Ann Wauters will bring size and skill to the Storm's frontcourt. (Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images)

The No. 1 Picks: Bird and Wauters Team Up

Kevin Pelton, | May 15, 2012

The Seattle Storm's biggest acquisition of the offseason has its roots in rejection. Storm point guard Sue Bird has been trying to get Ann Wauters on her team for some five years now, dating back to when the two players were Russian rivals and both playing for teams based near Moscow during the winter. When Wauters decided to return to the WNBA, however, it was with a different star point guard - Becky Hammon, Wauters' teammate with VBM-SGAU.

"There was a time before I went to San Antonio," said Wauters, "that I remember Sue and Becky, the point guards, they were talking to me. I told Sue, 'She's my teammate here. I can't not be loyal to her.'"

Bird, who has occasionally tried to do some recruiting for the Storm with free agents, knew she'd been bested.

"I thought Seattle was the perfect place, but Becky and her played on the same team," she said. "I only got to see Ann every now and then. Becky was plugging her ear every day. Clearly she had the advantage on me."

Lauren Jackson and Ann Wauters at a Ros Casares Valencia practice.
Via @Brian_Agler

Lauren Jackson helped encourage Ann Wauters to come to Seattle when the two played together for Ros Casares Valencia this season.

Yet the seeds Bird planted so many years ago lingered with Wauters. She liked the city of Seattle, the organization, the fan support the Storm enjoys and wanted the opportunity to play for a championship after reaching the WNBA Finals in 2008 with the Silver Stars and losing.

Plus Wauters had another Storm star, Lauren Jackson, talking up Seattle while the two players helped lead Ros Casares Valencia to the EuroLeague title. So, after a visit to Spain by Storm Head Coach Brian Agler and President & CEO Karen Bryant, Wauters signed on in early February.

Bird, Jackson and Wauters share a unique tie. They were all chosen No. 1 overall in the WNBA Draft in consecutive years - Wauters in 2000 by the Cleveland Rockers, Jackson in 2001 and Bird in 2002 by the Storm. (The Storm has a fourth No. 1 pick, Tina Thompson, from 1997.) Like Jackson, Wauters was just 19 when she came to the league as a promising international talent. So though she began her career two years before Bird, the two players were born just four days apart - Wauters on Oct. 12, 1980, Bird on Oct. 16; Jackson is seven months younger.

Wauters' WNBA career has gone different than her fellow No. 1 picks. The WNBA was naturally a priority for Bird, who gets the chance to play in front of friends and family in her home country. Jackson, homesick at first, found what she now considers a second home in Seattle and has never missed an extended period before sitting out the first half of this season to train with the Australian Opals National Team for the London Olympics.

By contrast, Wauters has had a more difficult time balancing the WNBA with playing professionally in Europe and occasionally representing Belgium in international competition. She's also been unable to settle with any one team after the Rockers folded in 2003, spending two years with the New York Liberty and two more in San Antonio before joining the Storm. Wauters took last summer off to give birth to her son, Vince. Add it up and she has played in seven of the 12 seasons since she was drafted.

"To be honest, it's not that easy playing all year round," said Wauters. "Sometimes it's hard on us. We never get some time off our have a true preseason. On the other hand, the WNBA still is the most competitive league in the world. That's probably the thing that I like about it the most.

"All teams are competitive. On any day, any team could beat another team. That's really exciting for us, first, as players, for coaching staffs to always be prepared, but for fans, for media, for everybody. I think that's the biggest difference from Europe."

The level of fan support is also a major draw for Wauters. Having played in KeyArena as an opponent in the past, and seen the energy in the building for Sunday's preseason game, she's looking forward to seeing Storm fans in full effect for Friday's Opening Night against the Los Angeles Sparks (). After stepping away from basketball to start her family, Wauters has resolved to take notice of the entire game experience.

"You get so focused on the game - you want to win," she explained, "but there are so many people around that are into these games. I want to appreciate that even more now."

The time Wauters has spent away from the WNBA has made it easy for American fans to underestimate her talent. Wauters is a major star in Europe, where she has scored more points than any other player in the modern incarnation of the EuroLeague and ranks second in rebounds. Those who play against her overseas, like Bird, know how good Wauters is.

"She can do some pretty incredible things and she can be a focal point of the team this year, with or without Lauren."
- Bird

"Ann carried a team in San Antonio to the Finals just a couple of years ago," said Bird. "She can do some pretty incredible things and she can be a focal point of the team this year, with or without Lauren. Obviously, with both of them, we'll be even better. She's a player that can really make some serious, serious changes on a team - can really make a team better. Hopefully she'll be able to do that with the Storm as well."

When she has played in the WNBA, Wauters has made an impact. An All-Star in 2005 with the Liberty, Wauters surely would have been selected had the league played an All-Star Game in 2008 (there was none because of the Olympics). In her first season with the Silver Stars, Wauters averaged 15.6 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. She followed that up with 12.9 points and 5.6 rebounds in 2009, her most recent WNBA campaign.

Wauters gives the Storm one of the league's most skilled post players. She's got soft touch around the basket, and her career 53.8 percent shooting ranks fourth in WNBA history. Yet Wauters can also step away from the basket, which makes for interesting options when she eventually pairs with Jackson in a versatile frontcourt that figures to excel at the high-low game.

"When you look at both players, you can easily describe them both as inside-outside players - post players who can take the ball outside and also do things down low," Bird said. "I'd say Lauren's a bit more of an outside-inside player, whereas Ann's inside-outside. Lauren, she looks to shoot the ball from the outside. She looks to step out of the ball, where Ann I think starts down low, and then when the opportunity presents, steps outside. They can do different things."

There will be an adjustment period for Wauters, who practiced with the Storm for the first time Tuesday. On Monday, she walked through plays with Agler, finding much of his system familiar after playing most of her WNBA career for Dan Hughes. Agler assisted Hughes in San Antonio prior to Wauters playing there and the two coaches are good friends. Arriving just before the start of the season is nothing new for Wauters, who says she's a fast learner.

"I'm sure with Sue as a really smart point guard," said Wauters, "she'll help me through it."

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