June 3, 2021 

How three key Storm players chart Seattle’s course

Growth of Russell, Dupree and Talbot vital

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PALMETTO, FL- SEPTEMBER 9: Mercedes Russell #2 of the Seattle Storm plays defense against the Dallas Wings on September 9, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. WNBA Content Network.

The Seattle Storm will play their eighth game of the season on Thursday. That will put the team at the one-quarter mark of the season. It seems hard to believe the season is going by this quickly, but here we are.

Once a team passes the one-quarter point of the season, the samples become more meaningful. Suddenly, those trends you have observed in those first two or three games can be more meaningful if they persist several games later. When does a sample become no longer a small sample? In a 32-game season, eight games is a good portion.

Seattle was already in a challenging position with so much roster turnover in the offseason. Now, they are adapting to a new coach in Noelle Quinn. But Quinn provides familiarity, having been with the team as a player and assistant coach the last several seasons.

We have seen the Storm begin to gel as the season has worn on. They have mostly looked more like the team we have come to know over the past few games. There is still room for this team to improve despite the incremental progress. Quinn and Dupree have said, respectively, the team is still fine-tuning its rotations and developing chemistry.

Let’s look at a few players whose play has improved over the past few games.

Mercedes Russell

The core of Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd, and Sue Bird has been predictably great to begin the season. Having these three is a huge advantage when a team is integrating new players. A big reason for this is their familiarity over the last several years.

Another player who has proven valuable for this reason is center Mercedes Russell. Since her late arrival, she has stabilized the team’s frontcourt while starting at center.

If you look at her basic counting stats, they do not jump off the page. Russell is averaging just 4.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.6 assists per game. However, looking at those numbers is the wrong way to evaluate Russell’s game.

You can see Russell setting up teammates for easy shots by setting screens in the pick ‘n’ roll. She also defends the opposition’s centers so Stewart won’t have to guard, say, Teaira McCowan when they play Indiana. Russell is a smart, efficient player who often makes the right play.

Her impact this season is noticeable when she goes to the bench. The team’s offensive efficiency drops from 121.3 points per 100 possessions to 101.6. While 101.6 isn’t terrible, it’s hardly above average.

What is remarkable is the defensive dropoff when she sits, soaring from an elite 85.8 points allowed per 100 possessions to a terrible 110.2.

This is why it doesn’t matter that Russell averages six points per game. Her role calls for something different.

Candice Dupree

In her 16th WNBA season, there is no doubt Dupree can still help a team. Watching her work in postups and the impressive footwork she uses to create shooting space is to observe a master at work. There is even some value in her midrange shooting abilities, although teams don’t want to live off those shots anymore.

The early returns were not encouraging. Dupree began the season as a starter and quickly became a bench player. While the skill was still there, it was clear she was not completely comfortable with her new team. It seemed like she was pressing and her shot was not falling— just 42.9 percent from the field in Seattle’s first four games.

The defense struggled to hold a lead with Dupree on the floor, which could be as much her new teammates learning to play with her and vice-versa. A team can have stretches without buckets or without getting stops but should avoid doing them simultaneously as the Storm were.

The past three games have shown some good signs. Dupree has averaged 9.3 points on 61.9 percent shooting from the field while looking more comfortable defensively. To zoom out, her -14.1 net rating has climbed to -8.8 over the last three games. Seeing her trend in the right direction is encouraging for Seattle, since it’s clear Dupree will continue to play decent minutes.

What can Seattle do to maximize Dupree? The 15.7 minutes per game they’ve played her recently seems to be more ideal than the 22.3 each night at the beginning of the season.

Another idea is one that may be hard to stomach, which is limiting the amount of time Dupree and Stewart play together. If the Storm do not want Stewart playing center, then Dupree has to in those lineups. Dupree is probably best suited to play power forward at this point in her career.

On Basketball-Reference, there is just one lineup with Dupree and Stewart that has outscored the opposition. As a pair, the Storm have been outscored by 9.6 points in 96 minutes with them on the court together. What choice does the team have if Stewart is playing 35 minutes per game and games are only 40 minutes long? There is no clear option unless they want to have Stewart and Dupree switch defensive assignments.

We can count that last issue as one of those rotation issues the team is still sorting out. What is important is that Dupree appears to be improving as the season progresses.

Stephanie Talbot

When we last saw Stephanie Talbot in the W, it was 2019 and she just wrapped up an up-and-down season in Minnesota. Over the course of that season she was traded from the Mercury to the Lynx at the start of the season. She worked her way into the starting lineup after a slow start, later lost the job, and shot just 7-for-29 in the team’s final eight games.

Seattle acquired Talbot from New York last offseason, who acquired her in the previous offseason. Talbot opted out of the 2020 WNBA season and expectations for her were unclear. The talent was there but she had been missing that consistency.

Talbot not only went to training camp with the Storm but earned her way on the team. Like other newcomers, Talbot got off to a slow start. She made 37.5 percent of her 3-pointers in the first four games, but the offense struggled with her unit on the floor.

Watching Talbot recently is a different experience. She is again a starter and looks great on both ends. Not only is Talbot making shots, she’s making some plays for teammates. Defensively, she’s active and making the right reads. This is the type of player many have envisioned her becoming throughout her career.

With Talbot on the floor these last three games, the Storm have a plus-38.1 net rating. Both sides of the ball are benefitting from Talbot’s presence.

Now she has to keep doing it. While sustaining this high level of play is unlikely, there is little reason she can’t continue to be an effective player. If she can, there could be a real debate over whether Katie Lou Samuelson should reclaim her starting job. Though, the answer to that one, for now, is probably in favor of the player the Storm traded the No.1 overall pick for this winter.

Written by Derek James

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