Willingham's Change of Pace
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | May 13, 2010
Every newcomer in Seattle Storm training camp is facing an adjustment of some sorts to Head Coach Brian Agler's systems, learning where they need to be defensively and the names of plays. When it comes to basketball philosophy, though, it's difficult to imagine a larger change than Le'coe Willingham is experiencing.
Willingham spent the last two years in Phoenix, where the Mercury has continually set scoring records under first Paul Westhead and now Corey Gaines, combining the league's fastest pace with a dangerous set of offensive weapons. Agler thinks defense first, and because of the emphasis on transition defense and execution in the half court, the Storm has ranked last in the league in possessions per game both seasons under Agler. Both systems have been successful - the two teams finished first and second in the Western Conference last year - but in contrasting manners.
During her first week of practice since joining the team in Tulsa last weekend, Willingham has seen that difference, which extends to the different teaching styles employed by Gaines and Agler.
"Phoenix is definitely just up-tempo," she said after Thursday's practice. "Here, it's a little more instructive. In Phoenix, it's more 'This is what we're doing - bam, bam, bam. Get it done.' More freestyle. Here, it's a little more controlled. We run when the opportunity presents itself, but we like to slow it down and execute on the offensive end. There's a lot more emphasis on the defensive end here. He tells you what he wants and he expects you to follow through on it.
"You pick and choose here. You run when it's there, and when it's not there you execute your offenses and you try not to make turnovers and get the best shot available. He still expects me to run here. I'm still going to try to run out and get some easy layups."
Willingham made those kind of easy baskets, whether in transition or in half court, her specialty during two years with the Mercury. Having seen limited action off the bench during the first four seasons of her career in Connecticut, Willingham got an opportunity to play big minutes when Phoenix needed a replacement for All-Star Penny Taylor, who sat out the 2008 season. She seized the opportunity and emerged as one of the league's most accurate shooters.
In 2008, Willingham shot 57.0 percent from the field, ranking second in the league. She shot 53.3 percent a year ago, finishing fourth, and started every game in the regular season and the playoffs as the Mercury won the championship.
Because of salary-cap issues, Phoenix had no chance to re-sign Willingham when she became a free agent at season's end. She chose Seattle because she wanted to continue playing for a contender. Having faced the Storm several times as rivals in the West, Willingham had a good idea of the team's philosophy.
"Playing against them, it was two opposite teams trying to impose their style," she said. "This style is more composed and very defensive-minded, get on the boards and execution. I expected that coming in and it's not letting me down. That's exactly what we're about."
Based on that understanding and her versatile skill set, Willingham was confident she could contribute in what will likely be a role as the team's top post player off the bench.
"I didn't have a doubt if I would fit in or not," said Willingham. "I would say I'm a chameleon of sorts. I just want to get in and do what is needed of me, whether that is being a role player off the bench, or needing to come in and give offensive punch or get that extra rebound, that's me. I want to do whatever."
Storm point guard Sue Bird is excited about what Willingham can bring to the team.
"Particularly within our offense, I see her fitting in very well with what we do," Bird explained. "Her and Swin (Cash) are probably the two fastest players on the team. You don't realize it, but she's extremely fast. Within the half court, she's mobile, she can shoot, she can post up, so there are a lot of options with her.
"She's undersized, but she uses her speed, her strength and her body to her advantage and makes up for it. She's a mature, veteran player and makes plays."
With Opening Night approaching, Willingham is pleased with her progress at adjusting to a very different system.
"It's been pretty good," she said of training camp thus far. "Things are going along smoothly. I'm picking up everything pretty quickly. I'm just trying to get acclimated to everyone and how everyone plays."