They talk about Alana Beard as a long-term project now, and that reveals more about the start of her first WNBA season than any box score could.
"Give her time," coaching legend and Washington Mystics personnel consultant Pat Summitt said, "and she'll develop into a star."
"She's going to emerge," Mystics Coach Michael Adams said, "but that process is gradual."
Patience didn't appear to be required when the Mystics made Beard the No. 2 pick of the 2004 WNBA draft. A four-time all-American at Duke, Beard looked more polished than project. She talked that way, too.
A few days after the Mystics drafted the guard, Beard brazenly declared that she would become the greatest woman ever to play basketball. She'd average double-digit points, handcuff the league's best scorers and turn the woeful Mystics into a winning team. But 14 games into the season, the Mystics are 6-8 and still trapped by the mediocrity that has plagued the franchise since its inception in 1998.
Beard is stuck there with them.
"I didn't really expect to start out slow like this," Beard said. "I came in confident that I would make a big impact right away. I thought I could do all the same things I did in college, but everything's different here."
Her quick first step -- legendary in the college game -- looks pedestrian in the WNBA. She rarely gets a clean path to the basket. Opposing teams focus their game plans on preventing Beard from driving, forcing her instead to launch jumpers.
And Beard's outside shot, never her strength in college, has failed miserably. She is shooting just 9 percent from three-point range. Even when she shoots from inside the arc, she usually misses. Her 33-percent field goal average ranks last on the team. "Everybody's going to focus on keeping her away from the basket," Detroit Coach Bill Laimbeer said this season, "because then she can't really hurt you."
It's the first time in her career opponents have had a regular answer to Beard. After losses, she often sits in front of her locker with a towel draped over her head. She's desperately looking for answers, seeking advice from coaches and teammates, including Adams, Summitt and Mystics star Chamique Holdsclaw.
What happened to her once-reliable shot? Would she ever be able to drive to the basket? How could she become a star in the WNBA?
"She's searching," said LeRoy Beard, Alana's dad. "She wants to know how to improve. She keeps getting advice on how to do things better, but nothing has worked."
After she scored two points on 1-for-8 shooting in a road loss to the Minnesota Lynx on May 28, Beard walked into the locker room and choked back tears.
"She's cried a little bit, just out of the frustration," Mystics guard Tamicha Jackson said. "Everybody expected her to be a superstar right away, and that's not really too realistic. All of that pressure has made this season really tough on her. Everybody expected something."
The Mystics expected, at the very least, for Beard to emerge as a reliable second scorer behind Holdsclaw. But she's averaging less than eight points after making 20-point games look routine in college.
The league expected to market Beard as the future of the WNBA, along with Phoenix rookie Diana Taurasi, the No. 1 pick in the 2004 draft. "That could be a high-powered rivalry for years to come," WNBA President Val Ackerman said this year. Taurasi has lived up to her end of the bargain, averaging 19 points.
Washington fans expected Beard to win. After all, she lost just 14 games in four years of college. She'll almost certainly lose more than that this season.
"People expected so much," said Summitt. "That's just unfair. They expected her to come in and practically save the world in the first season, so of course they're going to be disappointed."
The expectations that crushed Beard most, though, may have been her own. She told friends and family that she could be an instant star in the WNBA. During early-season practices, she directed her teammates on the court. "She looked confident," Adams said, "like a superstar in the making."
In Washington's two preseason games, Beard drove fearlessly to the basket and averaged 18 points, injecting hope into a consistently weak Washington franchise.
"That's what I expected," Beard said. "I thought this season would be all about production."
Instead though, it's been all about work. Beard does the things any long-term project would: She stays long after practice to work on her jump shot and promises to devote her offseason to developing a mid-range jumper.
Once a self-described "instant-impact player," she speaks eagerly about the future and dismissively about the present.
"I've got a long career ahead, and my focus is on that," Beard said. "I don't have to be a superstar right away. That's not what my focus is on. I want to build my game and turn myself into a superstar. That's going to happen, but not overnight."