The Seattle Storm have made it official; everyone’s worst fear that WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart had ruptured her right Achilles tendon while playing overseas in Europe. The injury required surgery and she will miss the entire 2019 WNBA season.
The loss of a phenomenal talent like Stewart will send shock-waves throughout the entire league. The WNBA is already expected to be without Maya Moore who has opted to take the 2019 season off due to other life priorities, the dominant Minnesota Lynx team of the past few years will also be without Lindsay Whalen who retired and potentially Rebekkah Brunson who is not expected to play with the Lynx, at least not to start the season due to injury concerns.
On top of that, Dallas is expected to be without star point-guard Skylar Diggins-Smith who will miss at least part of the 2019 season as she gives birth to a new baby. MVP Runner-Up Liz Cambage has threatened to sit out the 2019 season if she is not traded to the Los Angeles Sparks. And Atlanta’s Angel McCoughtry will be out for a good portion of the 2019 season after suffering a torn ACL and MCL late in the 2018 season. Sadly, we must now add league MVP and WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart to this list of players.
Without Seattle’s best player, the Storm will look quite a bit different during the 2019 season. There are several on the court changes that will likely take place with the loss of Stewie. In this series of articles, we’ll take a look at what it means for the team and the remaining players on the Seattle Storm.
The Storm still have a lot of talent. Even without their best player, Seattle is likely to compete for a playoff spot. Their chances of being one of the top teams in the league took a major hit after losing Stewart, but they should be able to come in and compete for one of the playoff spots in the back-half of the standings (likely 6th-8th seed).
Jewell Loyd and Natasha Howard will need to step up
Seattle will be losing out on nearly 22 points and over eight rebounds per game this season. First and foremost, Seattle will look to their other top scoring options from 2018 to help carry the burden in 2019. Despite her scoring average dropping a bit from the previous two seasons, Jewell Loyd averaged 15.5 PPG last year and was Seattle’s 2nd leading scorer. Loyd made the All-Star team for the first time in her career and has averaged at least 15 PPG in three of her four seasons in the WNBA. Loyd is a versatile scorer who can aggressively attack the basket, work the mid-game, or knock down the three-pointer. Loyd made 67 three-point field goals in 2018 (a new career high), while still shooting just under 40% (37%). Loyd will likely be looked upon as the team’s leading scorer and will hopefully be able to increase her scoring closer to the 18-20 PPG range.
Loyd will be challenged more now than any other season before. With the championship expectations now set after 2018 and without the help of Stewart who will be forced to watch from the sidelines. It is likely that Seattle will run their offense through Loyd and attempt to get her as many scoring opportunities as possible this season.
However, Seattle will need more than just Loyd to step up. It can be easily argued that Natasha Howard was the biggest reason the Seattle Storm won the 2018 WNBA title. Before Howard joined the team, Seattle spent the past two seasons just barely qualifying for the playoffs landing the 7th seed in 2016 and the 8th and final playoff spot in 2017. With Howard added to the mix, Seattle became too difficult to stop. Breanna Stewart started dominating the league, but it also helped that she now had multiple players including another post player in Howard, that could also contribute significantly night in and night out. Howard averaged over 13 points, six rebounds, and nearly two blocks per game. She should have been named to the All-Star team but was snubbed. Regardless, Howard would go on to win the much-deserving Most Improved Player of the Year award in 2018 as she had career-highs in every major statistical category.
With Stewart out, Howard will be Seattle’s top post-player and will hopefully be able to improve her stat line just as she did in 2018.
Crystal Langhorne re-signed with Seattle for a reason
Crystal Langhorne re-signed with the Seattle Storm back in February during the WNBA off-season. It came as a surprise to some after Langhorne lost her starting job in 2018. She had been a consistent starter during her first four seasons with the Storm, including leading the team in scoring during her first two seasons with Seattle. However, last season Langhorne injured her ribs during the first game and missed eight games. This allowed Natasha Howard to step into the starting spot; where Howard never looked back. Because of this, Langhorne’s minutes and stats took a drastic hit last season. Her playing time was cut in half from 28 minutes per game to under 14. Her points dropped from nearly 12.5 to 4.5 per game and her rebounds were also cut in half from about six to three.
