Vodopyanova’s Impact is Measurable

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Kevin Pelton, storm.wnba.com | July 26, 2005
With 11:23 remaining in the first half of July 15's matchup with the San Antonio Silver Stars, Seattle Storm forward Natalia Vodopyanova replaced Iziane Castro Marques at small forward. And, that quickly, the Storm's season turned around.

Entering the game against San Antonio, the Storm had lost six of its last seven games and was two games below .500, the team's worst record since July 2002. A week and a half later, the Storm is riding a four-game winning streak and has moved within a game of second place in the Western Conference.

"She's a high energy player; at times we struggle with our intensity, and she always brings that."
Jeff Reinking/NBAE/Getty
What is the difference between the Storm team that slumped so badly before and just after the All-Star break and the one that has dominated the last four games? The Storm's 3-pointers have started to fall - shooting 31.0% from downtown going into that game, Seattle is now at 34.8%, having hit 33 triples in 71 attempts (46.5%) during the streak. Partially because of that, the Storm has gotten back its championship swagger, with players looking like they're enjoying the game again instead of pressing to end a slump.

The most obvious difference for the Storm, however, is Vodopyanova. After playing one minute at the end of the first half in the Storm's July 13 loss to the Washington Mystics, Vodopyanova had played but eight minutes all season in what looked like a redshirt campaign for the Russian rookie. Starting against the Silver Stars, Vodopyanova has entered the rotation as Castro Marques' backup at small forward.

"It just felt like we had to do something," said Storm Coach Anne Donovan in explaining the move. "Vodo's been working hard here and done some good things. She's a high energy player; at times we struggle with our intensity, and she always brings that. We've given her enough time to really get comfortable here and get her confidence up, and it seemed like the right time to make a change."

During the winning streak, Vodopyanova's statistics - 4.5 points, 1.8 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game - are modest enough that it would be easy to write off her impact. It would also be a mistake. The clearest measure of Vodopyanova's role in the streak is this: With her on the court over the last four games, the Storm has had a plus-minus of +42, meaning the Storm has outscored opponents by 42 points in Vodopyanova's 51 minutes played. With Vodopyanova on the bench, the Storm and its opponents have been dead even, scoring 213 points apiece.

A defining characteristic of the Storm's 2004 success was the numerous runs the team went on. Those runs have returned recently, with a defining run in each of the Storm's four wins - 15-4 in the second half against both San Antonio and Los Angeles, 26-2 versus New York and a 16-6 spurt early in the Detroit game. The run against the Silver Stars was the only one Vodopyanova was not on the court to help start, and she checked into the game after the Storm scored the first two points of even that run.

When seeking to explain Vodopyanova's success, an unusual name has been brought up by Storm play-by-play broadcaster David Locke, amongst others: Departed former Storm guard Tully Bevilaqua. If the comparison between a 5-6 point guard and a 6-3 small forward doesn't make sense on paper, it does watching them on the court. As Bevilaqua was during her two seasons in Seattle, Vodopyanova is a bundle of energy on the court, always in motion.

"The kid has just got so much energy and she's long and she's always scrapping, so she's going to come up with a steal here or an assist there," said Donovan.

Like Vodopyanova, Bevilaqua's impact on the Storm was also made clear by the use of plus-minus ratings. When storm.wnba.com had these ratings compiled for the 2003 season, it was Bevilaqua - not stars Sue Bird or Lauren Jackson - who had the best per-minute rating on the team.

"She's always scrapping, so she's going to come up with a steal here or an assist there."
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty
Defensively, Vodopyanova's 6-3 size gives the Storm a different look as compared to 6-0 Castro Marques or 6-1 Alicia Thompson, whom she replaced in the rotation. However, on a per-40 minute basis, the Storm has actually allowed slightly more points (59.6 versus 57.1) with Vodopyanova on the court over the last four games. The improvement has all come at the offensive end, where the Storm's points per 40 minutes has skyrocketed from 57.1 to 92.5 with Vodopyanova in the game. By comparison, the highest team average for points per game in WNBA history is 77.3 by the 2000 Houston Comets.

In part, this is probably because teams have yet to scout Vodopyanova, who has still logged only 59 WNBA minutes in her career.

"I don't think teams have quite figured out what she's all about yet," said Donovan. "She's capable of shooting the 3, but she's more deadly off the dribble. She just adds a different mix for us, and I like what she's contributing."

Vodopyanova has a reputation as a sharpshooter, but so far she's been effective inside the line, scoring 18 points on 7-for-13 shooting over the last four games while attempting only two 3-pointers.

The Storm's offense has also benefited from getting out in transition, recording a season-high 21 fast-break points against the Liberty. While Vodopyanova herself has only two steals, the Storm has averaged 7.5 steals during the winning streak as compared to 6.1 for the season entering the San Antonio game. By getting more steals, the Storm has addressed one of its biggest weaknesses in the first half of the season.

Vodopyanova, who knows little English, can't really explain what she's doing on the court to fans and the media. That's okay, because in this case, the stats speak for themselves, and they say Vodopyanova's impact has been key to the Storm's winning streak.