By Seth Dahle
It’s been seven years since Seattle won its last WNBA title, and on Saturday the Storm will begin its journey as it looks to build on last season’s strong finish and 11th playoff appearance.
Things won’t be easy, as Seattle opens with defending champion Los Angeles on the road, with the tipoff set for 2 p.m. PDT on ESPN. Head coach Jenny Boucek returns for her third season and said the team is excited to be back on the hardwood.
“From day one, you could tell this group really enjoys playing together,” said Boucek. “If we can build on what we did last year, integrate our new pieces and stay healthy, things could get interesting for this group.”
The Storm will then face a quick turnaround, as it takes on Indiana for its home opener on Sunday at 4 p.m. PDT. Boucek said the team is eager to see its home crowd and “reconnect” with the fans.
Last season, Seattle was led by 2016 WNBA Rookie of the Year Breanna Stewart, who boasted team-high honors with 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game. The Storm also returns 2016 All-WNBA First Team selection Sue Bird and 2016 All-WNBA Second Team honoree Jewell Loyd.
To cap 2016, the Storm won five of its last six regular season games on the way to earning the No. 7 seed in the WNBA Playoffs. While the ‘Big 3’ mentioned above are key pieces to the puzzle, Seattle will need a total-team effort to make some noise.
Bird is the most decorated point guard in WNBA history, and in her 16th with Seattle, she remains at the top with her lethal perimeter shooting, picturesque passing ability and timeless leadership.
In order to make a push for the playoffs a year ago, Bird said the team had to discover a grittiness and toughness, and she noticed it after returning from the Rio Olympics.
“When I came back, I noticed immediately the team had a toughness about them,” commented Bird. “With that, you saw our rebounding numbers change, and our defense got better. All the little plays require grit, and now all the sudden we were making them.”
In 2016, Bird averaged 12.8 points, 5.8 assists and 2.9 rebounds per game on the way to earning All-WNBA First Team honors, as well as the Peak Performer Award for dimes.
While Bird is the top choice for the starting role, she will have company with Loyd, Noelle Quinn, and a new addition with rookie Alexis Peterson, who Seattle chose as the 15th pick in the 2017 WNBA Draft. Loyd averaged 3.4 assists last season, while Quinn saw action in 20 games. The all-time assist leader at Syracuse and reigning ACC Player of the Year, Peterson compiled eight points and five assists in the Storm’s two preseason games.
And just a friendly reminder for opponents – Stewart can play the point as well.
Following a breakout sophomore campaign, Loyd is poised to lead the Storm at the two-guard position. After being named the 2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year, Loyd surged to All-WNBA Second Team honors last season when she averaged 16.5 points, 3.4 boards and 3.4 assists. Her points-per-game average skyrocketed by 5.8 points, and she eclipsed the 30-point mark twice in 2016.
But Loyd can do so much more than just score. It’s her explosive skillset and playmaking ability that also make her special. Her biggest clutch plays last season included a 30-point effort at Phoenix in which she hit the game-winning bucket, as well as a 20-point display at Indiana where she also netted the game-winning free throws with 2.4 seconds left.
Loyd said the team felt a “different vibe” coming into training camp and was eager to be back in Seattle.
“Our composure and focus are definitely different from last year,” said Loyd. “Having good chemistry is something championship teams have, and our team gets along well, both off and on the court.”
While Seattle has several players who can fit into the shooting-guard role, the Storm’s best options include Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Sami Whitcomb. Mosqueda-Lewis nailed 36 triples a year ago, while Whitcomb averaged 13.5 points per game off the bench during the 2017 preseason slate.
A versatile forward who can finish at the rim and swoosh the outside shot, Alysha Clark has expanded her game to also include a midrange jumper, which makes her even more of a threat.
In 2016, Clark totaled nine points, 3.4 rebounds and nearly two assists per contest. She shot 48.4 percent from the field and nailed 38.7 percent of her three-pointers. Clark started 32 games in 2016 and, according to Peterson, is a natural leader.
“She’s a really good leader and competitor,” said Peterson. “She competes everyday, and that kind of rubs off on you when you see someone with that type of experience competing.”
While she’s a do-it-all player and can play multiple positions, Stewart will once again lead the charge in 2017. In addition to leading Seattle in scoring (18.3 PPG) and rebounding (9.3 RPG), Stewart swatted a team-high 1.9 shots per game and tied team-high honors with Loyd for steals with 1.2 per game. She shot 45.7 percent from the floor and buried 45 three-pointers.
With so many returners back from a year ago, Stewart said the stage is set for something special.
“Going off the momentum we had at the end of last season and bringing that to this season, we do have the opportunity to create something special,” said Stewart. “It’s going to be really exciting.”
With a year under her belt, and a fantastic one at that, Stewart said she has had the chance to “understand the game” at a higher level and “fine-tune” her play to expand her arsenal.
Stewart won’t be alone in the forward department, as Seattle also has two dynamic scorers and defenders in Crystal Langhorne and Ramu Tokashiki. Langhorne averaged 9.5 points and 5.5 rebounds in 2016, while Tokashiki mustered 5.3 points and 2.5 boards per affair.
Langhorne, who averaged eight points and 4.5 rebounds in the 2017 preseason slate, said the main focus of this year’s team has been defense.
“We know that defense wasn’t one of our strong suits from last year,” said Langhorne. “We’ve been focusing on that.”
Standing 6-foot-6, Carolyn Swords wreaks havoc in the paint. The lefty not only alters and blocks shots on the defensive end, but she’s also a reliable finisher in the paint who can snag boards for put-backs on a consistent basis. In her Storm debut during the 2017 preseason, Swords scored 15 points vs. Phoenix, including 11-straight in the third quarter.
Swords said the energy gained from last year’s finish has been “tangible.”
“Seattle has a great tradition,” commented Swords. “Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson created a really great culture from the beginning, and being able to absorb, experience and honor that is really exciting.”
In addition to Swords, Seattle added another big with rookie Lanay Montgomery, who recently helped West Virginia to its first Big 12 Tournament championship during her final collegiate season. Standing 6-foot-5, Montgomery scored seven points on 3-for-4 shooting in the preseason opener vs. Phoenix.
Two of Seattle’s biggest assets are its versatility and ability to move players in different positions. Swords’ size makes her a favorite to play center, but additional players such as Langhorne, Stewart and Tokashiki can also fill that role. The special part about the Storm is that each player fits into the system and has an unselfish attitude by nature, but can also score one-on-one.
Stewart said the key to the 2017 season will be a fast start, and that the team wants to roll over the momentum from last year’s finish.
“We want to get on the court and act like we never left,” added Stewart. “We want to jump on teams right away. We’re excited to be on the court.”