Kelsey Griffin was playing in Australia this winter when an email from Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan essentially re-energized her career on the mainland.
The note informed Griffin and her teammates that Asjha Jones, the Sun’s veteran forward, had decided not to play in the WNBA in 2013 in order to rest chronic injuries.
For Griffin, it was an enticement. For the first time in her four years with the Sun, Griffin would have the chance to focus on the power forward position that made her a first-team All-American at Nebraska in 2010.
“There was a lot that was unknown for me coming into this [WNBA season] with the new coaching staff,” Griffin said. “But there was a different feeling. I knew there was more opportunity. But I tried not to get myself caught up in the head game of convincing myself that this was ‘my time’ or ‘this was it’ for me. I just wanted to approach the game as I knew it should be played.”
With Jones a fixture at the four, former Sun coach Mike Thibault really had no choice but to shift Griffin, 6-feet-2, from small to power forward to find her playing time.
But as much as he valued her energy, it wasn’t a good mix for Griffin and her productivity lagged.
Coming into this season, she had averaged only 3.7 points in 99 career games and there were times last season when she seemed to be the team’s forgotten figure.
In the first 18 games on the 2012 season, Griffin never played more than nine minutes and three times didn’t get in at all.
“For Kelsey, it’s all about having the opportunity,” Sun center Tina Charles said. “She’s been playing great in practice for a new coach and is being rewarded with a lot of minutes.”
But playing in Australia unleashed Griffin’s ability.
“I put a lot of time into the gym this winter,” Griffin said.
After spending a year in Hungary and Israel, Griffin signed with the Bendigo Spirit, where she was a teammate of Aussie international star guard Kristi Harrower. Griffin averaged 16.5 points and 8.6 rebounds and helped lead the team to the championship.
In the title game, Griffin scored 20 points with 11 rebounds and was voted the Most Valuable Player on title tournament.
Donovan, a Hall of Fame center in her playing days, said prior to training camp how much she was looking forward to coaching Griffin and helping her progress.
“I had a lot of dialogue with her before the season, just to see if she felt ready for this,” Donovan said. “She made it clear. She was ready. All she needed was confidence and she has it from our staff.”
Saturday, Griffin was in the starting lineup, in Jones’ position, when the Sun opened the 2013 season with a 81-69 win over New York.
“A lot of people may not realize this is first year [in the WNBA] that I’ve been able to play 100 percent of the time at the 4 [power forward],” Griffin said. “To be able to play what I know is super comfortable for me. But I also want people to realize I am the same player as I’ve always been. And I also know the league better, which helps out a lot.”
The Sun was again led by Kara Lawson, who had 23 points and five of the Sun’s 10 three-pointers. Tina Charles, the league’s MVP in 2012, added another double-double to her resume (she has 18 last season) with 19 points and 13 boards.
But during her 25 minutes on the floor, there was no better player than Griffin, whose high energy defense and in rebounding helped glint the Sun in the second half after trailing 42-40.
“Kelsey was such a spark for us,” Donovan said. “Great help defense, knocking down shots. I’m really happy for her.”
Griffin ended with 10 points, five rebounds and two blocked shots, one a vicious swat of rookie Kelsey Bone in the fourth quarter that left the Liberty’s first-round pick shaking her head.
“You look at Kelsey and you think she’s not big enough and then she comes up with such a big block on Bone,” Donovan said. Griffin scored 10 or more points just twice last season.
“You know in the past we have relied on Tina a lot, she’s a phenomenal rebounder,” Griffin said. “This year, I really want to help her out, she has to do so much for us anyway. Anytime I can get extra hustle plays to get us extra possessions, it’s good.
“What I did was no different than what I try to do every night. It’s all about taking advantage of opportunity. If I can make some energy plays off the offensive boards [she had two of the team’s 14] I am happy to do it.”