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Johnson's Addition Completes Storm Backcourt

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Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | June 3, 2009
As he built the Seattle Storm's roster for the 2009 season, Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel Brian Agler had three main goals, and two of them were related to re-signing the team's own free agents, guard Tanisha Wright and two-time MVP forward Lauren Jackson. The lone emphasis as far as additions was adding another guard to complement the Storm's existing backcourt of Wright and All-Star Sue Bird.

"I felt like we needed more depth at the guard spot," explains Agler. "We just watched the end of our last Sacramento game down there a year ago. We put ourselves in position to win, but it was like we hit the brick wall right at the end. It was fatigue. It was basically because we didn't have enough depth at guard - Sue and Tanisha had to play so many minutes. You know how the season becomes a grind; people get worn down. We thought that was a priority."

"She's very vocal - very vocal. She's been in big games. She knows how to win."
Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
To fill that role, Agler turned to a familiar face: Shannon Johnson, his point guard for two championship seasons with the ABL's Columbus Quest and someone who refers to Agler as a father figure. Adding Johnson gives the Storm a veteran backup for Bird, but also much more because of the ability to play the two together at times and even a versatile three-guard lineup featuring Bird, Johnson and Wright. It also means Wright, who moved primarily to shooting guard last season after spending much of her Storm career playing out of position behind Bird, will have the opportunity to settle in at the two.

"I think she's going to play real well for us this year," Agler says with assurance, "whether it's a role that she plays supplemental coming in behind Sue and Tanisha or there will be times where she's on the floor with them. She's experienced. She's been in both situations. She knows how to be competitive and be prepared."

Already during training camp and preseason, the Storm has used its three guards in a variety of different combinations. In all likelihood, Bird and Wright - who started together in the backcourt 13 times last season, as well as in the playoffs - will emerge as the starting duo. But Bird and Johnson will play together extensively, and Johnson and Wright will team up when Bird is resting on the bench. And all three could start the Storm's season opener, depending upon the availability of forward Swin Cash. The three-guard lineup got the start in last Saturday's preseason finale at Phoenix.

Wright, happy not to have to play point guard on a regular basis this season, calls the three-guard lineup "fun." Bird likes the options it gives the Storm against defensive pressure.

"I know it's not the tallest backcourt, but I think we're all very smart players," she says. "We all can handle the ball, all can make plays off the dribble. That's valuable - especially as we're starting the season in Sacramento.

"Sacramento's a team that likes to pick up the ball full court, pressure the point guard, get the ball out of her hands. Their whole philosophy is hopefully you're passing to a post player or maybe a guard who doesn't like to dribble. That's not going to be the case when we have three point guards on the floor. Especially against Sacramento that will be extremely valuable."

In Bird and Johnson, the Storm boasts two of the best point guards in the WNBA's history. They enter the season ranked second (Johnson, 1,372) and fifth (Bird, 1,246) in career assists, and Sacramento's Ticha Penicheiro is the only active player ahead of the Storm's duo. Bird and Johnson have been teammates before on the 2004 U.S. Olympic Team, when Johnson backed up starter Dawn Staley and a young Bird soaked up experience to prepare for her coming chance to run the U.S. attack, which came last summer in Beijing and resulted in a gold medal.

Though Johnson is the veteran, her admiration for Bird is so strong that she talks about learning from her, especially as she picks up the Storm's offense.

"I always respected her because we always played hard against each other," Johnson says. "I know there are things that I can learn from her. The things she taught me through practice, it's helped, because she already knows this offense and tidbits that can help me. It's a learning process going to a new team, and playing behind a point guard of her caliber helps my game."

"I think when you have two point guards who are both smart and can make plays with their passing as well as their shooting, that's a good mix," says Bird of the pairing. "We're still getting to learn each other a little bit more, but so far, so good."

Stay tuned all week as stormbasketball.com previews the 2009 Storm:

Tuesday: Cash Enters 2009 Feeling Better After Back Surgery
Thursday: Storm Deep in Frontcourt
Friday: Storm Looks to Put Pieces Together

Then get your tickets now for the Storm's 2009 Opening Night Sunday against Sacramento.

In addition to her playing ability, the 34-year-old Johnson brings extensive experience to the Storm. One of four inaugural ABL players who remains active in the WNBA, Johnson has seen it all in a professional career that spans 12 years and five teams. That gives her a leadership presence to replace what the Storm lost with the departures of veterans Yolanda Griffith and Sheryl Swoopes, whether in matters as simple as leading the "Go Storm" chant at the end of practice or as important as encouraging her teammates and explaining to them the finer points of the game.

"From what I've seen, she talks, she calms people down," says Wright. "She sees the floor well. The things that she sees on the floor, she likes to express that to you just to make your life easier, to make better decisions. She's a veteran, she knows the game, she knows what she's doing and she's able to help the rest of us out with that information."

Johnson's desire to make her voice heard fits nicely with Bird's quieter demeanor.

"She's a leader by her actions - she's always been like that," notes Johnson. "I've always been a vocal leader, so I think we will complement each other this year."

"She's very vocal - very vocal," adds Bird. "She's been in big games. She knows how to win. She knows in practice when certain things need to be said to get the team to wake up - both in practice and in games. She brings that to the table for sure."

There is but one thing missing from Johnson's career. While she won the two titles with the Quest in the ABL and is an Olympic gold medalist, she has yet to taste a WNBA championship. Johnson came close in 2007, when she played a key role off the bench as the Detroit Shock came within one win of defeating the Phoenix Mercury in the WNBA Finals. When she became a free agent last winter after the Houston Comets folded, Johnson knew she wanted the chance to play for a title.

"That was the main thing," she says. Thinking about coming to Seattle, I knew they had an opportunity because of the team they had already established over the years. It was very important that I come to a team that wasn't rebuilding. That was the main reason why it was easy to make the decision to come to Seattle."

The Storm feels confident that it has the right pieces to contend, and the addition of Johnson to strengthen the backcourt is a big reason why.