June 1, 2023 

How the Seattle Storm’s four rookies are adjusting to life in the WNBA

'Everything is faster, everything is more intense'

SEATTLE — As four rookies — Jordan Horston, Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu, Ivana Dojkić and Jade Melbourne — enter a new chapter of their lives, they are also ushering in a new era for the Seattle Storm. After being left with almost a completely clean slate heading into the 2023 WNBA season, head coach Noelle Quinn and general manager Talisa Rhea put together a youthful roster to help the Storm’s fresh start. 

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Seattle’s rookie class is a diverse group, with three of them being international, two with previous professional experience in other countries, and varying in ages. But each is in their first year in the WNBA. They all bring unique perspectives and talents to a team that is still trying to figure out their identity after starting the season 0-2. 

Two of those rookies weren’t even finished with the last chapter of their stories before beginning this new one. Fankam Mendjiadeu, hailing from South Florida, and Horston, a Tennessee Lady Vol, were both selected in the 2023 WNBA Draft and moved to their new home of Seattle before completing their college degrees.

Fankam Mendjiadeu, originally from Cameroon, graduated from South Florida in 2022 and began a master’s program, which she is still finishing up online. And the level of play in the WNBA has been an adjustment.

“The style of play we had at [South Florida] was more like the pro game, so I think all that made me prepared for what’s coming next,” Fankam Mendjiadeu said. “For me, it’s more of the mental stuff and being present in the moment, having that mental focus. I have to do basketball and I have some online classes going on, so everything combined, mentally is heavy.”

Fankam Mendjiadeu’s key to staying grounded, she says, is to just breathe and be in the headspace to work as hard as she can every day to help her team.

Horston had a unique graduation from her now alma mater, the University of Tennessee. After realizing that she wouldn’t be able to travel back to Tennessee to walk across the stage and sharing that disappointment with Quinn, the Storm coaching staff and players set up a mock graduation for Horston. Quinn even donned a doctoral graduation robe to make the occasion more official. 

Horston, the ninth pick in the 2023 WNBA draft, has played the most minutes of any of the rookies on the roster, but is still trying to find her footing. Averaging 18 minutes over Seattle’s first three games, she is 6-for-29 from the field, a far cry from her career best of 43.8% shooting percentage in her senior year as a Lady Vol. Horston’s coaches and teammates acknowledge and understand the difficult transition from college to professional basketball that she is currently working through.

“I think I saw on the offensive end that she was very hesitant,” Quinn said. “But her first two games in her young career, she’s having to guard A’ja Wilson, Candace Parker, Satou [Sabally], and Natasha Howard. There are all stars in our league, an MVP in our league. So I have grace in that and I want her to be aggressive on the offensive end because that helps us defensively.”

Quinn also added that she sees similarities between the playing styles of Horston and Jewell Loyd, the eight-year veteran with the longest stay in Seattle. In the Storm’s matchup against the Wings last Friday, Horston struggled, finishing 0-for-5 from the field in almost 12 minutes on the floor. During a time of a clear lack of confidence, Loyd embraced her new leadership role and gave Horston a pep talk. While she joked that it mainly consisted of “Beep, beep, beep” (a.k.a. some motivational swearing), Loyd shared her approach with the rookie.

“The first day that she came in, I asked her how she takes information and what she needs from me,” Loyd said. “She said, ‘I need you to stay on me.’ So, that was me being a leader and just being honest with her. She has so much potential and for her to stop thinking and just play. She doesn’t want to let anyone down, she’s playing like a rookie, but she won’t be like that for long. My job is to stay on her and bring the best version out of her and I know it’s there.”

Seattle Storm G-F Jordan Horston (23) takes a shot in the Las Vegas Aces’ 105-64 win over the Seattle Storm, Saturday, May 20, 2023, at Climate Pledge Arena in Seattle, Wash. (Lydia Ely photo)

Despite the growing pains, Horston says that finally achieving her dreams of being in the WNBA is a surreal experience. She even got a bit of a “welcome to the league” moment while matched up against another Lady Vol.

“I still can’t believe I just guarded A’ja Wilson and Candace Parker,” Horston said after her Storm debut. “I accidentally hit [Candace Parker] in the face and after the game, I had to go tell Candace, ‘I’m so sorry I hit you in the face,’ and she’s like, ‘You’re the rookie, I’m supposed to be roughing you up!’. It was just cool speaking to them and being in their presence.”

