Ballhandlers like Bird, Hammon way of future

UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- In the shopping plaza that guards the entrances to Mohegan Sun Arena, there's a store specializing in nostalgia. All nostalgia, all the time. Lured by memories of better times, like perhaps those moments before they sat down at the blackjack table, shoppers eagerly lay out money for small helpings of history's golden glow.

But at the risk of offending the fine folks who manage the entertainment extravaganza in Uncasville, Conn. (there is, after all, also a Krispy Kreme), one needed only endure the abysmal ABBA tribute band at halftime of Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game to understand that time's unceasing forward march is often a good thing.

Times change. Plumbing goes indoors. Phonographs become iPods. Swedish pop goes out of style.

And as was on display in front of a national audience on Saturday, a new generation of guards such as Becky Hammon and Sue Bird take women's basketball in a new direction.

The WNBA survived its infancy on the shoulders of posts and wings like Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Cynthia Cooper. But as the league heads toward adolescence, dynamic ballhandlers like Hammon, Bird and Diana Taurasi prepare to lead the way.

And while post players have long experienced the All-Star Game as little more than a way to get in some jogging, watching guards and forwards play a fast-paced game of H-O-R-S-E, Saturday's game was still a showcase for this new breed of guard.

Midway through the first half, Hammon found herself with the ball on the wing and nothing between her and the basket but the long arms of DeMya Walker. Without hesitation, and with the slightest of shot fakes, she drew Walker out of her defensive stance and drove past her only to find the paint suddenly crowded with other Western Conference big bodies.

Pass or shoot?

The shortest player on the court on Saturday -- and it would have been a close call against many of the kids pulled from the stands during timeout contests -- Hammon has the stature of a quintessential pass-first point guard. But she never got the message to subjugate her offensive spirit, not in the sparse landscapes of her native South Dakota and not in the gyms at Colorado State. Instead, she remains a scoreboard-first point guard, always looking for the quickest way to get the ball in the basket, whether delivered directly by her hand or indirectly via the assist.

So having left Walker on the wing only to get seemingly stuck in the land of giants, Hammon left her feet and cast a quick glance to one side. Only where teammate Dawn Staley would have been looking for an outlet, Hammon was looking for a decoy. Freezing the collapsing defenders, she turned her attention back to the rim and casually flipped the ball in. On the next trip down the floor, Hammon proved why defenders are so eager to jump at her shot fakes, draining a 3-pointer.

Maybe they were just two possessions in an All-Star Game short on defense, but they were two possessions demonstrating an emphatic desire to do more than marshal resources.

It wasn't always this way. The first generation of WNBA point guards were consummate floor generals, always looking to set up the primary offensive options while keeping a close eye on their team's energy and pace. Staley represented the old guard with pride on Saturday, finishing with four assists in 18 minutes and losing a handful more on careless finishes from the recipient of a well-placed look. It was the same ethos fans grew accustomed to seeing from the likes of Teresa Weatherspoon, Jennifer Azzi and Debbie Black.

But with just more than 10 minutes remaining in the second half, Staley found herself unguarded in the corner. Hesitating before finally releasing an awkward, flat-footed 3-pointer, she sent the ball several feet beyond the far side of the rim. It was one of four misses on the game, against just one make. It's true there have been any number of memorable offensive performances during Staley's illustrious pro career, but there have been even more nights like this on the shot sheet.

The West had a generation gap of its own to deal with, as pass-happy All-Star veteran Ticha Penicheiro was once again left out of the backcourt. The starting tandem of Bird and Diana Taurasi distributed seven assists in her place, but also totaled 24 points, including 14 on 5-of-6 shooting from Bird. In fact, for much of the first half, Bird's offense seemed the only consistent option after Sheryl Swoopes. At times the West didn't need its guards to get others involved in the offense; it needed the guards to be the offense. And Bird and Taurasi were only to happy to oblige in front of their loyal Connecticut fans.

Not that traditional point guards are entirely a vanishing breed. Saturday's showcase was a coming-out party for the likes of Hammon, Bird and Taurasi -- sure to be joined in future seasons by players such as Lindsay Whalen -- but it wasn't a death knell for point guards with a penchant for passing. Neither Staley nor the next generation of pass-first guards, like Hammon's rookie teammate Loree Moore and Washington's Temeka Johnson, are in danger of extinction. They just have to share the stage.

And that's the beauty of progress. You get to keep the best of what came before, while simultaneously savoring the benefits of innovation.

Pass or shoot?

For a new generation of guards, the answer is up in the air.