Washington Mystics guard Nikki McCray is changing her style of play to accommodate another superstar on the court and adjusting to a team that is almost entirely different from last year's 2-27 squad.
Apparently the transition is going smoothly. Both McCray and her fellow Mystics star, forward Chamique Holdsclaw, were chosen as starters for the Eastern Conference team in Wednesday night's inaugural WNBA All-Star Game.
"I don't have to create as many shots in this offense as I did last year," McCray said. "This year, I find myself passing up shots, and I know that I have players like Chamique and [Shalonda Enis] and Murriel Page who can finish."
Last year McCray led Washington in points, field goals, free throws, minutes and assists. At the halfway point this season, she doesn't lead the team in any major category. Her 18.5 points per game is second to Holdsclaw's 18.7, and her three-point percentage of 30.0 is below guard Andrea Nagy's 33.3.
But McCray can still take over a game. In Monday night's win over Charlotte, McCray scored a season-high 26 points, hitting 3 of 6 three-pointers. In a win over New York earlier in the season, McCray tied a career high with nine assists.
"She had her games last year when she turned the ball over a lot," Mystics guard Rita Williams said. "But she's a better passer. And her shooting is better. I think she gets a lot of her points out of the offense."
McCray has gone from being the team's only offensive option last year to choosing who is the team's best option on each possession.
"Last year, I would sometimes get the ball at half court and just go down and create whatever I could," McCray said. "It was hard, but you had to do whatever you could to try and win.
"Last year we really just wanted to get the ball to Alessandra [Santos de Oliveira], and if she wasn't there, there was no alternative play. It wasn't as flexible as this year's offense."
Although she isn't leading the team in every statistic, McCray thinks that Coach Nancy Darsch's offense has given her the best chance to be effective.
"This year I don't have to do it all," she said. "I just have to contribute. I don't have to score 20 points a night. If it happens, it happens, but it's not something that I have to create every night."
McCray is no stranger to being on winning teams. Tennessee was 122-11 during McCray's four years there, from 1991 to '95. In 1996, she won a gold medal with the U.S. Olympic team. She won the 1997 ABL championship in Columbus, where she was the league's most valuable player, averaging 19.9 points, 5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. Then she came to the expansion Mystics in 1998, and the team won three games all season.
"It was tough dealing with all of the losses because I had won a championship in the ABL," McCray said. "But I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot about my character. I worked harder than I ever did because I knew that we were going to have great players added to this team."
McCray has learned to use those players. Because Holdsclaw and Page have developed into threats in the low post, McCray has sneaked behind the defense and gotten open for three-point shots. "I've worked hard on my threes this season," McCray said. "I am able to hit the three-pointer this year, and that's important because it's something we weren't able to do this year. And because of the other players we have and the offense, I'm open for them."
The number that McCray said is most important is the wins, and the Mystics have won four of their past seven games. While she's going to enjoy the all-star hoopla here this week, she's eager to get back to working to help the Mystics (5-9) make the playoffs this season. At the all-star break, the Mystics were leading the league in field-goal percentage (44.4). The other two teams in the history of the WNBA who have done that -- Cleveland in 1998 and Los Angeles in 1997 -- both made the playoffs.
"I don't think we're out of the Eastern Conference race at all," McCray said. "We've beaten [Eastern Conference leader] New York twice, and we're just starting to mature as a team. We're playing well right now, and I'm excited for what will happen in the second half."
WNBA All-Star Game
When: Tonight, 7:30.
Where: Madison Square Garden, New York.
Coaches: Eastern Conference -- Cleveland Coach Linda Hill-MacDonald. Western Conference -- Houston Coach Van Chancellor.
Starters: East -- Washington F Chamique Holdsclaw, New York C Kym Hampton, New York G Teresa Weatherspoon, Washington G Nikki McCray. Fifth starter TBA for New York F Rebecca Lobo (injured); West -- Houston G Cynthia Cooper, Phoenix G Michele Timms, Houston F Sheryl Swoopes, Houston F Tina Thompson, Los Angeles C Lisa Leslie. Reserves: East -- Detroit G Sandy Brondello, Charlotte F Vicky Bullett, Orlando G Shannon Johnson, New York F Vickie Johnson, Cleveland G-F Merlakia Jones, Orlando C Taj McWilliams, Orlando G Nykesha Sales; West -- Sacramento G Ruthie Bolton-Holifield, Minnesota G Tonya Edwards, Sacramento F Yolanda Griffith, Phoenix C Jennifer Gillom, Sacramento G Ticha Penicheiro, Utah F Natalie Williams.
CAPTION: Eastern Conference all-star teammates Michele Timms, left, and top vote-getter Sheryl Swoopes prepare for tonight's Garden party.