During the final week before the Seattle Storm began the WNBA's Olympic Break, the freshest players on the roster were - logically - the team's two rookies. With veterans battling injuries, Alysha Clark and Shekinna Stricklen stepped up to help the Storm win two of its last three games.
As the Storm's first-round pick, Stricklen has been a key part of the rotation all season long. Like most rookies, Stricklen has alternated terrific performances that hint at her potential with quieter efforts. Now, after a lengthy adjustment process, Stricklen seems comfortable on the floor.
"I think you can tell I've gotten more confident," she said. "I've gotten more familiar with the system, how Brian (Agler) coaches - the offensive and defensive systems, really knowing the plays now. That helps so I'm not out there thinking now. I'm just playing the game."
That translated into three double-digit scoring efforts in the last four games before the break. Stricklen set career highs in both scoring (16 points) and rebounding (nine) on Kids Day, then broke the latter mark two days later with 11 rebounds as part of her first WNBA double-double at Phoenix as the Storm went to the break with a victory.
Agler has been on Stricklen about rebounding, and the Tennessee product believes she can be a regular contributor on the glass thanks to her size and quickness. Per 40 minutes, her 8.1 rebounds so far are third on the team after center Ann Wauters (10.1) and Clark (9.9). With the Storm up front, Stricklen's 20 rebounds over the last two games took on extra importance.
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With the Storm hit by injuries in the frontcourt, Clark was asked to play against bigger opponents as a power forward and responded with strong rebounding.
Stricklen's rookie season hasn't always been easy, but Agler praised Stricklen for continuing to work hard and push through the more difficult parts of the transition to the WNBA.
"She and Alysha have been religious in being in pre-practice and working on their skills with Jenny (Boucek), working hard and grasping things," said Agler. I think now the light's sort of going on with her where she feels comfortable playing with her teammates and having a grasp of the system, understanding where she can fit in and how she can be productive. Obviously the last couple of games she's done a great job of that.
"She's going to keep getting better and better."
Much of the season, Clark has seen limited action as the last player on the Storm's bench. She played 17 minutes total during the month of June. Yet Clark stayed ready for an opportunity that came when Wauters and Tina Thompson both went out of the lineup due to injuries. In need of help in the post, the coaching staff turned to Clark, a power forward in college who is transitioning to the wing in the WNBA.
"It was so natural for me," she said. "I wasn't thinking about, 'Where's she going to go? When do I need to cut? Where do I need to set up?' It was just natural."
Playing against much bigger opponents, the 5-10 Clark delivered the Storm solid minutes. She set and broke her career high for scoring in each of the last two games before the break. At Phoenix, she played a career-high 26 minutes and finished with nine points and eight boards in the best performance of her young WNBA career.
"Both she and Shekinna have given us a lot of energy - especially Alysha," said Agler. "She's just energized when she plays. She's helped us win a couple of games here of late. She competes very hard, she does a lot of the dirty work, she gets a lot of loose balls, she rebounds in crowds ... she makes things happen. She's been very productive for us."
Clark found it important to take advantage when called upon to play heavy minutes.
"I helped instill a little confidence in my teammates - now they're more comfortable with me being out there," she said. "I think they trust me a little bit more, as well as the coaches. It helped boost my confidence and give me an extra little something going into the second half of the season."
First, both rookies and the rest of their teammates will enjoy some deserved time away from the court. Clark and Stricklen have been working out individually at the Storm's practice facility on the Seattle Pacific University campus this week. Next week, when veterans report for individual workouts, Clark and Stricklen will be on vacation. Clark plans to stop in Las Vegas with her boyfriend before heading home to Tennessee, while Stricklen will return to her family in Arkansas.
"I'm really ready for the break," said Stricklen. "I feel like I really haven't had a break coming out of college. I'm excited about going home to spend time with my family."
"Nothing too fancy," Clark said of her plans. "A little sun, get a little tan so I can be darker than Birdy when I come back!"