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Thompson can now shine by herself

When it came to naming names, the Houston Comets' "Big Three" clearly had a pecking order. Interchangeable in the first two spots were WNBA megastars Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes. After that always came Tina Thompson.

But not anymore.

Cooper's move from player to Phoenix coach and the loss of Swoopes to a preseason knee injury have Thompson at the head of nearly every list, including league MVP candidates.

Thompson is one of many players _ some young, some not-so-young _ demanding a bigger-than-ever share of the spotlight in the league's fifth season. Joining the ranks of vintage stars Lisa Leslie, Dawn Staley and Ruthie Bolton-Holifield at the All-Star Game tonight in Orlando, these fresh faces could be the WNBA's future.

"There's no doubt there are more young players than there have ever been, and I think that's good for us to have some young blood," said Houston's Van Chancellor, who will coach the Western Conference all-stars. "We're seeing tremendous young players all over this league. It's good to have new and exciting stars."

Thompson, a 6-foot-2 forward, averages 22.6 points (second in the league to Katie Smith's 25.4) and 7.8 rebounds, with seven double-doubles. A complete player, she has 31 three-point goals, 20 steals, 10 blocks and hits 87.6 percent of her free throws.

The Comets' first-round draft pick in 1997 from Southern California, Thompson, 26, is a three-time all-star and was the MVP of last year's game in Phoenix with 13 points and 11 rebounds. But she knew her place on a Houston team with Cooper, a four-time championship MVP and Swoopes, the top all-star vote-getter in 1999 and 2000, was not to fire up 18 shots a game.

Now, it is.

"I think I was probably a little limited, but that was just my role on the team," Thompson told the Houston Chronicle. "Now I have the opportunity to do so many more things and the floor is like an ocean for me now, not a lake. I think that makes so much more difference."

Others making waves include New York center Tari Phillips and Houston guard Janeth Arcain, who are rejuvenated by new roles; Miami forward Elena Baranova, one of several international players making an impact; and Seattle forward Lauren Jackson and Portland guard Jackie Stiles, sensational rookies living up to high expectations.

Phillips, 32, was an all-star in the now-defunct American Basketball League before being drafted in the first round of the 1999 WNBA Draft by her hometown Miracle. Released after one unproductive season, she was reborn in New York as the league's Most Improved Player. An all-star reserve last season, she was chosen by fans to start at center for the Eastern Conference after averaging 15.5 points and 7.6 rebounds.

Arcain, 32, is a first-time all-star, voted to start at guard for the West. She averaged 7.9 points per game in her first four seasons with Houston, but without Cooper and Swoopes, she ranks fourth in the league at 18.9.

"I worked hard for four years," Arcain said. "And I helped the Comets so much to get four rings. I was patient, but now I have to step up. Right now I have my chance."

Baranova, 29, is a Russia native making her first all-star appearance despite establishing herself three seasons ago as one of the league's top shot-blockers. After three season in Utah, she is free of the all-star logjam in the West, on pace to set career highs for points and blocks in a season with Miami.

Jackson, 20, was the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2001, among the new breed of versatile post player with perimeter skills. An Australia native, she is averaging 15.1 points and 6.5 rebounds, ranks third in the league with 2.05 blocks per game, and has 22 three-point goals.

Stiles, 22, became a household name as a senior at Southwest Missouri State, when she became the NCAA's all-time leading female scorer and led the Bears to the Final Four. Her transition has been seamless. She ranks sixth in the league in scoring average at 16.2 and three-point shooting at 45 percent. She has become an immediate fan favorite in Portland, and draws fans to arenas.

"I learn things every day," Stiles said. "This whole season is a learning process. I'm just so honored to be picked to play (in the all-star game). It came as a shock to me, but I still want to get better."

The league can't wait.

WNBA ALL-STAR ROSTERS

Eastern Conference

Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Team Statistics

Elena Baranova F 6-5 182 Miami 11.8 ppg, 2.11 bpg

One of the league's premier shot-blockers.

Vickie Johnson F 5-9 150 New York 10.5 ppg, 2.5 apg

Two-time all-star who does all the little things.

Merlakia Jones G 5-9 147 Cleveland 14.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg

Three-time all-star is a former UF player.

Nikki McCray G 5-11 158 Washington 9.7 ppg, 1.9 rpg

Three-time all-star is among league's most popular players.

Taj McWilliams-

Franklin F 6-2 184 Orlando 13.0 ppg, 7.9 rpg

Three-time all-star is a gritty inside player.

Tari Phillips C 6-1 200 New York 15.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg

Two-time all-star and an Orlando native.

Nykesha Sales G 6-0 184 Orlando 14.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg

Replaces injured top vote-getter Chamique Holdsclaw of Washington.

Dawn Staley G 5-6 134 Charlotte 9.1 ppg, 6.4 apg

Despite creaky knees, still the league's most dazzling passer.

Andrea Stinson G 5-10 158 Charlotte 15.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg

Two-time all-star is a physical guard.

Teresa Weatherspoon G 5-8 161 New York 6.9 ppg, 6.2 apg

Three-time all-star is an emotional sparkplug.

Rita Williams G 5-6 135 Indiana 12.4 ppg, 3.6 apg

Replaces injured Chasity Melvin of Cleveland.

Western Conference

Player Pos. Ht. Wt. Team Statistics

Janeth Arcain G 5-11 158 Houston 18.9 ppg, 3.5 apg

Has blossomed in expanded role, penetrating scorer.

Ruthie

Bolton-Holifield F 5-9 150 Sacramento 7.0 ppg, 2.7 rpg

Fearless shooter is a sentimental fan favorite.

Tamecka Dixon G 5-9 148 Los Angeles 11.8 ppg, 3.9 apg

First-time all-star is quick to the basket.

Yolanda Griffith C 6-4 175 Sacramento 15.0 ppg, 11.6 rpg

Game's most physical center, always ready to scrap.

Lauren Jackson C 6-5 185 Seattle 15.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg

Versatile post player has perimeter skills.

Lisa Leslie C 6-5 170 Los Angeles 19.1 ppg, 9.9 rpg

One of the league's most talented and visible players.

Ticha Penicheiro G 5-11 158 Sacramento 5.0 ppg, 7.3 apg

Exciting playmaker leads league in assists.

Katie Smith F 5-11 181 Minnesota 25.4 ppg, 3.6 rpg

Determined scorer leads the league on last-place team.

Jackie Stiles G 5-8 144 Portland 16.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg

Popular rookie is a hard-working scorer.

Tina Thompson F 6-2 178 Houston 22.6 ppg, 7.8 rpg

MVP candidate and one of league's top defenders.

Natalie Williams F 6-2 210 Utah 14.4 ppg, 10.4 rpg

Glides through the post with power and grace.

_ Compiled by Joanne Korth.

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