'Mama’ likes days like this

Taj McWilliams-Franklin begins her 14th season, still striving to improve her veteran game.

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Minnesota Lynx Taj McWilliams-Franklin was greeted with a hug by teammate Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson during media day for the championship team at their training facility, Monday, May 7, 2012.

Photo: Elizabeth Flores, Star Tribune

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When the greatest season in Lynx history ended last October, after the team swept Atlanta in the WNBA Finals, and after it had a championship parade in Minneapolis, coach Cheryl Reeve wanted more.

Reeve gave every player an offseason "assignment," including 41-year-old Taj McWilliams-Franklin, who has played in the WNBA since 1999.

She was told to improve her midrange, face-up jumper.

And she did.

"I can shoot it now -- I have been doing much better," said McWilliams-Franklin as the Lynx prepared for Sunday's season opener against Phoenix.

"I thought I didn't have anything more to learn," said McWilliams-Franklin. "But in the offseason, in Poland, I am [shooting] 300 shots from the corners, from the elbow, from right inside the three[-point line].

"When a coach tells you, 'This is what I need you to do to be better,' this is what you do."

McWilliams-Franklin knows how to survive and thrive. This will be her 14th season and her second with the Lynx, who signed the unrestricted free agent in February of 2011 on Reeve's insistence. "Mama Taj," to her teammates, is 11th on the WNBA's all-time scoring list, 263 points shy of 5,000. The 6-2 center is the league's second-leading rebounder, with 2,836, trailing Lisa Leslie by 471, and one of seven WNBA players who have played in more than 400 games.

For years, coaches let her handle pregame preparations her own way. Which means she only attempts layups in morning shootarounds. Her reasoning: Why waste good shots in practice?

Reeve asked her to change. The two have a strong relationship; Reeve was an assistant coach at Detroit in 2008 when the Shock won the WNBA title after trading for McWilliams-Franklin late in the season.

Strong again

Reeve has said this Lynx team could be better than last year, when it came within one victory of the WNBA regular-season record.

"I believe Cheryl Reeve," McWilliams-Franklin said. "I definitely know we have all the great pieces and we have added Erin Thorn, a great veteran and a three-point shooter. We have [rookie] Devereaux Peters, who I am high on."

McWilliams-Franklin could have retired to coach, start a clothing line or go full-time into what she calls "mommyhood." The youngest of three daughters, Maia, is going to grade school in San Antonio.

Nor did she sign with another team. She had been with six -- Connecticut, Los Angeles, Washington, Detroit, New York and Minnesota -- since 2006.

Reggie Franklin said last year his wife views herself like a superhero in a way, going each season where she is needed. Reeve persuaded McWilliams-Franklin to stay in one place.

"It wasn't like, 'Ah, we will talk to you after the [WNBA] draft,' it was like, 'Hey, I need you back,'" said McWilliams-Franklin, recalling her coach's appeal.

"For me, it is all about what you leave as a legacy, how people viewed you, your contributions to the game, things like that. As I ride off into the sunset, I am going to mentor."

Setting an example

She advised the Lynx to take Peters with the No. 3 choice in the draft last month, and is also working with young post players Jessica Adair and Amber Harris. Ideally, McWilliams-Franklin would like to play 20 minutes a game. She averaged 11 points and 7.1 rebounds for Polish League champion Wisla Can-Pack for three months, starting in February.

"Rookies have to learn how to handle the minutes and the grind," she said. "I see a lot of the younger me in [Peters]. She can help the Minnesota Lynx for many years down the line. She is an unselfish player, great on defense, and has a tenacity and a kind of swag that a lot of players don't have in that four [power forward] position.

"If I can help Jess, if I can help Dev, if I can help Amber be better in the future, whether I am playing or not, that is [what's] important. For me, it is time to step back and watch a lot."

Reeve, of course, will keep starting McWilliams-Franklin.

"Taj is the same," Reeve said. "She is no different than someone like Maya [Moore] coming into the team for a second year. She is more familiar with things."

And McWilliams-Franklin is excited: "I don't enjoy practice, I am not going to lie, but I enjoy getting mentally prepared to play a team like Phoenix, a team like New York, just their different styles."

The Mercury, for sure, has a grudge to settle with McWilliams-Franklin. She played maybe her best game of last season against them Sept. 25 when the Lynx beat Phoenix 103-86 to win their best-of-three series in the Western Confererence finals.

McWilliams-Franklin had 21 points, six rebounds and seven assists in 38 minutes.

Remember?

"No, not at all, which is a good thing," she said.

Her focus is always the next game.

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