It was just over a year ago when Damiris Dantas agreed to come up from Brazil to play for the Lynx. Coach Cheryl Reeve, not having coached her yet, can remember wondering whether Dantas would even make the team.
Interesting how much things have changed.
The Lynx — who finished their two-game preseason schedule with an 85-80 victory over New York Monday at Target Center — will again start a season asking Dantas to fill a hole in the starting lineup.
Asjha Jones was supposed to fill the hole at center left by Janel McCarville’s decision not to play this summer. But Jones, battling a blood deficiency, is likely out for at least the first two weeks of the season.
So enter Dantas, again.
“It’s not ideal,” admitted Reeve of having to start a season without all five starters available. “I’d like to have the five we’re going to roll with. It makes for a little more of an unsettling situation. But in this league you have to be nimble. And we’re lucky to have someone like Damiris who is that talented, who can step in.’’
Monday Dantas was very active, scoring 15 points with five rebounds and three assists in 19 minutes of play.
Reeve wanted her starters to find a rhythm, face some adversity and to taste victory before the regular season started. She got a bit of all that. The Lynx ended the first quarter on a 23-5 run and led by as many as 21 in the first half. After the Liberty rallied to tie the game at 75 with 2:22 left, Maya Moore hit two key shots and Seimone Augustus one as the Lynx ended the game on a 10-5 run.
“I told our team we really needed that,” Reeve said. “The core group, the starters, to feel adversity, have to execute, we accomplished a lot tonight.”
Moore scored 19 points. Second-year guard Tricia Liston showed she may be emerging as a perimeter threat, hitting on five of nine three-pointers on the way to 17 points. Augustus had 12. Tina Charles led New York with 19 points.
Dantas, meanwhile, looked very comfortable with the starters.
It happened last year, too. In 2014, on the eve of training camp, power forward Rebekkah Brunson had knee surgery that kept her out of all but the final 11 regular season games. As a result the 6-3 Dantas — a rookie still battling a language barrier — stepped in and started the first 23 games. With McCarville as her on- and off-the-court mentor, Dantas filled in at power forward, averaging 21.9 minutes, 6.0 points 51.1-percent shooting and 5.1 rebounds per game in her rookie year.
Dantas was, by all accounts, a very pleasant surprise.
“It was amazing how, without being able to speak English, she was able to grasp things,” assistant coach Jim Petersen said. “So now it’s seeing if she can do it for long periods of time. And that’s what we don’t know yet.”
This time, Dantas will be starting at center. And while her role won’t change drastically, she will be doing more low-post defending. On offense, the Lynx like to have a sure-passing center who can play the inside-out game and help hit open shooters.
That will be a challenge. But the way Dantas handled starting as a rookie has made Reeve confident.
“Doing it for a second time, she’s even more comfortable,” Reeve said. “When she plays on her national team, she’s a starter. Her club team, same thing. It’s not new for her. It’s a different level, yes. But I think she’s really confident in herself and what she does.”
It will be an interesting first month of the season, with the Lynx waiting both for Jones’ return and for Anna Cruz — a Spanish guard acquired on draft day — to come to the team in early July.
Without Jones, Dantas will have to do more, as will rookie Reshanda Gray, who figures to get time backing Dantas up at center. Since first going to the WNBA finals in 2011 the Lynx have gotten used to a savvy veteran presence at center.
At guard, having to wait for Cruz may mean rookie Jennifer O’Neill makes the team out of camp.
The good news is that the other four starters are ready to go. Brunson, back to full health, adds defense and rebounding to the post; she and Dantas together give Reeve more size in the post than in recent seasons.