Shalee Lehning isn’t the type to point a finger and say, “You were wrong about me.” But if she were, there would be plenty of finger-pointing for her to do.
When you’re from a small town in way-the-hell-out-there Kansas, you become accustomed to being underestimated. People figured that Lehning, who grew up in Sublette,Kan., might go sit the bench at Kansas State. Instead she was an indispensable starter who ended up with the school record for career assists.
They figured she wouldn’t get drafted by a WNBA team, but Atlanta took her in the second round. Then they figured she wouldn’t actually make the team. She did. But surely she wouldn’t play much, right? Nope, she started.
And now, in her second season in the league – and after a shoulder injury that kept her out of last year’s playoffs – Lehning is in the WNBA finals. She and Erika de Souza were moved out of the starting lineup at the start of the postseason _ a move that Lehning took without any complaints. Of course.
“I think that’s the mentality I’ve always had as a player – I just want to make my team better,” Lehning said Saturday just before the Dream practiced at KeyArena. “If it’s starting or not. Actually, I like both roles. Obviously, it’s great to start but being able to bring energy off the bench and be a little spark, I’m OK with that, too.
“We’re in the WNBA finals, and it doesn’t matter what happens individually with me. It’s been an awesome ride so far.”
Among Lehning’s biggest strengths is her ability to see the court, and she’s always been a good point guard because of that. But what has she learned most about the position in her two seasons as a professional?
“I think the biggest thing is how in control you have to be of the game,” she said. “Things happen so quickly at this level, and it’s so physical. You have to know everything offensively, defensively, the switches. I wasn’t required to think as much in college, and now I have to think more why we’re doing what we’re doing. So it’s really been good for me to grow in the thought-level process.”
In this series, the Dream will match up against the best point guard in the women’s game today, Seattle’s Sue Bird.
Bird is only 29 – she turns 30 in October – but has been in the national spotlight so long (winning her first NCAA title at age 19) that even though Lehning is just six years younger, she talks about “growing up” following Bird.
“I love Sue Bird – I remember watching all her games,” Lehning said. “I studied lots of film of her. I just respect her; she’s a great point guard, the consummate point guard. I’ve looked up to her my whole career, and to know that I’m going to be playing against her now is pretty unbelievable.”
Bird never really had any doubters; she was the No. 1 draft pick in 2002. Lehning went to Atlanta as 2009’s No. 25 selection overall.
“I know a lot of people did doubt me, even going into college,” Lehning said. “But I know that through hard work, commitment and dedication, I’ve accomplished my goals. To be here in the Finals in my second year – I’ve talked to players who’ve been in the league for years and years and never been in this position. So I’m really trying to embrace this, not take a single second of it for granted.”
Lehning would be like that anyway, but missing the playoffs last year has made her even more grateful to be here. The shoulder injury she suffered after a fierce collision with Washington’s Lindsey Harding in the 2009 regular-season finale took a while to rehab.
When did she really feel back to full strength?
“Probably not until a couple of weeks after I’d been in Atlanta this season,” Lehning said. “Even coming into camp, I was saying, ‘I hope they’re patient with me,’ because I wasn’t 100 percent. I’d only been playing about the past two months before then, because it’s a five-month recovery.”
During the time she couldn’t play basketball, she was still around it all the time. Lehning is an assistant on the Kansas State staff of Deb Patterson, and that’s a role she will continue in rather than go overseas to play when the WNBA season ends.
“I think it’s just a great opportunity to hone my skills as far as knowledge of the game,” Lehning said. “And I’m practicing with the team, staying active. I may not be competing, but it’s not like I’m just going to be sitting around for seven months before I get back to the WNBA.
“One of the biggest challenges I’ve had in Atlanta is finding my role, more last year, actually. This year I knew what they needed from me: Energy, leadership, somebody who would make sure people would be where they needed to be. And the staff did a great job in putting personalities together.”
With Lehning, for the second season in a row a former Kansas State player is in the WNBA finals. Nicole Ohlde won the championship with Phoenix in 2009.
“People have been going crazy – from Sublette, but also from K-State in general,” Lehning said. “They’ve been so supportive to me, and it’s great being able to play for them. They’ve had a part of my success, and I’m glad I can give something back.”