February 28, 2024 

Skylar Diggins-Smith and Nneka Ogwumike talk why Seattle, excitement, and high expectations

Dedicated practice facilities, high expectations, and Jewell Loyd highlight how Seattle signed two all-time greats

SEATTLE — Something electric was in the air as Nneka Ogwumike and Skylar Diggins-Smith were officially introduced together as members of the Seattle Storm. The players felt it too – joking with each other and smiling from ear to ear nearly the entire time, their excitement was palpable.

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After an expected, yet still disappointing, down season last year, Seattle’s attempt to turn things around will be tremendously helped by signing these two players in free agency. By addressing their biggest offseason needs with top talent in the league, the Storm may be the next ‘super team.’ How did they do it?

For nearly an hour on Feb. 19, the Storm’s two new All-Star signings answered questions from a full room of media, a far larger crowd than typically appeared last season. The presser not only gave voices to Ogwumike and Diggins Smith to explain their decisions, but also set some high expectation for the 2024 season.

Not just a piece of the puzzle

Ogwumike spent her entire professional career with the Sparks. When she began exploring free agency, leaving wasn’t necessarily part of the plan. She became comfortable in L.A. and knew it would be difficult to leave, but Ogwumike kept an open mind about moving throughout the free agency process. “The only thing that’s constant in this life is change. And so I think [I’m] leaning into it more as it being like a transformation, an opportunity.”

The 33 year-old Ogwumike, acknowledging that she has limited time left, shared that she “wanted to be a part of an organization where I could finish really strong.” The former MVP is on the hunt for success and is unphased by the deep and prolific history of the franchise; instead of letting it pressure her, it inspires her.

“Starting off in L.A., you can’t ignore the house that other people built. That’s something that comes with … being a part of such a historic organization… that legacy doesn’t come lightly at all. It comes with a standard and expectation and I don’t really use the word pressure per se— unless you’re making diamonds — but I think that the standard, and the expectation, and the history, and the legacy that comes with considering a team like this, with a team welcoming us in like this and us also continuing to build off of that, is what really drew me here.”

Ogwumike took all of her options seriously. In the end, her choice came down to Seattle, the New York Liberty, and the Chicago Sky. She chose the former, as it “ultimately came down to feeling like a priority [there], and not necessarily like a piece to a puzzle.”

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Just what Diggins-Smith needs

It’s no secret that Diggins-Smith had strained relationships with the two franchises she previously played for and wasn’t happy with them. She believes Seattle will be different, stating in the presser that this team and situation is “what I need at this stage of my life.”

Not only did this team have “the best of the best, top to bottom,” but they also made her feel supported as a mother. Despite the relationship with her new team only beginning, Diggins-Smith has appreciated that they have a structure and a plan around accommodating her needs and choices as a parent. The team has laso encouraged her to communicate if she doesn’t feel supported enough.

To Diggins-Smith, the Storm’s environment felt comfortable from the start. “Coming here, I felt empowered. I feel like I could let out a breath that I was holding, if you will, and just really be empowered to be myself and be me.”

Her long-standing relationship with Jewell Loyd and Ogwumike contributes largely to this comfort as well. “It’s really important at this point in my career, to be around people that I feel like know me … Jewell knows me and Nneka knows me and that’s important in a locker room.”

Despite an incredibly difficult past year, Diggins-Smith feels ready and excited to go. “I feel like I’m better now. I feel like I’m stronger, mentally tougher, physically stronger, and I cannot wait for the opportunity to prove that.”

The house that so many built is now Jewell Loyd’s

Jewell Loyd’s importance to signing these all-time great players can’t be overstated. And Storm General Manager Talisa Rhea opened the press conference by pointing this out.

“As we think about last year and transitioning to this free agency period and building for our future, it really started when Jewell signed her extension at the end of last season,” Rhea said at the presser. “Jewell’s commitment to be here in Seattle and her loyalty to this organization was a catalyst to what became a great free agency period for us, as evidenced by sitting here with these two players today. Skyler and Nneka, two of the best players in the history of our league.”

Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike each cited Loyd as the reason they came to Seattle multiple times. Diggins-Smith even went as far as to assert: “I want to play with Jewell.” She also commented, jokingly or not, that playing with, rather than against, players she “hates guarding,” like Jewell and Nneka, factored into her decision.

The all-star guard was very intentional in only taking a visit to the Storm after connecting with Loyd very early on in the process. She told media that she communicated frequently with Loyd and Ogwumike throughout her free agency process because she wants to be around winners. 

Additionally, Rhea told The Next that Loyd was an integral part of the moves and decisions the Storm made during the offseason. Loyd was a big presence in the team’s free agency visits, meetings, Being part of their free agency visits and meetings and contributed to setting goals and visions for the franchise.

The respect and admiration that Loyd has from her fellow players essentially helped her team sign two of the best free agents possible, and in positions they needed; her purposeful involvement in the process was effective.

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Excitement brews for the Storm

The word “excitement” was uttered countless times throughout the presser, by nearly everyone speaking with the media Head coach Noelle Quinn was practically giddy when talking about the tactical options she now has on her revamped squad.

Speaking with The Next after the press conference about what she is most excited for, Ogwumike noted multiple things. Playing with Jewell Loyd, Ezi Magbegor and Diggins-Smith was top of her list, but she spoke about the motivational fan base at nearly the same level.

But most of all, Ogwumike is raring to play. “I really just want to play basketball, and I haven’t felt that excited in a while.” Signing with the Storm seems to have reinvigorated some lost passion.

Diggins-Smith’s delved into more detail about how the fanbase excites her. “I love this environment that you guys have created for us. It gives us a competitive advantage. But also it speaks to your passion about how you support how you go about supporting this team supporting women. And that’s something I want to play in front of every night,” she told The Next.

Expect greatness, but not without competition

Ogwumike was blunt about what fans can expect from the Storm in 2024 – good basketball, and a style of play from her teammates that is “selfless and dangerously disciplined,” with “immense respect for the game.”

Per Ogwumike, “there’s going to be a standard of excellence and discipline in everything that we do. And that’s not just because of me saying it. I know these women, and they embody that.”

Passion and authenticity are what the point guard thinks will show fans how much they care about “building onto this legacy.” The team plans to “continue the legacy of bringing a great product on the floor to complete for a championship.”

The Storm are undoubtedly looking to win a championship with these signings; but, while it is an important goal, it is secondary to Ogwumike and Diggins-Smith. For these veterans, the primary objective is competing. They acknowledged that everyone is trying to win a championship, and Diggins-Smith thinks the resources they now have in Seattle will allow them to actually compete for one. She even sees the Storm as potentially on-par with back-to-back champions the Aces.

Devoted practice facilities make winners

Among the myriad other reasons, the Storm’s soon-to-be-opened, dedicated practice facilities were a key factor in both players’ decisions to join up. But facilities were not always at the top of their lists.

Ogwumike was hesitant early in free agency to decide that things like practice facilities are crucial. She admits that she never thought she’d play in a facility that was her own, and got used to not asking for too much in terms of facilities and equipment. Visiting Seattle changed that mindset. She could feel the energy, investment, and engagement. But the real difference maker was how it made her feel valued.

“Being around people that are like, ‘this is yours and this is what you deserve,’ it was a rare feeling that I hadn’t felt before. And when I was able to see it and when I was able to hear [General Manager] Talisa [Rhea] talk about it, I realized that it was something that should be a priority on my list because we’re elite athletes.”

From left to right: General Manager Talisa Rhea, Nneka Ogwumike, Skylar Diggins-Smith, and head coach Noelle Quinn sit together at the introductory press conference for the Seattle Storm’s newest signings on February 19, 2024 in Seattle, Washington. (Photo via Seattle Storm)

Seeing the unthinkable become reality, Ogwumike told media, “I do realize that I’m stepping into almost like a physical representation of my worth, being in a facility like that.”

Now that Diggins-Smith is a mom of two, the all-in-one nature of the dedicated facilities is particularly important to her in terms of lifestyle. Valuing time with her kids, she feels that just having the facility is more considerate of her time. It allows her to spend more time with her children, who she also noted do not attend daycare but rather stay with her.

