Palmer Back to Lead Improved Storm Bench

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Kevin Pelton, | May 16, 2007
Wendy Palmer was supposed to be the difference. When the Seattle Storm signed Palmer as a free agent before last season, her veteran presence off the bench and ability to back up starting posts Janell Burse and Lauren Jackson made her a perfect fit for the Storm's needs.

"In her, I see somebody who obviously has that veteran leadership," said Storm guard Sue Bird this time a year ago. "She has a calmness about her. But I also thought she would fit great into our system, just really complement what we already had here."

"I think (her injury) was huge. We counted on her so much in the preseason and the early part of the season."
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty
For training camp and five games of the regular season, Palmer was everything the Storm had hoped for. Starting for an injured Burse, she had a double-double of 18 points and 13 rebounds in the Storm's season-opening win over Los Angeles. She averaged 9.4 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Then, suddenly, Palmer's left Achilles wouldn't cooperate. She would eventually undergo season-ending surgery, robbing the Storm of her ability on the floor and limiting her opportunity to serve as a leader off of it.

"I think it was huge," says Storm Head Coach Anne Donovan, who recruited Palmer to Seattle. "We counted on her so much in the preseason and the early part of the season."

After having her foot in some type of a cast for virtually the entire summer, Palmer is back on the court. She is not yet 100%, describing herself as feeling like she had two left feet early during training camp. In rehabbing the hardest injury of her career at an age, 32, where many of her contemporaries are entering retirement, Palmer has faced ups and downs and been frustrated at times.

Asked about "completing" her comeback by playing her first regular-season game in nearly a year Saturday against the Houston Comets (7:00 p.m., 1150 AM KKNW, ), Palmer scoffs. The comeback isn't nearly complete, but she will be on the floor.

"Physically, I feel fine," Palmer says. "I guess it's just mentally dealing with the comeback. It's definitely the hardest comeback of my life. It's frustrating, but I just keep plugging away.

"Whether it's practice or game, I embrace every second being on the court because it was such a hard year last year. It definitely was the toughest injury I've ever had. Even though I'm in the midst of frustration, I just embrace being able to get out here and being able to move around and do things and just continue to work on my game."

There have been glimpses at times of the player who was an All-WNBA Second Team pick in 1997, an All-Star in 2000 and co-Most Improved Player in 2004. In last Friday's exhibition finale against the Sacramento Monarchs, Palmer had eight points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes, though she shot just 2-for-8 from the field.

"I thought she came back in the second half in particular and really played strong," said Donovan afterwards. "I think she got a little frustrated early in the game; she missed a couple of bunnies. But then she came back and did what Wendy does best, which is rebound."

While Palmer's game might not be 100%, her leadership ability is. Palmer's veteran presence and ability to replace some of the leadership the Storm lost with the defection of several veterans after the 2004 Championship was a big reason why she was attractive to the Storm as a free agent. When Palmer was injured, it made it difficult for her to lead. She wasn't on the road with the team or out on the floor, producing a natural disconnect.

Palmer has been able to resume her leadership this season.

"What she did for us in the preseason and through the early part of last season, she's just picked that role right up again," Donovan says. "She's a natural leader, she's a born leader just by her experience and her personality and her faith and so many wonderful qualities that make Wendy Wendy."

The loss of Palmer, combined with the injuries Burse and Jackson faced all season, left the Storm thin up front. Tiffani Johnson, signed to be the team's fourth post player, ended up playing 643 minutes - the team's sixth-highest total. That took a toll. With Johnson on the floor, the Storm was outscored by six points per 40 minutes.

In addition to having Palmer back, the Storm will have Ashley Robinson - acquired from Chicago in a late-June trade when injuries began to mount - for a full season, as well as newcomer Tye'sha Fluker, selected in the Dispersal Draft.

"I like Katie's versatility to swing at any of the perimeter positions."
Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty
Robinson had a very productive off-season working in Seattle with Storm Player Development Specialist Talvin Skinner and has impressed during the preseason. Robinson had seven points, 10 rebounds and six blocks against Sacramento and averaged 8.0 rebounds per game during the preseason while shooting 54.5% from the field.

On the perimeter, the buzzword is versatility. Tanisha Wright, Katie Gearlds and Shyra Ely - who earned a spot on the roster when the Storm waived Barbara Turner in favor of Ely late Wednesday - all have the ability to play multiple positions, giving Donovan plentiful options with her rotation.

"I like Katie's versatility to swing at any of the perimeter positions," says Donovan. "It gives us some versatility there that I think will come in really handy."

The early star of training camp because of her shooting, Gearlds had two tough-shooting preseason games before breaking out with 15 points and six assists against - sensing a theme? - Sacramento. Gearlds' ability to stretch the floor fills a major need from last season. According to research compiled by Paul Swanson of the Minnesota Lynx, Storm reserves combined to hit just 20 three-pointers in 82 attempts last season (24.4%). Both the makes and the percentages were worst amongst WNBA benches. Gearlds herself might well hit 20 three-pointers this season.

Besides the new personnel, the Storm's bench may be improved thanks to the repetitions the reserves got in training camp, when four starters reported late to camp. The Storm reserves played extended minutes and go-to roles on offense during the preseason. Donovan is confident that will make for a better bench unit this season.

STORM SEASON PREVIEW is previewing the 2007 Storm season:
Monday: Storm Has All the Pieces in Place
Tuesday: Rejuvenated Jackson Ready for 2007
Wednesday: Eastern Conference Preview
Thursday: Check back for a look at Sue Bird and the Western Conference.
If there was any question how Donovan felt about the reserves she has assembled this season, she answered it when speculating about how she would build a rotation with Jackson now that the Storm star's minutes are no longer limited. Donovan considered the possibility, previously anathema, of having both Bird and Jackson on the bench at the same time.

"In the past, that's been something that has been really significant," she explained. "We always had to have one of them on the floor. This year, I'm thinking that is something I might not have to do if our bench can continue to contribute the way they have."

The bench played a key role in the Storm's run to the 2004 WNBA Championship. That was a special mix of talent and experience, with two players (Burse and Tully Bevilaqua) who have since become full-time starters. This year's group of reserves may not be at that level, but with good health the Storm should have its best bench since 2004.

"It will make a world of difference," Bird says. "It's a long season. It's short, but it's long in terms of the travel and the back-to-backs and the number of games we play a week. It definitely takes a toll on everybody. To have a deep bench, to have healthy players, is a huge plus."

"It's going to make a huge difference," says Palmer. "You have to have a bench to sustain you throughout the season. Our starters get out there, they do a great job for us, but they need help also. That's where we come in to carry them when they get tired or in foul trouble or just to lift them up. They do a great job and we really focused this training camp to be prepared to add to what they're going to bring us."