Lassiter Takes to Starting Role

Don’t let Amanda Lassiter’s modesty fool you. “I’m labeled a defender in this league,” she says mere minutes after collecting $100 in the Storm’s post-shootaround contest to make a shot from halfcourt. While the third-year Storm forward is known for her defensive ability, she’s helped the team at both ends of the court since replacing injured Adia Barnes in the starting lineup at the All-Star break.

Lassiter has made 37.1% of her threes this season.
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The news that Barnes was out for the season was devastating to everyone involved with the Storm, including Lassiter. “She cried her heart out,” jokes Barnes, who had sneaked into earshot, of Lassiter’s reaction to the injury. “I was very sad because Adia’s a big part of this team – a huge part,” the soft-spoken Lassiter says after laughing at Barnes’ answer. “That sometimes doesn’t show up in the stat sheet. Those are pretty big shoes to fill.” Tough as it was to lose Barnes, who was amongst the Storm’s leaders in scoring, rebounds and assists, Lassiter’s presence provided the team quality insurance.

After being acquired from the Houston Comets in a June 17 trade, Lassiter started 22 of the 24 games she played for the Storm during the 2002 season. With Lassiter in the starting lineup, the Storm went 13-9 and clinched the first playoff berth in franchise history. Lassiter started both playoff games, totaling ten points, seven rebounds and four assists.

When the Storm started training camp this season, Lassiter found herself fighting for her job on a Storm team loaded with wing players under a new coach, Anne Donovan. With free agent addition Sandy Brondello laying claim to the shooting guard position, where Barnes had started down the stretch in 2002, both former starters were thrust into competition along with reserve Kate Starbird and newly-acquired Stacey Thomas. Thanks to an improved jump shot, Barnes won the starting small forward job. To make things more difficult, Lassiter hyperextended her knee near the end of training camp and missed the Storm’s first two games of the season. “I think (Donovan) knew what I could do, it was just a matter of getting better and showing it out there on the court,” Lassiter says. “I don’t think it hurt me at all.”

After playing sparingly in a couple of Storm wins, Lassiter had a breakout game against the Indiana Fever, effectively defending Fever All-Star Tamika Catchings and scoring eight points and handing out four assists on the offensive end. Lassiter played 21 minutes in the Storm’s next game, trying to cool off Minnesota’s Katie Smith, who finished the game with 32 points. Still, Donovan was pleased with Lassiter’s effort. “I think the more she plays, the more confidence she gets,” Donovan said after the game. “There were a couple of times when she got beat but she hustled herself back into making the play. She’s long , she takes pride in her defense.”

From then until Barnes’ injury, Lassiter’s minutes – like those of most bench players – fluctuated depending upon matchups and how she was playing. Lassiter had six points, six rebounds and three blocks in the rematch with the Fever, playing 28 minutes – her highest total as a reserve. She followed that up with 12 points and a pair of three-pointers in a critical road win against Charlotte.

Still, playing even heavy minutes as a reserve can’t compare to starting. “Starting, there’s a lot more pressure than coming off the bench,” Lassiter, says, comparing the two roles. “Obviously, you have to be ready when your number is called coming off the bench. Starting, you have to be ready to go coming into the building. You don’t have time to relax, because we have to get off to a good start.” Either role is acceptable to her, Lassiter says. “If (Donovan) needs me to come off the bench, that’s what I do. I don’t have a problem with starting, coming off the bench, whatever.”

The Storm’s previous starting five of Sue Bird, Brondello, Barnes, Lauren Jackson and Kamila Vodichkova had started 14 of the Storm’s 16 games and had developed into a close-knit unit on and off the court, which might have posed problems for a change. That wasn’t the case. “My teammates, they were so supportive and there for me, helping me out, improving the chemistry of the starting five, it’s been great,” Lassiter says. The fact that the Storm’s chemistry extends beyond the starting lineup to the entire team made it easier for Lassiter to replace Barnes.

It’s been a seamless transition to the starting lineup for Lassiter.
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On the court, the biggest challenge for Lassiter has been fatigue. While she and Barnes were able to tag-team the WNBA’s high-scoring wing players before, Lassiter has the primary responsibility for being the defensive stopper now. In nine starts, she’s averaged 31.6 minutes per game, playing 39 against Minnesota on July 20 and 37 against New York on the 23rd. “It’s a lot more tiring,” Lassiter says. “I don’t have Adia to count on, and Adia doesn’t have me to count on.”

Despite the fatigue, Lassiter has clearly done her job on the defensive end. In her nine starts, the Storm has allowed its opponents to score just 64.9 points per game and shoot 40.1% from the field, both marks below the team’s season averages. The points allowed would rank the Storm third in the WNBA over a full season, the opponent field goal percentage fourth.

The numbers bear out Lassiter’s performance on an individual level as well. The primary players she has defended in each game have shot a combined 38.6% from the field. Five of those players – Katie Smith (twice), Swin Cash, Sheryl Swoopes, Nykesha Sales and Crystal Robinson – are ranked in the league’s top 30 in scoring, and Lassiter has really gotten after them defensively. Together, these players have averaged 13.5 points per game against the Storm, as compared to a season average of 15.8 points per game. These top scorers have shot just 32.5% combined against Lassiter.

The effort hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Storm. In her first start of the season, Lassiter held former teammate Swoopes, last season’s MVP, to seven of 22 shooting. “I thought she did a super job on Sheryl Swoopes. She knew how important that was going to be. She knew she was really going to have to make her work, which she did. (Swoopes) got nothing easy tonight,” Donovan said afterwards. “Amanda's really stepped up for us, and she's playing great defense at the moment,” Jackson commented after Lassiter’s first matchup with Smith and Bird echoed her comments after the second game, saying, “Amanda did a great job making it hard for Katie to get good looks. She got her shots, but they certainly weren't easy.”

Since moving into the starting lineup, Lassiter has provided the Storm more than just defense. She has averaged 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds in the span, including a huge game against New York. In that Storm victory, Lassiter scored a career-high 16 points and made all four of her three-point attempts.

That and her halfcourt heroics prove that Lassiter can shoot when she needs to – “I do concentrate on knocking down the open shots,” she says – but as long as she’s bringing it defensively every night against the opponent’s best perimeter player, the Storm will be more than covered in Barnes’ absence.