By Seth Dahle
Clean slate. New talent. Fresh faces.
On Sunday, the Seattle Storm embarks on a new journey under first-year head coach Dan Hughes. The franchise will begin its quest for a third-straight playoff appearance when it tips off the 2018 season against Diana Taurasi and the Phoenix Mercury at 6 p.m. PT during Opening Night presented by Swedish.
This season, the Storm has its sights set much higher, as the team shoots for its first winning season since 2011 and first title since 2010. Seattle is already off to a good start, having picked up preseason wins over Phoenix, its first clean preseason slate since 2013.
The Storm’s ‘big three’ of Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd are back this season to lead the way. Seattle went 15-19 overall in 2017, but put together a critical four-game winning streak down the stretch to earn a postseason bid. The Storm ultimately came up short at Phoenix in the first round by a 79-69 margin but will look to avenge that setback on Sunday.
Ahead of the opener vs. Phoenix, here’s a look at the Storm’s position-by-position breakdown.
Per usual, Bird will be at the forefront of the Storm’s offense this season. She’s the queen amongst point guards in the world, as well as the WNBA’s all-time assist leader with 2,610 dimes. Last season, Bird averaged a career-best 6.6 assists per contest en route to winning the WNBA’s Peak Performer award for the category, and the 10-time All-Star also averaged 10.6 points per game (Bird has never averaged below double figures). With Bird directing the Storm offense, fans have every reason to believe Seattle will once again be in contention for a strong postseason push.
Rookie guard Jordin Canada has already made a name for herself in the WNBA, recording 32 points, six steals and six dimes in the two preseason wins over the Mercury. The 5-6 floor general left both UCLA and the Pac-12 Conference as the all-time assist leader, registering 831 dimes in her career. She also set the program’s single-season benchmarks for assists with 248 in her senior season and averaged 7.1 dimes per game in 2017-18, good for seventh in the NCAA. The talent and composure are certainly there for Canada, meaning the rookie should see extended minutes in 2018.
Noelle Quinn returns to the hardwood for her 12th season in the WNBA, and her experience should prove critical in 2018, as well as the added depth to the pivotal ‘1’ position. She backed Bird last season, making four starts in 32 games and averaging 2.8 assists off the bench. In addition, Quinn nailed 95.2 percent (20-for-21) of her free throws and had a 2.9 assist-to-turnover ratio. Should the Storm make a deep run in the playoffs, its backcourt leadership and depth at the point will play a key factor in title contention.
It sure has been fun watching Loyd expand her already explosive game in her first three seasons. Loyd’s points-per-game average and three-point shooting percentage have increased drastically since her ‘Rookie of the Year’ campaign in 2015, and there are numbers to back up those claims. Last season, she averaged a career-best 17.7 points per game (seven-point jump from 2015), shooting 43.1 percent from the floor and 38.6 percent from beyond the arc (18.6 percentage increase from 2015). Loyd had nine games with 25 points or more last season, so consistency will be key in 2018.
Speaking of rapid development, take a quick peek at Sami Whitcomb – quick because the ball will be gone from the sharpshooter’s hands in the blink of an eye. Renown for one of the fastest releases in the league, Whitcomb enters her second WNBA season in 2018 and will look to play a much bigger role this year. After signing a training camp contract and earning a spot on the 2017 roster, the former UW-product emerged as a relentless hustler who provided immediate offense off the bench, racking up averages of 4.5 points and 1.7 rebounds per game. The Storm’s added inside presence this season should free up many more three-point looks for No. 33.
With the offseason additions of Courtney Paris and Natasha Howard, the Storm will now have the opportunity to move Stewart to the ‘3’ position, which will allow the rising superstar to work around the perimeter as well as the paint. In the past, the Storm’s shortage of bodies inside forced Stewart to play the ‘4’ or ‘5,’ but with added inside depth, opponents should have their hands full while dealing with the 6-foot-4, 2017 All-Star. It was quite the year for Stewart in her second WNBA season – she broke the Storm’s franchise record for 20-point games with 21, became the fastest player in the league to reach 1,000 points and 500 rebounds (55 games), and finished second in the WNBA in scoring with 19.9 points per game to go along with 8.7 rebounds. Should the statistical trends continue, Stewart would be due for another dynamite year in 2018, thus making her a strong candidate for Most Valuable Player.