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International delight

As Fankam Mendjiadeu and Horston adjust to their new lives as professional athletes after college, Ivana Dojkić and Jade Melbourne offer unique perspectives as WNBA rookies with past professional basketball experience.

Dojkić began her professional basketball career in her home country of Croatia at just 14 years old. Basketball took her to countless cities and towns throughout Europe, including a miserable winter in Moscow, Russia, yet, at 25 years old, she had never been to the United States. She signed, sight unseen, to play in Seattle back in February and arrived in the U.S. for the first time to attend the Storm’s training camp. Now that she has officially made the roster, Dojkić is having a great time exploring her new home.

“I’m here for the basketball, so I’m focusing on that, but now I have a little time to go to the restaurants, I went to the lake yesterday and it’s beautiful,” Dojkić said. “I can really see myself living here. I’ve played in different cities so for me, Seattle is very surprising, it’s beautiful. They told me but I said I need to see for myself!”

Averaging 11.5 minutes and five points per game so far, Dojkić has given the Storm a much-needed spark off the bench. Her confidence and comfort level was apparent during her limited minutes on the floor, which she attributes to her time playing professionally in Europe. 

“It prepared me in a lot of ways mentally, but also physically,” Dojkić said. “You’re playing against longtime players, not like college players that are your age. You’re playing against the big bodies and it’s making you more tough. The experience of the tough games and tough moments where you need to decide, so it’s shaping you as a leader and as a point guard.”

While the roster may have her listed as a rookie, her professional experience allows Dojkić to act as a veteran of sorts on this roster. However, there is still an adjustment for her as she learns the ins-and-outs of this new league.

“But I would say this is different basketball here and a new experience for me basketball-wise because I need to shift everything that I am doing,” Dojkić said. “Everything is faster, everything is more intense, quicker decisions, so it’s a level up for sure.”

Jade Melbourne, the 20-year-old Australian phenom, also brings a unique perspective on professional basketball to this team. Despite being the youngest player on a WNBA roster this season, Melbourne comes to Seattle with three years of professional experience under her belt. Melbourne joins two other Aussies on Seattle’s roster in Ezi Magbegor and Sami Whitcomb, who, she says, have made her transition to the league that much more seamless.

“Just having some familiar faces was just so reassuring for me, and I think also for my mom,” Melbourne said. “Just having those two here, especially Ezi, who I’ve taken the exact same pathway as, it’s just really special that we can share this moment together. We’ve never actually played together before, it’s taken us all the way to get to Seattle to play with one another, but I love it.”

As Seattle’s coaching staff tries out different point guards to fill the void left by Sue Bird, Melbourne’s playing time at the start of the season has been a bit inconsistent, only playing six minutes against Las Vegas in the home opener, not leaving the bench at all against Dallas, to then playing 15 minutes against New York. While her time on the bench during the Wings/Storm game left some questioning how large Melbourne’s role on the roster was going to be this season, she proved that her time on the court was deserved in the match against the Liberty. Melbourne finished with 4 points on 2-for-5 shooting and added 2 rebounds and 3 assists. And beyond the stat sheet, she added a much-needed spark of energy off the bench. Loyd, praised 5’10 Melbourne’s defense against a Liberty team with a majority 6′-plus roster when the Storm’s defensive game plan often left their smaller guards on New York’s bigs.

“We had Jade [Melbourne], the rookie, down there banging and fighting and that’s what we want to see,” Loyd said of Melbourne’s defensive efforts in the paint.

When asked about the leap in playing time for Melbourne between the two games, Quinn said, “She’s actually done a very good job in training camp, honestly, and I trusted her game one. But it’s just trying to find some synergy and some chemistry with some other pieces that maybe had impacted that. But I was very confident in her, especially after coming to training camp and understanding how her mind works and her growth process.”

Quinn added, “So we’re going to see more of her.”

As the season progresses, we will likely see the roles, playing time, and positions on the floor change for these rookies as they find their confidence and continue to adjust to the pace and schedule of the WNBA that so many players struggle with in their first few years. Quinn and the rest of the Storm coaching staff have tried countless rotations to figure out who plays best together in a game scenario Their next chance will come Saturday, when the Storm travel to Los Angeles to play at 10 PM ET.

Written by Rowan Schaberg

Rowan Schaberg (she/her) is a Seattle native covering the Seattle Storm for The Next. She is currently studying Sports Journalism at Colorado State University.

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