Many fans and outside media felt Langhorne would sign with a different team to potentially get another starting role somewhere else or at least more playing time. However, Storm CEO and General Manager Alisha Valavanis believed Langhorne needed to come back to Seattle.
“A priority this free agency period was to bring back Crystal. Crystal is one of the most consistent players in the league and the experience she brings is immeasurable. She has been an integral part of our success.”Storm CEO and General Manager Alisha Valavanis
I called the signing a smart move from the Storm’s perspective as it helped bolster Seattle’s depth in the post. And that it would also cover Seattle in case they experienced any major injuries, which sadly became a reality once Breanna Stewart ruptured her Achilles’ heel.
While Langhorne will likely face some competition in training camp, she is currently the odds on favorite to win a starting spot in the rotation with the absence of Stewart. Seattle could opt to start Courtney Paris or Mercedes Russell alongside Natasha Howard in the front-court, but Langhorne’s experience should give her the edge. She is a veteran who has started consistently in this league for nearly a decade and enters her 12th season overall.
Seattle needs to make up the 22 points per game they will lose out on without Stewart. Langhorne has the potential to account for a good chunk of that if she is able to increase her season averages back up to the twelve points per game that she’s averaged throughout her career.
International help incoming?
With the loss of Breanna Stewart, could the Storm look to bring back Japanese player Ramu Tokashiki to the team? Tok played three seasons with Seattle between 2015-2017. Tokashiki played particularly well her rookie season, where she started 16 games and averaged over eight points per game. However, her production became almost non-existent over the next two seasons. She then opted to stay in Japan for the 2018 season to focus on playing for the Japanese National team and the FIBA World Cup.
It was initially expected that she would return to the Seattle Storm in 2019, but that no longer seems to be the case. During a conversation with Storm CEO Alisha Valavanis (prior to Stewie’s injury), I asked about Tok’s status and if she was expected to return this season.
“We (still) have the rights to Tok. She was suspended last year. It’s still to be determined on whether or not she will participate in 2019,” said Valavanis.
As of May 1st, Seattle has not made any official announcement on Ramu Tokashiki returning to the team, so it seems unlikely at this time.
The other option being tossed around by some fans is that Seattle could decide to bring 2019 first-round draft pick Ezi Magbegor to Seattle earlier than expected. After drafting Magbegor in 2019, it was announced that the 19-year-old would stay in Australia in 2019 and join the team in 2020.
During my earlier conversation with CEO Valavanis, she talked about Ezi staying in Australia this season.
“We had conversations and knew in advance ahead of the draft that Ezi was interested in staying in Australia in 2019 and that aligned with what our interests were as a team. Where we are at, we were looking to invest and think about Ezi in 2020 and beyond on our roster and that was in alignment with what her plans were.”Storm CEO and General Manager Alisha Valavanis
I believe any discussion about Magbegor coming to Seattle this season is just wishful thinking by fans. I also would view it as a panic move by the organization as it doesn’t really fit with their grand scheme and their plans.
Magbegor is just 19 years old and is still a very unpolished talent. Seattle is likely to get more out of Crystal Langhorne in 2019 than they would with Magbegor. There would also be additional negative effects to bringing Magbegor over earlier than originally expected. Seattle would have to cut an additional player to make room for Magbegor because she is not currently projected to take up a roster spot this season.
While it’s certainly possible the Storm could add Tokashiki or Magbegor to the 2019 roster, it doesn’t really fit with what the organization’s plans have been up to this point and it doesn’t appear that this is the path they would take to help fill Stewart’s absence.
That wraps up Part One of our in-depth look at the Storm’s WNBA season without Breanna Stewart. Make sure to keep an eye out for Part Two where we will discuss how this could affect Sue Bird’s season, what other players will get new opportunities and the idea of tanking for the #1 overall pick in 2020.