Versatile forward Alysha Clark returns to the lineup for her seventh WNBA season (all with the Storm) and is coming off a successful offseason in Poland. While playing for CCC Polkowice in EuroLeague, Clark averaged 15.3 points and a team-best 6.9 rebounds per contest. She shot over 47 percent from the floor and also tallied three dimes per game, so if Clark can bring that same consistency to the 2018 WNBA season, Seattle will be that much deeper.
One of the Storm’s deadliest outside shooters, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis (aka ‘KML’) didn’t see much action in 2017, mainly due to lingering injuries. Despite the adversity, Mosqueda-Lewis was a spark off the bench – at one point she scored 13 points in a row on the road at Connecticut on Aug. 8. During the offseason, she went back home to California, where she recuperated quickly and later took her talents back to France to play for Charleville-Mezieres for the third consecutive season.
Draft pick Teana Muldrow played multiple positions during her career at West Virginia, but she has the potential to be a defensive asset and reliable shooter at the ‘3’ spot. During her senior season as a Mountaineer, Muldrow averaged 18.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game, all of which were team highs. Hughes has frequently admired her defensive habits, which shouldn’t come as a surprise considering she played for one of the most lethal defensive teams in the Big 12 Conference.
The Storm’s most consistent offensive weapon in 2017, Crystal Langhorne topped her own single-season field goal percentage record with a 64.7 percent shooting clip (180-for-278), and Seattle had every reason to designate the 10-year veteran as a ‘Core Player’ during the offseason. At one point, Langhorne made 21 straight baskets in 2017, including a 9-for-9 effort vs. Atlanta on July 15, setting a franchise record for most makes without a miss. She had four double-doubles last season and averaged 12.4 points per game. Despite the Storm’s added depth inside, Langhorne’s role shouldn’t change much this season, as she continues to be a reliable and durable scoring presence with ‘Crystal-clear’ shooting touch.
The Storm acquired Howard, a 2017 WNBA champion, in a trade with the Minnesota Lynx in early February, and her athletic ability and 6-foot-2 frame will be a big boost for Seattle. She owns career averages of 5.6 points and 2.9 rebounds per game in the WNBA, and Howard continued to develop her skills in China over the offseason. A standout performer for Zhejiang, she posted season averages of 24.9 points and 12.3 rebounds, shooting 56 percent from the floor and over 72 percent from the line. In the Storm’s 2018 preseason, she compiled averages of nine points, 4.5 boards and 1.5 blocks per game.
In a post-oriented league that has been dominated by big names such as Brittney Griner, Tina Charles and Sylvia Fowles, the Storm needed to upgrade its interior play, especially at the center position. Seattle did just that, signing 6-foot-4 center Paris to a multi-year contract in early February. Paris, a two-time WNBA rebounding peak performer, spent the 2016 and 2017 seasons with the Dallas Wings, compiling averages of 6.4 points and 6.4 rebounds per contest. During the 2014 campaign with the Tulsa Shock, she hauled in a career-best 10.2 boards per outing. With her crafty post moves and topline strength, Paris should play a key factor for the Storm’s success in 2018.
WHAT HUGHES IS SAYING…
“The first thing I want to be is a winning basketball team. I mean, there’s a reality, we haven’t been a winning basketball team since 2011. So, I think that’s the first absolute goal and that’s the thing I’m driving towards. You add some good players like we’ve been able to do the last few years, but you’ve got to have the confidence that goes with winning more basketball games.”
“To be elite, we’re going to have to shore up the defensive side of the ball, and we’re working really, really hard to do that. But, I want to be a winning basketball team and see where that takes us.”