Shekinna Stricklen was impressive in her first preseason WNBA game on Sunday, leading the Storm with 15 points. (Neil Enns/Storm Photos)
The Next Generation: Former SEC Rivals
Dunlap and Stricklen Now on Same Team
In 2010-11, Seattle Storm forwards Victoria Dunlap and Shekinna Stricklen shared SEC Player of the Year honors. The media favored Dunlap, who posted 17.0 points, 8.8 rebound and 3.3 steals per game in her senior season, while junior Stricklen, who averaged 12.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.0 assists, was tabbed by coaches. Stricklen's Tennessee squad topped Dunlap and Kentucky both times they met to head, including the SEC Championship Game. All that competition made friendship difficult.
"I really wasn't her fan then," admitted Stricklen. "Kentucky and Tennessee always had a little rivalry. When we played each other, I don't think either one of us really liked each other. We really personally didn't know each other, but (because of) competing and the schools we were at, the rivalry."
Since then, the situation has changed dramatically. When the Storm acquired Dunlap in a trade with the Washington Mystics in February, then drafted Stricklen with the No. 2 overall pick of this year's WNBA Draft, the SEC rivals joined the same team and became familiar faces in a new city.
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
Victoria Dunlap has put her athleticism and intelligence to good use during the preseason.
"Now we're teammates," said Stricklen. "We're friends. We get along. She even cooked dinner last night."
What lingers from their college days is a mutual respect for each other's games.
"We played each other for three years," explained Dunlap. "She's a year younger than me. We know each other very well player-wise and obviously played each other a lot because we were in the same conference. I think she's a great player."
"Very strong and physical," recalled Dunlap of playing Stricklen. "She was very good inside. She held her ground. She was the main focal point every time we did scouting. She was very tough and it was a great challenge battling her inside."
Over the last three weeks of training camp and the preseason, Storm teammates and the coaching staff have gotten to know what Dunlap and Stricklen can contribute. Both players can be described as versatile, though in slightly different ways.
Stricklen's combination of size (6-2) and skills allows her to play both wing positions, and possibly even fill in at point guard and power forward after starting for Tennessee at both positions. An undersized post in college, 6-1 Dunlap has been asked to play more on the perimeter at small forward in the WNBA, though her quickness and leaping ability allow her to compensate for her lack of height when she does play down low.
The Storm knew it was getting a talented player in Stricklen, the team's highest draft pick since taking Lauren Jackson and Sue Bird with the No. 1 overall selections in 2001 and 2002. Still, her ability to fit in quickly has opened some eyes.
"She just goes out there and plays, especially on offense," observed Bird. "I would love to be a six-whatever guard, because she can just do so many things. The first day of practice, she knocked down five threes in a row. I think that will be the best thing for her is to not think too much, not to get worried about trying to run the play or make the right play - just play. I think when people get caught up in thinking too much, that's when you can run into a problem. She just plays, which is helpful for us."
Everybody explains Stricklen's ability slightly differently. Head Coach Brian Agler has praised her instincts. Tanisha Wright called her "gifted offensively." Storm fans got their first look at those skills during Sunday's preseason win over the Los Angeles Sparks, when Stricklen scored a game-high 15 points, knocked down three three-pointers and grabbed four rebounds.
Dunlap will make a bigger impact at the defensive end of the floor. Her instincts for playing the passing lanes and quick hands, as well as her ability to defend a variety of positions, made her the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. When Agler is asked how Dunlap fits the Storm's defensive system, he doesn't hesitate at all with his answer: "perfectly."
"She can defend on the ball," he expanded. "She has a history of playing post defense so she can switch onto post player. She rebounds well. And she's smart. She understands communication and rotations. She fits in very well that way."
During the preseason, Dunlap might just have been the Storm's most consistent contributor. She started at Tulsa and finished with a team-best 13 points along with five rebounds. On Sunday, Dunlap came up with five steals to go along with six points and three rebounds. She shot 57.1 percent in the two games, tied for best on the Storm.
"She's very active," said Tina Thompson. "She's kind of all over the place. She's so athletic she can get in positions most people can't. We have to tell her, 'That's not your area' because she can get from one spot to another so quickly. It's kind of one of those genetic things. You can't teach some of the things that she does. She's had a great camp."
As the Storm prepares to host the Sparks on Opening Night Friday (7:00 p.m., KONG 6/16, 1090 AM, ), both Stricklen and Dunlap figure to get playing time. While Agler doesn't want to emphasize the starting lineup because of the number of contributors the Storm has, he said Stricklen is in the mix to potentially open the game. One way or another, she'll see action. Agler also envisions Dunlap getting a chance to be part of the rotation early in the season.
Besides the energy and skill they bring to the Storm now, Dunlap and Stricklen are also important as the team plans for the future. Tanisha Wright was the last Storm draft pick to complete her rookie contract in Seattle, and the team hasn't had a major young contributor since Camille Little emerged as a veteran. As they develop, Dunlap and Stricklen have a chance to grow into larger roles. Getting production from players on their rookie contracts is also valuable as the Storm juggles the salary cap.
At age 22 and 21, respectively, Dunlap and Stricklen are part of a new generation of players entering the WNBA. They were just kids when the league started, and the existence of the WNBA allowed Stricklen to dream of playing in the league from age nine. Both young players are taking advantage of the opportunity to soak in wisdom from veteran teammates like Thompson and Katie Smith.
"I'm really playing with Sue Bird and Tina Thompson, Katie - people you've been watching, really looking up to."
"They've been here since the beginning of the league, so I think that's a great honor for them to still be playing and to be able to have a chance to play with them," said Dunlap. "You can't get much better than that. I learn from them every day, every practice. They're always trying to tell me something to make me better. I'm listening every time they're talking."
"Every day," added Stricklen, "I'm like, 'Wow. I'm truly blessed to be playing with them.' I'm really playing with Sue Bird and Tina Thompson, Katie - people you've been watching, really looking up to. They've been great role models. It's been great. "
Playing with veteran stars helps remind the Storm's youngsters that they're not in college anymore. They still retain a special SEC bond.
"We're a great kind of combo there," said Dunlap. "Rival schools coming together and being on the same team."Comments blog comments powered by Disqus