The Seattle Storm is already shaking off the rust from lack of playing time in their first two days of training camp.
The team’s opening practice Friday was the first time the veteran core group had played together since they won a WNBA Championship together in September, 2018. But interim coach Gary Kloppenberg said it wasn’t long before everyone got into a flow.
“We are trying to get that knowledge back of where we were before and move forward with it,” he said. “What we did yesterday was pretty seamless in getting back to what we like to do.”
It was also the first time athletes had played with contact for anywhere from four to 15 months, due to the COVID-19 pandemic and injuries. All-Star veteran point guard Sue Bird acknowledged it was “weird.”
As coronavirus took hold overseas last winter, international basketball leagues were shut down and U.S. athletes headed home in March – just as stay-at-home orders were being issued here. Athletes were relegated to home workouts and basketball skill work.
Others – 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart, Bird, and emerging star Jordin Canada – had been out of action even longer.
Stewart tore her Achilles tendon playing in Russia prior to the 2019 season, and Bird had knee surgery in May, which also took her out for the year. Canada had both knees scoped after the season, and had spent October-February rehabbing. As she was ready to play overseas again, the pandemic struck.
All three said they feel great and are hungry to play this year.
“It’s been a while since the Storm fans saw me, and I feel excited to be back,” Stewart said after Saturday’s practice. “I’m feeling great, I’m feeling like I’m in the best shape of my career.”
Canada, now in her third season, has been playing basketball since she was seven years old, and said she hasn’t had this much time to rest since she began.
“I started doing a lot of home workouts (during lockdown)…..I was able to come to Seattle for a week before coming here, and I got some basketball work in,” Canada said. “What I’ve done so far is perfectly right for me, because I needed that time to rest my body as much as possible.”
“My body feels refreshed. I feel good. So right now I’m making sure I’m taking my time…and not trying to ramp up and go to 100.”
Kloppenberg’s focus for the entire team is similar, as he prefers to ease them in and prevent injury.
“If you have a thoroughbred you need to bring her out to trot before you bring her to the Kentucky Derby,” he said.
But Kloppenberg admitted that the Storm’s eagerness and acumen might eclipse his caution.
“The players were ready to go further than what we were doing,” he said of the first session. “We have some new pieces, but we have a veteran core that knows their systems offensively and defensively. So my job is to not over coach them, and to make sure we review and make sure we’re sharp on both ends of the floor.”
Also returning are veteran starters Alysha Clark, Natasha Howard and Jewell Loyd, as well as veteran Crystal Langhorne, sharp-shooter Sami Whitcomb and center Mercedes Russell. With Canada taking over the point guard spot for Bird and Russell filling in for Stewart, Seattle defied odds in 2019 and made it to the playoffs.
This year they will play a 22-game season that begins July 25 with new additions Epiphanny Prince, Morgan Tuck and Australia rookie sensation Ezi Magbegor.
Bird said the Storm’s collective experience and years-long team continuity is an advantage.
“If you compare our roster to any roster in the league, we probably have a head start in having so many players back,” she said. “Our players (that will come) off the bench this year were starters last year.”
Bird acknowledged that she and Stewart could be at a disadvantage for not having played for a long time. But Kloppenberg said others will likely take up any slack.
“With this team you can add some (schemes) with them because they’re so intelligent,” he said.
Canada stepped up to fill Bird’s shoes last season to the tune of 9.8 points and 5.2 assists per game. Bird sees that carrying over to this year.
“Starting raised her confidence, and that’s good,” Bird said. “Confidence is probably the most important thing in this league, and I look forward to playing with her again.”
Kloppenberg said Canada might come off the bench quickly.
“I anticipate playing her with Sue,” he said. “Sue is dangerous coming off the ball, and we’d be remiss not utilizing her…scoring ability off the ball. Maybe giving her a break as the one and let her come of screens, as she can do a lot of damage there, as well.”