WNBA Free Agency began on February 1st. I was curious to see if the Storm would try to make a big splash in free agency or stick with what got them the 2018 WNBA title. The team opted for the latter. The Storm put out a press release announcing they had re-signed both veteran power forward Crystal Langhorne and second-year center, Mercedes Russell.
I fully expected them to re-sign Russell, a 6′ 6″ rookie center out of Tennessee. The Storm were fortunate to pick up Russell last season after she was cut by the New York Liberty at the beginning of the season. While Russell often struggled to crack a deep rotation behind Stewart, Howard, Langhorne, and Paris; she did show enough promise and has the size that Seattle otherwise lacks on the team. Her best game came on August 19th, 2018 against the Dallas Wings, an 84-68 victory for the Storm. Russell had a career high in minutes played (19) and posted a near double-double as she scored eight points and pulled down nine rebounds. Russell was a highly touted center coming out of college, where she averaged 15.3 points and 9.2 rebounds per game her senior season at Tennessee.
Per the Storm’s official site, Coach Dan Hughes had this to say about Russell, “Mercedes was an exciting pick up for the Storm last year and we can’t wait to watch her growth in year two.”
Crystal Langhorne re-signing was a little bit more of a surprise, not because she isn’t worthy of a contract but because I thought she might look for a new opportunity. Langhorne came to Seattle in 2014 when she was traded on draft day to the Storm from the Washington Mystics for Seattle’s 2013 first round pick Tianna Hawkins and what would become Seattle’s 2014 first round pick Bria Hartley by then General Manager and Head Coach Brian Agler. The deal actually worked out quite well for Seattle as Langhorne led the teaming in scoring her first two seasons with the team (2014 and 2015). Langhorne has been a consistent starter during her time in Seattle starting 135 out of a possible 136 games in her first four seasons with the Storm.
However, a lot changed in the 2018 season. She started the first game of the season against Phoenix but left the game with a rib injury. Langhorne would go on to miss eight games total, the most of any season in her 11 year WNBA career. She was replaced by Natasha Howard, who Seattle had acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Lynx during the off-season. Howard completely flourished in the starting center role, setting new career highs in every major statistical category with 13.2 PPG, 6.4 RPG, and 1.9 BPG; on her way to winning the WNBA’s Most Improved Player of the Year award.
Meanwhile, Langhorne’s role was severely limited even after returning from her injury. She posted career lows in almost every category as her minutes were cut in half from the 2017 season to just 13.9 minutes per game off the bench. Her role was further reduced in the playoffs as the Storm shortened their bench and kept the starters playing longer minutes.
Seattle had “cored” Langhorne the past two off-seasons, which is essentially putting the franchise tag on the player. The team did not opt to do that this season, which wasn’t all that surprising after what had played out last year. With all of this in mind, I fully expected Langhorne would opt to try and sign with a team where she could once again increase her role, her playing time and likely compete for a starting job. So I was a bit taken by surprise when Seattle announced they had re-signed Langhorne to a new multi-year contract.
From the Storm’s perspective, there is certainly justification for this move as it provides excellent front-court depth behinds starters, Breanna Stewart and Natasha Howard. The team will be in much better position to contend through injuries with the added depth of Langhorne as Crystal has proven to be a very capable starting post-player in the WNBA.
Storm CEO and General Manager Alisha Valavanis called re-signing Langhorne a priority. “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.”
Coach Hughes added, “We are thrilled to have Crystal back with the Storm family. Her play and leadership are essential pieces for Storm excellence.”
With Langhorne and Russell signed, the Storm now have 11 players under contract for the 2019 season. That means there is only one roster spot left for any additional free agents, Seattle’s three draft picks, and potentially a returning Ramu Tokashiki. Tok played three seasons with the Seattle Storm between 2015-2017, before taking the 2018 season off to train and play with the Japanese National team for the Olympics. Seattle still owns the rights to her contract if both she and the team were interested in bringing her back for the 2019 season. Before they re-signed Langhorne and Russell, I expected they would but now I have my doubts.
Additional Storm Free Agency News:
On February 7th the Storm announced that they signed former 2018 third round draft pick (29th overall) Teana Muldrow to a training camp contract. Muldrow impressed Coach Hughes last season during training camp and actually made the final roster heading into the regular season; a rarity for third-round picks in the WNBA. Muldrow played two preseason and three regular season games with the Storm before being cut by Seattle. Due to roster limitations, the team was forced to cut Muldrow when they went to sign Mercedes Russell.
Muldrow played one more WNBA game in 2018 with the Dallas Wings before being cut. She has played quite well in Israel averaging 16.5 points, 13.7 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game in 11 games for Maccabi Raanana (via the Storm’s press release).