The 2012 edition of the Seattle Storm is almost as much a study of who is not in the locker room as who is.
Most critically, Lauren Jackson, the Australian post who has been one of the team’s two signature players since she was drafted first overall by the Storm in 2001, will miss the first part of the season while training with the Australian National Team for a run at a gold medal in this summer’s Olympic Games in London.
The 6-5 Jackson is an eight-time All-Star, three-time league MVP, and two-time league champion with Seattle. She won’t rejoin the team until the league resumes play following a month-long Olympic hiatus in mid-August.
The team also traded away All-Star and fan favorite Swin Cash, a staple of the starting lineup since 2008, plus key reserves Le'coe Willingham and Ashley Robinson after crashing out in the first round of the 2011 playoffs to the Phoenix Mercury last September. Fans gave Cash a rousing welcome when she appeared in Key Arena last week as a member of the U.S. National Team, but head coach and general manager Brian Agler needed to clear up cap space to re-sign Jackson and secure key the replacement pieces in the front court he hopes will tide the team over until her return to action.
Despite the holes in its roster, Seattle point guard Sue Bird, the yin to Jackson’s yang for a decade, said that the team’s expectations remain the same as always.
“Overall, it’s to win a championship. No doubt.”
“For this first part before the Olympics, clearly we don’t have Lauren Jackson, so that presents some difficulties, but only because we know how good she is,” explained Bird. “But we also have a very good team, a team that is very talented and the quicker we can put it together, the better we can be.”
Part I: The Rook
When the Storm traded away Cash, Willingham and the No. 23 pick in the WNBA Draft to the Chicago Sky in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick in this year's draft, they did so with a second goal in mind in addition to clearing up cap space to sign veterans who could help the team win now: Agler knew the Storm needed to get younger for the future.
To bolster their supply of youthful energy, the team used the pick to select 21-year-old University of Tennessee wing Shekinna Stricklen. The 6-2 Morrilton, Ark., native averaged 13.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game as a four-year starter for the Lady Vols. Combining considerable size for her position with excellent ballhandling and shooting skills, Stricklen is a scorer who has the ability to punish smaller defenders inside with her length or face up and blow by bigger, slow-footed posts.
“I wish I was her height, I keep saying this,” joked the 5-9 Bird. “To be a guard and to be that size, she can just do so many different things.”
Stricklen concurs, saying her height helps fuel her versatility, her greatest asset on the court.
“For me, [my height] is big. Just being a 6-2 [guard] that can be able to handle the ball, shoot the ball, and be able to switch out with post players, especially on the pick-and-roll and help out down low and also rebound.”
Stricklen developed a reputation at Tennessee as a clutch player come crunch time, but also as an inconsistent athlete inclined to take quarters -- or even entire halves -- off. By her own admission, she was a frequent recipient of Pat Summitt's infamous "motivational" stare.
“We have nothing but excitement and hope about what she’s bringing to the team,” Storm assistant coach Jenny Boucek said of Stricklen. Boucek said that while the team had questions about Stricklen’s lack of consistency at times in college, those concerns had been alleviated after seeing her in training camp and watching her interact with the veterans, something she didn’t have much of in college.
“She’s shown great consistency in her focus and her efforts since she’s been here,” said Boucek. “Sometimes a change of scenery is good for players and there are some players who need veterans, who need leadership, and she didn’t really have that at Tennessee a lot -- they were put in a leadership role at a young age -- and that’s not good for every person, every player. She’s really thriving under the leadership and veteran players here, and I think it’s a real good situation for her.”
Stricklen said that the first thing she thought of when her name was called in the draft was the veteran presence of players such as Bird, Katie Smith and Tina Thompson, an off-season addition to the Storm's stable of thoroughbreds.
“There’s a lot of veterans here and I know that it’s a team I think I can fit in with, especially with my personality. Coming in as a rookie, I like to listen and I like to learn and I know that I can learn a lot from these veterans.”
Head coach Brian Agler said that Stricklen is already in the mix to become a starter -- maybe not now, but at some point later on in the season as she masters his defensive scheme.
