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‘It feels like a reinvigoration’: What to watch for as Storm open preseason training camp

By Percy Allen The Seattle Times

SEATTLE – Nothing lasts forever. Not even the indomitable Sue Bird.

So with that in mind, Noelle Quinn is embracing change as she heads into her second season as Storm coach, which starts Sunday with the first day of training camp.

“There is a newness and a freshness and a reset that is happening,” she said. “There’s a lot of excitement.”

Certainly, there was loads of uncertainty in the offseason considering Seattle’s top four scorers and seven of 12 players who finished the season on the roster were free agents.

Rather than initiating a complete makeover, the Storm re-signed Bird and Breanna Stewart to one-year deals while securing Jewell Loyd to two-year contract and holding on to Mercedes Russell with a three-year deal.

Seattle, which finished the regular season 21-11 and was bounced in the WNBA second round, also brought in veteran defensive standouts Briann January and Gabby Williams on $144,000 one-year deals, which is further proof the four-time WNBA champions are still in win-now mode.

“It feels like a reinvigoration,” Quinn said. “I don’t want to say it’s Sue’s last year … but the old gang is back together with Jewell and Stewie. Signing Cedes was big.

I’m expecting big things from Ezi (Magbegor) and bolstering up our team by adding Bri and Gabby was important.

“So there’s a lot of good things that are happening that we’re excited about and it starts on the 17th Day 1.”

Here are a few questions the Storm will need to answer during its two-week training camp, which includes exhibitions against the Los Angeles Sparks at home on April 23 and April 28 at the Phoenix Mercury.

Seattle opens the season at home on May 6 versus the Minnesota Lynx.

What’s up with Stewie?

The last time Breanna Stewart was on the court for the Storm, the three-time WNBA All-Star forward limped off the floor in the third quarter of a 105-71 win over the Washington Mystics on Sept. 7.

Stewart missed the next three games, including an 85-80 loss to Phoenix in the playoffs, due to a left Achilles injury.

She underwent surgery Oct. 13 and rehabilitated during WNBA offseason, which prevented her from playing for UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia. The Storm expect Stewart, who signed a one-year $228,094 deal, to be a full participant without medical restrictions at the start of training camp.

“There’s no easing Stewie back,” Quinn said. “She’ll be ready to rock and roll.”

Last season, the Storm were 20-8 with Stewart, not including a blowout win in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game.

Seattle was also 1-3 without their 2021 MVP candidate who led the team in scoring (20.3 points per game), rebounding (9.5), blocks (1.8) and steals (1.2),

After missing the 2019 season because of a right Achilles tendon injury, Stewart averaged 19.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.6 steals while leading the Storm to a 2020 WNBA championship and winning Finals MVP honors.

How soon will the new additions make an impact?

The Storm regressed last year defensively, which prompted Seattle to acquire Williams and January to essentially replace Katie Samuelson and Jordin Canada.

However, Williams and January are playing in Hungary and are expected to miss the first 10 days of training camp, including the exhibition opener.

Kennedy Burke, who is playing in Spain, is also expected to be a late arrival to training camp.

What are the key position battles? Seattle returns four starters so there’s really just one vacancy in the starting lineup at small forward.

Presumably, Stephanie Talbot, who started nine games last season, will occupy the spot until Williams is ready to take over.

Keep an eye on the battle for the backup center spot, which appeared to belong to free agent pickup Jantel Lavender before the Storm drafted highly decorated Elissa Cunane in the second round.

Assuming the Storm keeps either Lavender or Cunane, it will be interesting to see who emerges in a battle for the final 11th spot on the roster between veteran guards Epiphanny Prince and Mikiah ‘Kiki’ Herbert Harrigan.

How will Quinn divvy up coaching responsibilities?

Quinn revamped her coaching staff and hired longtime WNBA veteran Pokey Chatman to replace touted defensive guru Gary Kloppenburg, who led the Storm to the 2020 WNBA title.

The Storm also brought in Ebony Hoffman, who played 10 years in the WNBA and is making her coaching debut, to replace Ryan Webb, the team’s longest tenured assistant who had been with the franchise since 2015. In the past, Kloppenburg served as the de facto defensive coordinator who was the mastermind behind Seattle’s inventive trapping and harassing schemes that led the league in fewest points allowed in 2020 and 2019. At least initially, Quinn wants the entire coaching staff to contribute to the defensive and offensive game plans.

“It’s just a team effort at this point of the season,” she said. “Ask me in a few weeks and I may have a (different) answer.”

Can Seattle establish a blistering pace that will last?

Even with the WNBA’s oldest player running the offense, it’s no secret the Storm want to run opponents into submission. In each of the past three seasons with the 41-year-old Bird, Seattle ranked second in the WNBA in scoring while averaging 86.5 points.

Still, Quinn has to figure out why the Storm sputtered in the final weeks last season after jumping out to a league-best 16-5 record at the Olympic break. Seattle was 5-6 in its final 11 games, not including the playoff loss.

“From Day 1 we have to establish who we want to be and how we want to play,” Quinn said. “We want to be up-tempo and that involves a type of conditioning that we need. … Last year we got a little fatigued mentally and physically.

“Just from the jump, it’s important we understand how we’re going to play and that’s the way we want to continue to play throughout the season and still being sharp at the end of the season.

That includes minutes, rotations and trusting lineups a little bit more so the experience and reps are there and we’re fresh at the end of the year.”