Aggressive is the Word For Bird

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Kevin Pelton, | May 15, 2006
It was one play in a fundamentally meaningless game, but it spoke volumes about Sue Bird's mentality. During the Seattle Storm's 2003 season finale against the Sacramento Monarchs, Bird darted to the basket unguarded on a fast break. A layup was inevitable - until Bird decided to stop short and pass out to teammate Tonya Massaline, who hit a jumper from the wing.

Bird is recognized as one of the WNBA's greatest scorers ever at the point guard position. During that 2003 season, she led all point guards in scoring average at 12.4 points per game. But Bird, who led the WNBA in assists with 5.9 per game a season ago, is at her core a true point guard, and no score can ever bring her as much joy as an assist.

"All the great point guards, their first tendency is to pass first and shoot second. We need Sue to get 50-50 on that."
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty
"I enjoy setting people up," says Bird. "I enjoy when I can help others become better players. That's the part of the game I have the most fun doing. But scoring is fun too. Hopefully I can do a little more of that."

That's precisely what Storm Coach Anne Donovan is asking Bird to do this season. Bird's scoring average dropped to a career-low 12.1 points per game in 2005, and Donovan would like to see it rebound somewhat this season.

"She's such the unselfish, consummate point guard, where she's trying to set everybody else up," says Donovan. "All the great point guards, probably, their first tendency is to pass first and shoot second. We need Sue to get 50-50 on that."

Bird was closest to that 50-50 split during her rookie season, when she averaged 14.4 points and 6.0 assists per game. Bird set what was then the Storm franchise record by scoring 33 points in the Storm's must-win Aug. 9 game against the Portland Fire, the only time in her career she's hit the 30-point mark, and scored double-figures 25 times in 32 games.

Back then, Donovan was on the opposite sideline, facing Bird while coaching Charlotte on May 6. Bird scored 17 points and handed out seven assists in that game as the Storm earned a 65-59 victory at KeyArena over the defending Eastern Conference Champions.

"She just had to get it done," recalls Donovan. "I remember scouting her from afar and thinking, 'This kid, she's instant offense. She can create her own shot. She's going to have a great career in the WNBA' Then as she got more tools around her, she became more of a distributor. Which she prefers to do. Sue would rather have eight assists in the assist column than 18 points, but this team needs her to be more aggressive in filling up both columns."

Bird's scoring average dropped by two points to 12.4 ppg in her sophomore season, both because of the emergence of Lauren Jackson as a superstar and because she battled patellar chondromalacia all season long. Healthy in 2004, Bird bounced back to 12.9 ppg before dropping to 12.1 ppg last season (see chart below). The Storm's scoring average as a team has gone up each season during Bird's career, but a more dangerous Bird can continue to improve it. When opposing defenses are forced to respect the threat of Bird scoring, that forces them to rotate to her, leaving teammates open for easy baskets.

Bird's Offense
FGA40 - field-goal attempts per 40 minutes
"It's a matter of looking for it more," says Bird. "I averaged I don't know how many shots last year - let's say seven. Now I'm not going to start averaging 20. It's not that big of a deal. Maybe average 10, and hopefully that will open things up for myself and my teammates. I've learned this the hard way a bunch of times, but things do start with me. Things do start with the point guard."

"I think that she can pick everybody up like that," Jackson says. "She just has to do one of those amazing passes or shoot one of those amazing shots or just pick up the tempo and we feel good. That's the thing with Sue, is she can just pick it up like that."

In three preseason games, Bird averaged 10.3 points per game despite playing fewer minutes than usual. But her performance was more about hot shooting (57.1% from the field, 62.5% from 3-point range) than it was a more aggressive outlook.

Bird admits she didn't focus on being more aggressive, "Probably not as much as I could have ... probably not at all. That is probably going to be something I'm going to work my way up to. It can't just happen overnight, but it's definitely something I'm looking to do. Hopefully with the regular season now a couple of days away, I can get into that mindset."

Donovan would ideally like to see Bird taking about 12 to 14 shots a game this season as opposed to the 9.8 she averaged last season. That task will be aided by the introduction of the 24-second shot clock in the WNBA this season, which should mean more shots to go around for everyone. Bird has been receptive to that goal, and Donovan sees the product of her discussions with Bird as the first step in the process.

Storm guard Sue Bird and forward Lauren Jackson are nominated for the WNBA's All-Decade Team. Click here to vote!
"She knows that's what the expectation is, she knows that it will help us," says Donovan. "Her being aware of it, conscious of it and being willing is half the battle. The other half of the battle is now her getting comfortable with it. We're seeing glimpses of it. Can we see more of it? Absolutely. She's kind of excited about a different role for herself. She took nine shots in the Minnesota game, and we'd like to get that up. She's aware of that. When she gives up a shot, she's much more cognizant of that now than she used to be."

"Generally speaking - (Anne) said eight, I said seven - times out of ten, I'm passing the ball when I'm driving or creating," adds Bird. "The ratio has to change a little bit. I definitely pass up open shots. When I'm open, shoot it. That seems simple."

Donovan and the Storm are hoping it is.