“Rookie of the Year” is an honor that consistently comes with big buzz and bigger expectations for the winner, as they enter their second WNBA season.
It’s been no different for the Storm’s Jewell Loyd.
Averaging 11 points, 3.5 rebounds, and two assists in 26 minutes a night, while shooting 41 percent from the field and 21 percent from 3-point range was enough to propel the Notre Dame product past Kiah Stokes and Natalie Achonwa for the honor, while laying the foundation for Seattle’s future.
But what do you do for an encore?
Establish yourself as a frontrunner for the league’s Most Improved Player Award, of course.
With four games left in her sophomore campaign, Loyd was playing about six more minutes a night, but more importantly, she was making the most of the extra time on the court.
Her shooting percentage is up a tick — from 41 to 44 percent — but so is the volume of shots she’s taking. In her 25th start of the season, Loyd took her 304th shot of 2016, surpassing the number of field goal attempts she took the year prior, with a third of the season still left to go.
In the same vein, it only took her 11 games to set a new career-high in 3-point attempts, and more importantly, she’s also had more success from behind the arc, making approximately one-third of her shots from long range. That’s up from 21 percent (in much fewer attempts) in 2015.
Simply put, Loyd has taken on an increasingly substantial role on the offensive end for the Storm, and more than just merely taking more shots, she’s also been more efficient.
And perhaps not quite as quantifiable in the stat line, but still worth mention, is Loyd’s penchant for the big moment, nailing a game-winning jumper with seconds to play against Phoenix on May 20, and sinking two key free-throws in a win against Indiana on June 12.
Though other players around the league have made strides in 2016, most notably New York’s Sugar Rodgers and Atlanta’s Elizabeth Williams, their bumps have come in much more time on the court. While both have thrived when given larger roles, Loyd has become a more dynamic option for Seattle in her second year as a starter, with about as much time on the court.
But Loyd isn’t the only Storm player taking aim at postseason recognition, and it doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
Breanna Stewart is as close to a lock as humanly possible to be named Rookie of the Year.
And while Stewart was practically preordained to become the Storm’s second consecutive (and second ever) winner, her strong play also has her square in the conversation for another honor: Defensive Player of the Year. Evaluating her rookie campaign merely in relation to the other first-year players simply doesn’t do her performance justice.
She’s one of two players (the other being Minnesota’s Sylvia Fowles) to rank in the top five in both blocks and rebounds, and first in the WNBA in defensive rebounds with just over eight per game.
Despite playing more minutes per night than any other player in the WNBA, Stewart has yet to foul out, staying on the court during the most pivotal moments of each game.
But the most telling stats that make Stewart’s case for DPOY may be the ones that encompass Seattle’s defensive performance as a whole.
While Stewart is only sitting on the bench for about five minutes per game, opponents were averaging 92 points per 40 minutes with the UConn product out of the game, compared to just 79 with her on the court, as of Aug. 25. To put that in perspective, with a full-40 from Stewart, Seattle would be ranked third in the league in points allowed per game. Without her? Dead last.
It’s also no stretch to note the impact that each player is having on each other’s performance. Loyd’s improved shooting percentage is likely at least in part due to getting more open looks, with opposing defenses now forced to account for Stewart’s presence. But with Loyd’s defense on the perimeter, she’s helping force shots from the outside that Stewart can clean up in the post.
With the season winding down, if the Storm make the playoffs — for the first time since 2013 — it will be in large part due to the play of its young dynamic duo.
In any case, both should end their year with at least some new hardware to display.