prefer it only to be to Minnesota …

And I’d understand if it’s the perfect business decision.’
“Little did either of us know at the time that that’s what ended up transpiring.”