Looking to add both youth and, in the absence of Lauren Jackson for much of the season, firepower to the roster, the Storm traded away Swin Cash and other veterans to secure the No. 2 pick in this year's draft, which they used to selected 6-2 wing Shekinna Stricklen out of Tennessee. Stricklen has impressed in training camp and may even find herself in the starting lineup this season, according to head coach and general manager Brian Agler. (Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images)
Stricklen will be joined by fellow newcomer Alysha Clark, a 5-10 combo forward. Clark, who played college ball at Belmont before transferring to Middle Tennessee State after her sophomore season, was a four-time Sun Belt Conference player of the year who averaged 27.5 points per game her senior year to lead the nation in scoring.
Clark was drafted in 2010 by the San Antonio Silver Stars, but was waived twice and never appeared in a game. She played professionally in Israel, averaging 14 points and 7.6 rebounds for Ramat Hasharon in the 2011-2012 season while attempting to make the transition from an undersized power forward to a small forward.
Part II: Big-Name Vets
Agler began the process of assembling this year's team in the enviable position of having three members of the WNBA's All-Time Top 15 Team on his roster in Bird, Jackson and Smith. Then they signed a fourth member of the Top 15 when they landed 6-2 forward Tina Thompson, the league's all-time leading scorer and perhaps the most decorated player still active in the WNBA.
Thompson was the first overall pick of the inaugural WNBA Draft in 1997 and is the only remaining player from the league’s debut season. She is an eight-time All-Star and a four-time WNBA champion with the now-defunct Houston Comets. She is also a two-time Olympic gold-medalist and the WNBA record-holder for both points scored (6,751) and minutes played (14,561).
The Los Angeles Sparks signed Thompson in 2009 when the Comets disbanded, with an eye toward reuniting Thompson with L.A.'s marquee player, Lisa Leslie, with whom Thompson had played at both Inglewood's Morningside High School and USC. 2009 would mark Leslie's final season in the league and the arrival of her old running mate Thompson, to join both Leslie and 2008 Rookie of the Year and League MVP Candace Parker in forming perhaps the most formidable front court to take the floor in the WNBA, raised hopes of sending Leslie off with a third championship ring.
It was not to be.Though Leslie still led the team in scoring and could explode for big nights, she was averaging fewer than 28 minutes per game in her final season. Even more tellingly, Parker was missing for the beginning of the season after giving birth to her first child. Though she returned to the line-up quickly, she was not in her MVP form. The Sparks lost five of their first eight games in June without her, and dropped five of the next seven in July as they waited for her to rediscover her stride. Though the Sparks performed well enough in August to limp into the playoffs, where they beat the Storm, 2-1, in the opening round before falling to Phoenix in the Western Conference Finals, they finished the season just barely above the .500 mark at 18-16.
Since then, with Leslie gone and Parker sidelined by injury more often than she has been suited up for action, much of the attention -- and with it, the pressure -- in L.A. fell on Thompson whose performance was unable to support her new role as the standalone star in a company of role players. Things reached their nadir last season, when Thompson, who had previously started all but one game of her professional career, was relegated to the bench for a game as the Sparks fumbled about for a solution -- any solution -- to their woes. Thompson's scoring fell to its all-time low -- 9.9 points in 25 minutes per game -- and she frequently spoke of retirement.
But Agler saw that there was still some tread on Thompson's tires, signing her to help fill Jackson’s role as a scorer with her capable mid-range jump shot and ability to stretch the defense out to the perimeter when called upon to do so. The early returns are favorable.
“Tina, at 36 or 37, just hasn’t lost it. At all. And it’s nice to see,” said starting guard Tanisha Wright.
Rounding out the front court while Seattle awaits Jackson's return will be another former top overall draft pick whom the Storm acquired in the offseason: Belgian center Ann Wauters.
Drafted in 2000 by the Cleveland Rockers, Wauters made a brief stop in New York before heading to San Antonio where she helped lead the Silver Stars to the WNBA Finals in 2008 as the least heralded member of its one-time "Big Three" of Becky Hammon, Sophia Young and Wauters.
But Wauters, a five-time EuroLeague Player of the Year and three-time EuroLeague Finals MVP, came back late from Europe in 2009, playing in only 17 of the team's games that season after arriving in August and citing the need to rest her body and attend to personal issues. She has been out of the WNBA ever since, plying her trade in Russia for two seasons before moving to Spain, where she played for Ros Casares Valencia and won a EuroLeague championship with future Storm teammates Lauren Jackson and Silvia Dominguez.