While the facilities are not yet fully completed, team personnel confirmed to The Next that it will be ready for training camp on April 28, and possibly even a few weeks before then.

WNBA’s investment and engagement gap

Both players have had plenty of experiences that remind them of the systemic under-appreciation of female athletes. Both recognize the new, dedicated facilities as a competitive advantage that should be a league-wide standard.

Free agency particularly showed Ogwumike where investments are and are not being made across the league. One thing that she could always sense in her free-agency process was whether a team’s ownership was truly investing and engaging – AKA, if they actually plan to put money behind the culture and success they claim to envision.

“If your ownership is investing, that’s one thing, but if they are engaging, that’s where you really see stuff happening. That’s where you really feel like the players are taken care of. We can talk about all these other resources, but the teams that have both investment and engagement from ownership is the difference maker, and I really feel like Seattle is at the top of that.”

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Nneka’s one-year contract

Reports claim that Ogwumike signed only a one-year contract with the Storm, for a little less than the veteran maximum. Comparatively, Diggins-Smith signed a two-year contract, matching Loyd’s commitment through 2025. This has led to some speculation about how long the forward plans on playing.

Talking about the future, Ogwumike squashed any notion that she would only be playing one more year. While admitting she is towards the end of her career, she stated that she still plans on playing for “several more years.” The reason for a short-term contract, per Ogwumike, is a multi-dimensional combination of many different things.

“I wanted to give the team flexibility for whatever additions may happen in the future… given the nature of when the CBA is ending, of course, that’s another kind of factor in it all,” she stated. “But it was really more so about the flexibility for me and the team, given who we were trying to sign and who we want to sign in the future. And I hope that it contributes to a build.”

One could argue that this suggests the star would leave if she feels she can’t accomplish a certain level of success in Seattle. Ogwumike has indicated she wants to win another championship before retiring, so this would be fair reasoning on her part. But that doesn’t quite fit with her stated commitment to, and excitement for, this total team rebuild and being an integral member of said project. She is clearly thinking about the future, and hopes it will involve the Storm beyond this year, but there are no guarantees.

More signings to come?

In terms of a rebuild, Ogwumike didn’t give anything away about potential additions of marquee signings, but she believes exciting things are coming. Speaking coyly about the potential, she told The Next, “you never know… sometimes, when you put something like this together, and it works — you just never know, you know?”

There is still work to be done to round out the roster. General Manager Rhea told The Next that the Storm are still working through options for additional signings. “We’re always looking to get better and improve our depth and overall roster … we’ll continue to explore options until the season (starts), and even throughout the season. So, just kind of seeing what options are available…”

So, while the Storm front office is working on more signings, no specific big names appear actively close.

Salary cap space

Ogwumike specifically signed for a couple thousand less than the veteran maximum she was eligible for, and could do so again in future seasons. This decision frees up some funds for the Storm and allows them to sign two more veterans to unprotected minimum contracts, assuming they retain their three rookie-scale contracts. All six of Seattle’s protected contracts are taken – Loyd, Diggins-Smith, Ogwumike, Mercedes Russell, Ezi Magbegor, and Sami Whitcomb can’t be cut without affecting the salary cap.

The three rookies — Jordan Horston, Jade Melbourne, and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu — are all unprotected. They could be cut before season tipoff without a hit to the salary cap. If cut later, these players are only owed the prorated amount of their salary for their time on the regular season roster. However, their contracts become fully guaranteed for the year after the midpoint of the season.

Joyner Holmes, Alaina Coates, Kaela Davis, and Kiana Williams are all signed to training camp contracts. Seattle can still sign more training camp players too. They will have the opportunity to compete for those final contracts come April.

Seattle can continue tinkering with their roster through the midway point of the regular season when unprotected contracts become fully guaranteed for the year. The Storm plan on doing just that, working to find their ideal roster that will compete for a championship.

Written by Bella Munson

Bella has been a contributor for The Next since September 2023 and is the site's Seattle Storm beat reporter. She also writes for The Equalizer while completing her Journalism & Public Interest Communication degree at the University of Washington.

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