August 2, 2023 

Inside Gabby Williams’ immediate impact in Seattle

'We love Gabby and the skillset that she brings'

For Seattle fans, players, and coaches alike, this 2023 WNBA season has been rough. After dropping all four of their pre-All-Star break road games, putting them in last place in the league standings with a record of 4-16, a mid-season reset was necessary. When everyone returned to Climate Pledge Arena to see the Storm take the floor for the first time in 18 days on July 20, a new wave of excitement was in the air. But the break wasn’t the only reason for the revived sense of optimism. Gabby Williams was back.

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On July 3, the Storm officially announced that Williams was returning to Seattle, confirming the news that was first reported by our team at The Next. Williams, a key piece of Seattle’s successful 2022 roster, has been at the forefront of the battles over the WNBA’s new prioritization rules. After a harsh concussion left Williams unable to finish her season in France, the idea of playing for the Storm, one that she had let go of a while ago, became a possibility.

After extensive conversations with the league, Williams re-signed with the Storm and joined the team in Connecticut on their pre-All-Star break roadtrip. While there were many hoops to jump through as the WNBA figures out the loopholes of the new prioritization rules, this time it allowed the struggling Storm to get one of their star players back on the roster.

“We love Gabby and the skillset that she brings,” Storm general manager Talisa Rhea told The Next. “I think she’s very unique in what she does, her ability to impact the game in so many different ways. Gabby has been great, we’re really lucky to have her for this portion of the season and excited to have conversations about what the future holds for her and understand her commitments that she has and working through some of that. Gabby has been great, we’re really happy to have her back and excited to continue that relationship with her.”

For a team that lost more than two thirds of their previous season’s roster, Williams’ past experience with Seattle’s system and coaching staff has been a relief for head coach Noelle Quinn.

“Her presence is amazing,” Quinn said of Williams. “To have some just familiarity with a player who has been in our system, immediately you throw her into practice and she understands and knows because she grasps concepts from last year and she has a high IQ.”

Despite not playing basketball in over two months and joining a roster with mostly new faces, Williams barely skipped a beat. Quinn’s trust in Williams was evident, as she played 20 minutes in her 2023 season debut after only six days of practice in the Storm’s third of four road games. In this first performance of the season against Washington, Williams filled up almost every column in the box score, recording 2 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1 steal. Her first points would come in the following game against Atlanta, in which Williams led Seattle’s bench in scoring with 10 points.

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As the All-Star break came and went and Quinn looked to usher in the second half of the season on a positive note, Williams’ nearly seamless return to the Storm was enough to earn her a spot in Seattle’s ever-evolving starting lineup. The last time that the Storm played on their home floor on July 2, no one was certain if Williams would ever return to the WNBA. But just over two weeks later on July 20, Williams was back at Climate Pledge Arena as if she never left.

Many fans arrived early to the match against Las Vegas in anticipation of Williams’ return and were rewarded with a reminder of Williams’ infamously impressive athleticism as she stood on one foot on an unsteady foam roll while juggling as her pregame warmup. After Williams wrapped up her pregame juggling, as well as a few basketball drills, and left the court, a string of “Welcome back, Gabby!” cheers rang out from the crowd, which she answered with a smile and a wave.

“I’m excited, it’s one of the biggest reasons that I actually decided to come back was just to kind of be in this atmosphere again,” Williams reflected before her first home game with Seattle. “My mind, I’ll be honest, was completely like not in the WNBA. Since like February, I was like okay, it’s just not going to work out this year. And then even after my concussion when I was thinking about coming back, I was like, I think I need more time. But a big part of me coming back was just being a part of this culture, being a part of this team, being back with the staff, kind of having a chance of scenery from France and everything and playing in Climate Pledge [Arena] again.”

