May 15, 2023
2023 WNBA season preview: Seattle Storm
Storm enter first Bird-less season in decades seeking new identity
While the goal is always a championship, the more realistic goal for the Seattle Storm this season will simply be finding their new identity.
After the retirement of Sue Bird and the departure of Breanna Stewart to New York in free agency left the Seattle roster depleted, head coach Noelle Quinn and general manager Talisa Rhea were left to pick up the pieces and build a completely new roster.
The Storm once boasted one of the best “big threes” in WNBA history in Bird, Stewart and Jewell Loyd, but now, the “big three” has been redefined as only three players return this season from last year’s roster.
Loyd, seemingly the new face of the team, is joined by Ezi Magbegor, a young phenom heading into her fourth season in Seattle, and Mercedes Russell, who will return to the court this season after missing most of last season with a migraine condition.
Magbegor was a vital piece to the Storm’s 2022 roster, averaging 9.5 points, 1.8 blocks, 1.4 assists, and 5.6 rebounds, as well as making a strong case for WNBA Defensive Player of the Year. Before last year’s mid-season signing of Tina Charles, Magbegor’s numbers were even higher, 12.6 points, 5.8 rebounds, and leading the WNBA in blocks. According to Quinn, Magbegor’s time in Hungary with Sopron Basket over the off-season has taken her game and strength to the next level. Without Charles or Stewart on the roster and a stronger foundation, Magbegor will be able to shine.
At one point, Loyd was the sole person on Seattle’s roster, but since, Quinn and Rhea built a 16-person roster for training camp. Headlining the off-season acquisitions was UConn alumna and Canadian basketball star Kia Nurse, a free agency pick up from Phoenix. After sitting out last season due to an ACL injury, Nurse is eager to make her return to the court in the green and yellow. Nurse’s adjustment to a new team system and getting back into playing basketball will be made easier by the fact that she has played under Quinn with Canada basketball.
“There’s definitely a comfort level,” Nurse said, “Understanding how [Quinn] coaches, just her mindset, her basketball IQ, her ability to do the x’s-and-o’s and put you in positions to succeed, I think is really awesome. As a player coming off of an injury, you want to be put in those perfect positions to succeed and that’s something she does.”
The height of her WNBA career was the 2019 season with the New York Liberty, where she averaged 13.7 points. In her debut back from her injury with Canada at the World Cup in September, Nurse averaged 11 points and 2.4 rebounds, a strong performance that will hopefully translate to the WNBA season.
For over 20 years, Seattle’s leadership was single-handedly in the hands of Bird. With her retirement, veteran leadership to support Loyd, known to be a quiet leader, was a high priority offseason need.
Luckily for Storm management, former University of Washington star and Seattle fan favorite Sami Whitcomb was available to sign. Whitcomb spent four seasons in the Emerald City from 2017-2020 before heading to New York for two seasons, where she developed her veteran role and had the best season of her career in 2021.
Familiar with the city, the organization and the coaching staff, Whitcomb’s return to the Storm is the perfect fit. With the loss of leadership and scoring, Quinn is counting on Whitcomb’s ability to do both.
“Obviously, a lot of leadership and a lot of scoring is missing,” Quinn said. “But I want to focus on who we have here and that is the leadership of Jewell [Loyd] and Sami [Whitcomb] is back with us and having some experience in the league is tremendous.”
After having an incredibly experienced — or in other words, old — team last season with 41-year-old Bird, 35-year-old Briann January and 34-year-old Tina Charles, the tables have turned. Only three players on the training camp roster have been in the league for more than five years and six of the 16 players are rookies. The likely stars of the rookie class are Australian point guard Jade Melbourne and the no. 9 pick in the 2023 WNBA Draft, Jordan Horston.
At only 20 years old, Melbourne has been described by Quinn as already “pro ready”. Without their steadfast point guard of years past, one of the most important logistics for the Storm to figure out will be the point guard position. Veteran point guard Yvonne Turner, another off-season signing, will offer an experienced perspective on being a floor general, but Quinn has a lot of trust in Melbourne to fill Bird’s shoes.
“Jade is tough,” Quinn said. “As a young athlete, she showed a lot of poise… She’s just a good teammate and eager to learn. To put her in a situation where she is leading a group and dealing with situations on the fly and not turn the ball over is really important… I thought she did an amazing job and she’s been very coachable and adaptable in camp.”
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While Melbourne and Horston may be receiving the most attention, rookie Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu is not to be overlooked. The center out of South Florida turned heads by leading the Storm in scoring in their preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury on Monday, finishing the night with 10 points on 4-for-5 shooting and 9 rebounds, just one shy of a double-double, in just 13 minutes on the floor. Quinn praised South Florida’s “pro-like offense” that has given Fankam Mendjiadeu the extra edge as a rookie in this competitive training camp.
Rounding out the training camp roster is Kaila Charles, the former Maryland standout, Arella Guirantes, a backup guard out of Rutgers in her second WNBA season, and Jasmine Walker, a first round pick in the 2021 draft who came back from an ACL injury at the end of her rookie season. Theresa Plaisance, a seasoned WNBA veteran going into her tenth season, will also add both height (at 6’5) and a strong leadership presence to this Seattle roster. Coming off of a championship last season with a stacked Las Vegas Aces team, this revamped roster will give Plaisance a fresh start and some more playing time than previous years.
Another piece that would tremendously help the Storm this season is the potential return of Gabby Williams, who is currently playing overseas in France and, due to league prioritization rules that kick in this season, is not signed to a WNBA team.
As reported first by Percy Allen of the Seattle Times, Quinn spoke with Williams last week and depending on how the French league playoffs shake out, there is a chance that Williams could rejoin Seattle. (Editor’s note: her French team advanced to the league championship over the weekend, further clouding whether Williams could return and join the Storm or not.)
A talented defender and scorer for the Storm last season, Williams would undoubtably aid Seattle on both ends of the floor.
While some may look at a completely new roster and decide to change their game plan, Quinn was intentional with choosing new additions that fit within Seattle’s identity as a team, instead of building a new identity around the acquired players. Defense has always been a point of emphasis with Quinn and the rest of Seattle’s coaching staff, and despite the fresh start, that hasn’t changed.
“We talk about reimagining our season this year and I’m looking at the athletes we have on our team,” Quinn said. “I think that we will hang our hat on defense and being very disruptive and versatile on that end of the floor. Aside from just competing every night, we want to make sure that we are defending at a high level and that will create a better pace and easier baskets. Aside from basketball, as a team, we have the culture and character that we like to have.”
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