Brunson makes big impact with Lynx

Rebekkah Brunson talks about the Lynx's success and hopes going into the playoffs.

You look now at the combination of strength, agility, basketball smarts and controlled aggression that has made Rebekkah Brunson one of the WNBA's more reliable workhorses in the paint. You see, in particular, those big hands that appear to be made for securing rebounds.

It might not surprise you that she is "handy" in other ways. Brunson loves working on houses, doing remodeling projects. She doesn't have a lot of time for that now, playing basketball in the WNBA and overseas. But she watches home-improvement shows. Someday, she envisions working on her dream house. Perhaps in San Diego, where her twin brother, Matthew -- the cooking expert of the family -- lives.

"He was in the army; now he's finished," Brunson said. "He's in culinary school. It's funny, because we weren't always close. Oh, my gosh, in high school, we were like enemies. We wanted to be individuals and step away from each other, like a lot of twins. But once we went away to college, we became best friends."

Brunson actually didn't go far away; she stayed in her native Washington, D.C., and attended Georgetown. That had the advantage of being a grandmother-approved choice, both because of proximity and the education it provided, and Brunson was glad to remain close.

"I had tunnel vision toward Georgetown," she recalled. "My focus was always on them."

However, that took at least some of pro scouts' focus off her, and that altered the course of her WNBA career. In a good way, as it turned out.

Brunson is averaging 10.1 points and a team-best 9.0 boards this season for the 26-7 Lynx, who have the league's best record and are set to enter the playoffs this week for the first time since 2004, the year she came into the WNBA.

But remember, the Lynx bypassed their first chance to get Brunson. With the benefit of hindsight, it might seem an obvious mistake. At the time, it was understandable why it happened. In 2004, the 6-foot-2 Brunson was a lesser-known commodity among college post players. Not because she lacked ability but because the Hoyas never made the NCAA tournament in her time there.

College team success doesn't necessarily have anything to do with what heights an individual might reach as a professional athlete. Brunson is proof of that. But in a developing league such as the WNBA -- especially considering the greater limitations of scouting even just seven years ago -- the fact that Brunson's team was so far from the spotlight undoubtedly affected the perception of her to some degree.

The Lynx, in need of post players and possessing the Nos. 6 and 7 picks in 2004, chose Kansas State's Nicole Ohlde and Florida's Vanessa Hayden. Brunson wasn't selected until Sacramento took her at No. 10.

The players picked 1-5 that year: Diana Taurasi, Alana Beard, Nicole Powell, Lindsay Whalen and Shameka Christon. Ebony Hoffman went at No. 9. Hard to argue with any of those, even if injuries have currently sidelined Beard and Christon.

Ohlde wasn't a bad choice; she started for five years in Minneapolis, where she was a solid-enough role player. After stints in Phoenix and Tulsa from 2009-10, she retired from the league before this season but will continue to play in Europe. Hayden played in the WNBA for five seasons, last appearing with Los Angeles in 2009; she battled fitness issues throughout her time in the league. No. 8 pick Chandi Jones was limited by injuries; her last WNBA game was in 2006. She was briefly with the Lynx as part of their lopsided trade with Detroit that sent away Katie Smith.

In retrospect, the Lynx should have used one of their two draft picks in 2004 on Brunson. That's very easy to say now. But they got another opportunity before the 2010 season, when they took her second in the dispersal draft of the Monarchs after New York selected Powell.

Brunson is very thankful for the time she spent in Sacramento. Yes, it was across the country from D.C. But by then, she was ready for such a move in a way she wasn't as a teenager. And being with the Monarchs allowed her to develop at a reasonable pace while learning from veterans such as Yolanda Griffith, Tangela Smith and DeMya Walker.

"It was awesome; all of them were willing to help me and teach me the little things they knew that have enabled me to be the player I am now," Brunson said of her days with Sacramento, which won the 2005 WNBA title. "I don't think I could have been any luckier than I was to get that group of post players.

"I loved Sacramento; I bought a house there. If the team was still there, I'd probably have planned to stay there for a really long time. Unfortunately, that organization isn't there anymore. That was a shocker to me when it happened; I came home from practice overseas, got on the Internet and saw, 'It's a shame what happened to the Monarchs.' And I was like, 'What happened to the Monarchs?!'"

Soon, she found out the Maloof family was divesting itself of the WNBA team, and with that, one of the league's original franchises was gone.

"It was sad for the players, the employers, the city," Brunson said. "We felt like a family there."

Yet it has come to feel like that in her second season in Minnesota. It helps, of course, that the Lynx finally have had their dream year -- regular-season version, at least -- after several summers of mediocrity and disappointment.

"I knew the Lynx had struggled, but at the same time I could see the possibilities when I came here," Brunson said. "It was little pieces here and there they were missing. So I was excited about where the organization could go and not focused on where it had been."

Which brings us to last week and the announcement that Brunson and the Lynx had agreed to a multiyear contract extension.

"I like it a lot here," she said, adding with a laugh, "I maybe wouldn't want to be here to figure out surviving the winters, but in the summers it's beautiful.

"And in a lot of ways, the experience here has been reminiscent of Sacramento for me. That's not necessarily talking about the way we play on the court, but the chemistry we have off of it. It's so pleasurable. We're great teammates and friends with each other."

In a state that especially values teams/athletes who win but also represent the region well, the Lynx are resonating this year as they never have before. Point guard Lindsay Whalen, a native Minnesotan and Golden Gophers legend, is logically atop the totem as the homegrown hero. Fellow MVP candidate Seimone Augustus, the No. 1 draft pick out of LSU in 2006, has earned her Twin Cities cred. This year's top selection, UConn's Maya Moore, is well on her way to that, too.

"Mama" Taj McWilliams-Franklin -- with Minnesota as the latest stop on her lifelong can-do tour -- inspires everyone older than 35 to get off her rear and keep on trucking. Stanford grad and social butterfly Candice Wiggins can hit those huge, roof-lifting shots.

But Brunson might be as appreciated as any of the Lynx. The big woman with the easy smile and gentle laugh off the court is one of the WNBA's fiercest on the boards, a savior of second-chance points.

And the Lynx have benefited greatly by getting a second chance with her.

Mechelle Voepel, a regular contributor to ESPN.com, can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com. Read her blog at mechellevoepelblog.com.