Williams took the court to face off against the Aces, a familiar venue and opponent — the last game she’d played at Climate Pledge Arena, Las Vegas ended Seattle’s 2022 WNBA playoff run by knocking the Storm out in the semifinals. At the time, Williams believed that the loss would be the last time she would face off against the Aces and that the prioritization rule going into effect the coming year would be the end of her WNBA career. But now, she was back on the green and yellow logo on center court for tip-off, providing a glimmer of hope for a team with out-of-reach playoff dreams.

While still struggling to get her shot back after a few months of activity restriction due to concussion protocol, Williams made up for her small offensive impact in almost every other aspect of the game, finishing with 5 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1 steal accompanied by 4 points. To many, a 16-point loss is discouraging, but for Quinn and the Storm, the match against the Aces was a positive assessment of the team’s improvements over the course of the first half of the season, as well as a measurement of Williams’ impact.

This 16-point margin was a far cry from Seattle’s previous meetings with Las Vegas earlier in the season in which they were defeated by 41 points (a franchise record) in their home opener and 33 points on the Aces’ home court. With Williams on the floor, Seattle’s ball movement appeared much more fluid, their defense was more active, and players took better thought out shots, all areas of emphasis in Quinn’s game plan in terms of utilizing Williams.

“Her number one role is to be an elite defender, her second is to be an excellent two-way player,” Quinn said of Williams. “Her number three role is to be a facilitator for us at a high level. So, for her, defensively to make sure she’s locking in on her assignments. Secondly, it’s not solely about the defense, but what we can do on offensive end, playing in transition, playing with pace, that has been positive for us. So for her to just utilize her skill set in open floor. And then the last part of the facilitation is having a second ball handler on the floor, or third depending on the unit, is very very important, especially with a young group. Gabby knows our system, knows how to move the ball, knows how to find players, and that’s what we expect her to do.”

Williams’ first three games in the starting lineup showcased her facilitation abilities, defensive talents, and ball handling capabilities, but it was her offensive power that has been the missing piece to Seattle’s success. After a painful 10-game losing streak, Williams carried Seattle to a road victory over Chicago with an outstanding performance of 17 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 1 steal, and 1 block.

“I think a big part of it is just kind of me getting back into rhythm and back in shape, honestly, after not playing for so long,” Williams said of her performance in Chicago. “Also, my teammates have been so incredibly positive with me and encouraging me to keep shooting and taking those shots and that’s helped me a lot to feel like everyone’s confidence in me, as well as helps me have confidence in myself to take those shots and see how I can help this team.”

This boost of confidence and return of rhythm was made even more evident as Williams contributed another double figure game (14 points) to Seattle’s victory over Indiana just a couple days later. It seems to be no coincidence that Williams’ offensive success translated into Seattle’s largest winning streak of the season.

If this offensive flow continues for Williams, the Storm’s gloomy skies could open up for post-season possibilities. With most of their biggest challenges behind them, not including another meeting with the Aces in early September, Seattle will find themselves matched up against many of the other teams that are still trying to find consistency in the second half of the season. The Storm will look to repeat their successes as they take on Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Indiana, the five teams against whom they have a win, in their final 15 games of the regular season. After barely losing two back-to-back nail-biting games against Minnesota in June, the Storm will meet the Lynx for another two-game series on August 18 and 20, another attainable goal for the win category.

As the season begins to look up for the Storm, a dark cloud is still hanging over the season as Williams continues to navigate her future in the WNBA with even stricter prioritization rules going into effect during the 2024 season. Williams has made it clear that her presence in Seattle is completely by chance and that she is trying not to get too comfortable.

“I still think this prioritization thing is ridiculous,” Williams said in her introductory press conference. “I’m sorry, I’ll say it. Literally I’m only here because I got concussed. Something has to give. Either France needs to have shorter seasons or the WNBA needs to give people the opportunity to make money. This doesn’t give me any hope that I can do both.”

While the reason for Williams’ return to the States was not ideal, she is making the best of the opportunity and giving her all in what could potentially be her last WNBA season.

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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