Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE/Getty Images
Storm Deep in the Post
Six Players Capable of Contributing
This time a year ago, Seattle Storm center Janell Burse was enjoying some well-deserved time off. Fatigued mentally and physically from the grind of playing year-round between the WNBA and Europe, Burse decided to take the 2008 season off to rest and get healthy. It wasn't long, however, before she began to miss the experience of playing for the Storm. Because the Storm had to place Burse on the suspended list for salary-cap purposes, she was barred from considering a comeback.
At the same time, while the Storm was able to fill Burse's spot in the lineup with a WNBA legend, long-time Sacramento Monarchs center Yolanda Griffith, the team really missed Burse when injuries took their toll late in the season. The loss of two-time MVP forward Lauren Jackson to ankle surgery left the Storm with a three-post rotation of Griffith, Camille Little and Ashley Robinson supplemented by tweener forward Shyra Ely and journeywoman Kelly Santos.
Entering the offseason, improving the Storm's post depth was a key goal for Head Coach and Director of Player Personnel Brian Agler. To that end, Agler brought back center Suzy Batkovic-Brown, Jackson's teammate on the Australian National Team who gave the Storm valuable minutes off the bench in 2005, the lone season she has opted to play in the WNBA. The Storm also drafted California forward Ashley Walker, who like Little is versatile enough to swing out to the small forward position at times but has shown the ability to successfully compete in the paint despite being undersized at 6-1.
"She's definitely been missed last year," elaborates Jackson. "It's great to have her back out there. She's so long and defensively helps so much - and offensively. It's great to be playing with her again.
"With JB, you just miss her height and her size. Offensively, she's improved a lot. She's able to shoot a bit further out now and she's making her shots. Defensively, she's just a presence. She's big, a strong body. It's always good to play with people that are talented, and she's very talented."
"Playing with somebody you've played with so long, there's a certain level of comfort that goes with that," adds Burse. "Being comfortable, you can play better. Just being able to go talk to her on the court, know what she wants from me, when she wants the ball ... it's great."
During four seasons together, three of them with Burse starting next to Jackson in the frontcourt, the two players developed a rapport in the locker room and also on the court. Burse's improved range has only enhanced their ability to complement each other, taking turns feeding each other down low from the high post.
"LJ, she works really hard to get the ball," explains Burse. "When she posts up and I'm in the high post, I'm immediately looking in. She's obviously the best player in the world, so if she pins and seals somebody, I'm going to get her the ball."
While Burse and Jackson are the likely starting combination, a variety of different posts will see action together over the course of the season. That could begin in Saturday's opener; Agler plans to start Little alongside Jackson because Burse is coming back from a shoulder subluxation suffered earlier this week in practice. Agler says he feels comfortable playing Jackson with any of the other post players on the roster, giving the Storm a variety of different looks from which to choose.
Little is certainly comfortable as a starter. That's the role she filled for the final 13 games of the 2008 season and in the playoffs, stepping in when Jackson first left to train with her national team and then was sidelined by post-Olympic surgery. Little took full advantage of the opportunity, averaging 12.2 points and 5.6 rebounds per game in her Storm starts while shooting well over 50 percent from the field. Because Little joined the Storm in a midseason trade shortly before Jackson departed, they are getting a chance to play extended minutes together for the first time this season.
Another pairing that has quickly taken shape has been Little and Walker, the Storm's first-round pick. The two played extensively alongside each other at forward during the preseason, giving Agler interchangeable pieces at the two forward spots. Little is comfortable defending on the perimeter, a role she filled at times during her rookie season in San Antonio, while Walker has proven adept at scoring from the perimeter during a preseason that has seen her force her way into the rotation by averaging 11.0 points and leading the team in both rebounding (8.5 rpg) and steals (2.5 spg).
"It worked really well," Little said of the pairing after the Storm opened the preseason by beating Sacramento. "I think it helps everybody. If we're both very versatile like that, we can switch places and it's easy on our defense. I think it will be a great thing once we get it under our belt and we're really comfortable with it. "
The Storm has also gotten a strong preseason effort from Robinson, who has been aggressive shooting the ball in the wake of an offseason stint in Turkey that saw her put up big offensive numbers. Robinson has scored 10 points in two preseason games, more than a third of her 2008 season total, and shot an even 50 percent from the field.
Agler's options in the post will only increase next week when the Storm adds Batkovic-Brown, currently honeymooning after her wedding last weekend, to the mix. The Storm's second-round pick in 2003, Batkovic-Brown averaged 6.9 points and 3.2 rebounds in 2005 while playing regular minutes behind Burse. Since then, Batkovic-Brown, the starting center for the Australian National Team, has opted to take time off after the European season instead of playing 12 months a year. Now, Batkovic-Brown is back, and her play in last year's Olympics (when she averaged 11.8 points and a team-high 7.8 rebounds) suggests she has improved.
That's six post players for the Storm, all of whom appear more than capable of playing rotation minutes. Never in franchise history has the team had so much depth up front.
"I like our experience," says Agler. "The only non-experienced player is Ashley Walker, and in the two exhibition games we've had, she's played pretty well, so I think she can contribute."
Now, it's a matter of translating all that talent into success on the court.
"Potential is a wonderful thing, it's a very exciting thing," adds Jackson. "I think we have the potential to be one of the best post groups in the league, but we haven't shown that yet, and until we do it's hard to say if we are or not."