As the 2020 WNBA season quickly approaches, we look ahead to see what the major story lines will become as the Seattle Storm look to recapture that 2018 championship magic in their quest to win their fourth WNBA title.
1. Will Breanna Stewart be able to reproduce her 2018 MVP season after her major Achilles injury?
I think by far the biggest question entering
the 2020 season is whether or not Breanna Stewart will make a 100% recovery and
return to MVP type levels of play after suffering a devastating Achilles injury
that kept her out of the entire 2019 season.
Stewart has worked diligently for the better part of the past year rehabbing her surgically repaired Achilles tendon.
The good news is that Stewart is slightly ahead of schedule with her rehab and even participated in the Team USA exhibition game against the University of Connecticut earlier this week. The results were a mixed bag. Stewart looked great early on, draining a three-pointer on a nice assist from Sue Bird. Unfortunately, Stewart ended the game 1-7 FG from the floor. She finished with just three points, three rebounds, and one blocked shot in 17 minutes.
On the broadcast, it was mentioned that Stewart was also on a minutes restriction. This was her first game back so that makes sense. But I do wonder if the Storm will put any minute restrictions on her during the season. Since entering the WNBA, Stewart has played near the top of the league leaders in total minutes per game. But the Storm may need to ease her back in this season.
I think it’s a bit unfair to expect Stewie to match her MVP season of 2018 the first year back from this major injury. But the difference between the Storm winning their 4th WNBA Championship or not, might come down to whether Stewart can be 75-80% of what she was in 2018 or if she ends up only being around 50%.
If anyone can come back just as strong, it’ll be Stewart. She didn’t become a WNBA champion, 2018 league MVP, and 4-time NCAA champion and MOP (Most Outstanding Player) by accident. She has put in so much hard work and dedication over the years, I have no doubt she will do it again to reach greatness.
Lastly, it’s reassuring to know that other WNBA superstars have gone through this same injury/surgery and continued to have successful careers. Most notably, Tamika Catchings, one of the greatest WNBA players of all time, suffered a torn Achilles that required surgery in 2007. Catchings would go on to play an additional nine years in the WNBA, including winning league MVP in 2011 and leading the Fever to their only WNBA Championship in 2012. Catchings continued to have successful statistical seasons until she retired after the 2016 season.
2. How will the coaching staff balance the emergence of Jordin Canada with the return of Sue Bird?
One of the best parts of the 2019 season for the Seattle Storm was that it forced several players to step up their game with the loss of Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird. One of those players was second-year point guard Jordin Canada. Canada was inserted in the starting lineup and logged nearly twice as many minutes in 2019 (29 MPG) as she did in her rookie season (16 MPG). Canada set career highs in pretty much every statistical category: 9.8 PPG, 5.2 APG, 2.2 SPG, and 2.4 RPG; including leading the league in steals.
While some games were better than others, Canada showed great promise in both her ability to score, attack the basket and dish the ball to fellow teammates. None may have been more impressive than a game against the Dallas Wings in July where she scored 14 points, had 12 assists and zero turnovers. It was only the 6th time in WNBA history a player had passed for that many assists without committing a single turnover. While there are many areas where Canada can improve, namely field goal and three-point shooting percentage, she proved that she is ready to take over the reins at point guard when Sue Bird ultimately decides to retire. I don’t believe there is any question about that after the 2019 season.
But that’s where things get interesting. Sue Bird has successfully returned from her knee surgery and has been playing with Team USA against college teams since the Fall of 2019. Bird has looked good in exhibition play, most recently scoring 9 points on 3-5 shooting, while handing out three assists in 20 minutes against her former Alma mater Uconn.
While Bird is technically an unrestricted free agent this off-season, there is no doubt that she will sign a new deal with the Storm to stay in Seattle. And as long as Sue Bird is playing in Seattle, she is starting in Seattle.
If I had to guess how things play out, I wouldn’t be surprised if Bird ends up starting the majority of games, but Canada may actually play more minutes per game over Bird; for example, Canada playing around 25 MPG and Bird playing 22 MPG (with some overlap).
This is one of the story lines I’m most intrigued to see play out in Seattle this season.
3. After Natasha Howard‘s breakout season in 2019, how will the team’s offense flow with a returning Breanna Stewart?
Natasha Howard was named to the All-Star team
for the first time in 2019. Howard won the Defensive Player of the Year award
after finishing the season 2nd in steals and 3rd in blocked shots per game. But
just as important was her jump in offensive production. She set a new
career-high scoring average at 18.1 points per game; nearly five points above
her previous career-best in 2018.
Howard has absolutely flourished playing in Seattle under Coach Dan Hughes and has developed into one of the best players in the WNBA. Howard proved that she could carry a team to the playoffs as she led the Storm to the 6th seed and a home playoff game.
But in 2020, Seattle will (ideally) be back to their full strength and put out a roster that is very similar to their 2018 Championship squad with a returning Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird.
How will this affect Natasha Howard, who emerged as a bonafide superstar? The offense won’t run solely through Howard in 2020. And she will inevitably get fewer touches; her field goal attempts will likely go down. Without Stewart in the lineup in 2019, Howard shot 15 FGA per game (six more shots than in 2018).
I’m going to be fascinated to see how the offense flows for Seattle this season, well-knowing that Howard can take on a larger role offensively, but may not need to with Stewart back in the lineup. Of course, with Stewart coming off an injury, her shot attempts may go down compared to her 2018 MVP season. In 2018, Stewart shot six more field goal attempts than Howard (15 to 9). In 2020, it’s possible we could see it close to an even split (12 and 12).