In the interim, Wauters started a family with her wife Lot Wielfaert, a former basketball player who retired due to knee injuries. Wauters gave birth to their son Vince in 2011. The couple reported have a second child, daughter Lou, born to Wielfaert a month earlier.
But Agler, who took to the road accompanied by team president and CEO Karen Bryant and a sackful of freed-up salary cap, convinced Wauters to return to the WNBA to play for Seattle. Closing the deal was made easier by the fact that Wauters had already been "softened up" by her future teammates.
"She fits our style," Agler said of Wauters versatility and ability to run the floor. "There were several teams that wanted her to sign with them. There's a lot of factors that played into it, but obviously she learned a lot about Seattle from Lauren and Jana [Vesela] and she runs into Sue Bird. ... I know she's going to play quality minutes for us."
“I think [Jackson]’s such an amazing player, so I was really excited to finally get a chance to play with her,” said Wauters. “It was great playing with her and practicing (both) with her and against her every day, so I think it only got me better.”
Bird, who played against Wauters for many years overseas as well as in the WNBA, said that while her signing may have happened below the radar, the 6-4 center could be a huge addition.
“Ann has obviously played in the WNBA for many years, but not in a while. [People] forget that with Ann, San Antonio was a team that made the finals [in 2008],” said Bird. “She’s a player that can really make some serious, serious changes in a team, can really make a team better. Hopefully she’ll be able to do that with the Storm as well.”
For Wauters’ part, all she has left to prove is winning a championship
“That’s a goal that every player has. For me especially, going to the finals with San Antonio, I kind of had a taste of it and I miss it, so now I’m really, really hoping for a championship and trying everything that I can to win one.”
Wauters will like share time in the post with Storm veteran Camille Little, who is back, with the pair backed up by Polish center Ewilina Kobryn (6-4), a mid-season pick-up last year after Lauren Jackson suffered her season-interrupting hip injury. Kobryn saw very little playing time last year and it remains to be seen whether she will play a more significant role this season.
Part III: Science Class
The Storm open at home against the Los Angeles Sparks (L, 66-72) before heading on the road for seven of their next eight games. For now, they'll be operating with a 10-member roster while they hold open a spot for Jackson. Note that fully half of that roster (highlighted in bold below) consists of players are new to the Storm, if not to the game at the professional level. A sixth, Kobryn, saw limited action in 18 games last year, but averaged less than seven minutes and only 1.4 points, per game.
That spells a big assignment for Bird and the rest of the Storm's returning core -- Wright, Smith and Little -- and the Seattle coaching staff to form a team out of the unquestionably talented assembly of component parts.
With so much roster upheaval and players arriving at different times throughout training camp due to commitments overseas -- Bird didn’t arrive until the second week of training camp and Wauters flew in last weekend -- finding the right chemistry is going to a big focus early on. But Seattle seems undaunted.
“I think any time you change the roster, you have to make an adjustment with who’s gone and who’s here," said Storm assistant coach Nancy Darsch. "Sure, Swin [Cash] was here for four years, I’ve been here for four years, and it is different without her just like it was different without Sheryl Swoopes. It was different without Yolanda Griffith, but time goes on and different can be a good thing sometimes.”
“We’re going to be going through a learning curve here a little bit, like most teams will be doing early in the season,” said Agler. “I think there’s probably some teams that have had their group together longer than others, but I think there’s probably some teams just like us that are getting people in just this week.”
Seven-year veteran guard Tanisha Wright, who signed a new multi-year contract in the offseason, said it’s going to take time to get used to all the new players and that she doesn’t expect perfection in the first game.
“We’re not going to say that we’re going to be at the top of our game right away,” said Wright. “It takes a lot for you to get comfortable with players. It took a couple of years to get comfortable when [head coach] Brian [Agler] came in [in 2008] and brought in new faces and everything. But the bottom line is we’ve got to get it done ... so we’ll take practices, we’ll take film sessions, whatever it takes to make sure that every time we step onto this court, whether it be practice or a game, we’re getting something good out of it."
Bird is confident that eventually, the new players will integrate properly and, by August and September, enable the team to play its best basketball.
“With myself and Lauren, we have two cornerstones of a team that I think anybody can fit into what we do. And then you add 'T' [Tanisha Wright] and Camille [Little], and really we have the pieces. If a player’s going to fit that, then it could end up perfect.”