4. Will 2019 first-round pick, Ezi Magbegor, join the team in 2020 or stay overseas for one more season?
Thanks to a deep draft in 2019, the Seattle
Storm were able to draft the very talented Ezi Magbegor with the final pick of
the first round. Magbegor is a star-in-the-making in her native Australia. At
just 20 years old now, she’s been playing professionally for three years and
played for the national Australian Olympic team in 2018 during the FIBA games.
Due to roster limitations and the fact that she was only 19 years old when the Storm drafted her, Seattle opted to keep Magbegor overseas in 2019, so that she could continue to develop her skills in her home country. This also made sense as the 2019 roster was already filled with Stewart (who hadn’t torn her Achilles yet), Howard, 2nd-year prospect Mercedes Russell, and veterans Crystal Langhorne and Courtney Paris all under contract.
Magbegor joined the Melbourne Boomers of the WNBL (the top basketball league in Australia) for the 2018-2019 season. She finished her first season averaging 8.7 PPG and 4.3 rebounds per game. She has improved that to 13.2 PPG and 6.3 RPG in the 2019-2020 season. And her averages will likely continue to go up. Magbegor has scored over 20 points in three of the past four games.
If you’ve never see Magbegor in action you can check out this two-minute highlight clip of her dominating in the NBL1 (competition lower than the WNBL). Magbegor shows off her skills including her ability to glide to the basket with her length, her outside shooting touch, and her ability to block shots and get steals.
Storm President and GM, Alisha Valavanis, told media last year that the plan would be to have Ezi continue to develop in 2019 and bring her onto the Storm’s roster in 2020. But I’m curious to see if that will actually happen.
With the return of Breanna Stewart and the emergence of Mercedes Russell, Seattle’s front-court is already well established. Even if Courtney Paris doesn’t return (more on that in the next question), Magbegor would still be competing with Stewart, Howard, Russell, and Langhorne for minutes. If the coaching staff opted to go with the veterans, Magbegor could end up riding the bench the entire 2020 season, where she would benefit significantly more by playing in the Australian leagues averaging 25-30 minutes per game.
The other major factor is that 2020 is an Olympic year. The Olympics interfere directly with the WNBA schedule and foreign players often miss at least a handful of games because they have to leave early to reunite with their Olympic squad. They also miss a lot of practice time with their WNBA teams.
Depending on any free agent acquisitions or if the Storm were to take another front-court player in the 2020 draft, I could see them opting to keep Ezi overseas for one more season. However, if Magbegor continues to develop at a rapid rate, she may force the team’s hand and bring her onto the team this season.
5. What direction will Alisha Valavanis go with the 7th overall pick in the 2020 WNBA Draft and what will the final roster look like?
The final talking point ahead of this season
is about the WNBA Draft and the Storm’s free agent off-season moves. I’m really
curious to see what direction the Storm go in the 2020 draft. With Stewart and
Bird returning to an already talented team, there aren’t any glaring weaknesses
on this roster.
If Magbegor joins the team in 2020, the team will be stacked in the front-court with Breanna Stewart, Natasha Howard, Mercedes Russell, Crystal Langhorne, and Ezi Magbegor.
The Storm will eventually need to find a backup point guard for Jordin Canada after Sue Bird retires. But that doesn’t appear to be an immediate need with Bird healthy and ready to play in 2020. If the Storm were to draft a point guard in the first round, I can’t imagine she would get any playing time with Bird and Canada running the show.
Assuming everyone remains healthy, I feel the area the Storm could benefit from an upgrade would be a backup wing position (shooting guard or small forward). Either a defensive specialist or a player that could provide consistent instant offense off the bench. However, without an obvious weakness, the team could draft the best player available regardless of position or need.
Perusing some of the recent WNBA mock drafts names like Mikayla Pivec, Ruthy Hebard, Bella Alarie, Tynice Martin, Kitija Laksa, Kiah Gillespie, and Joyner Holmes have all been listed within a couple of spots of Seattle’s pick.
As we get closer to the WNBA draft we’ll do a deeper dive into some of these draft prospects.
But before we get to the draft, we will go through Free Agency. Currently, players are allowed to begin negotiating with teams. Free Agent contracts can officially be signed on February 10th.
The Storm currently have four players from the 2019 roster that are unrestricted Free Agents. They are Sue Bird, Blake Dietrick, Courtney Paris, and Shavonte Zellous.
Bird will obviously be re-signed and the only question is whether she signs just a one year deal or a multi-year contract.
Dietrick likely won’t be brought back with the return of Bird. She was brought in mid-way through the 2019 season after the Storm lost Jordin Canada for a few games with an injury after already playing the season without Bird.
Paris, the veteran center, is unlikely to be brought back as her role would be diminished further with the return of Stewart. And would be outright nonexistent if Magbegor joins the team this year. As it was, Paris’ minutes dropped to just six minutes per game falling behind Howard, Russell, and Langhorne on the depth chart.
Zellous is the player I’m most intrigued by. She was brought onto the team in 2019 (prior to all the injuries) as another veteran presence that had playoff and championship experience. While Zellous didn’t have a great statistical season, she was able to run the point when the team was marred with injuries and she seemed to gel well with her teammates. They could opt to bring her back for one more season as that veteran backup guard.
Seattle has nine players currently under contract, not including Sue Bird. So they likely will have just two open roster spots for Ezi Magbegor, their three 2020 draft picks, and any other potential Free Agents (Zellous or otherwise). If the Storm sign even one new Free Agent then that likely means Magbegor is staying in Australia in 2020 or they’re trading away their first-round draft pick.
That wraps up our five biggest questions for the Seattle Storm as we get ready for the start of another season. Let us know what you think and what questions you have before the 2020 season begins!