Johnson: A Backup Plan and More
Four years ago to the day, Tully Bevilaqua left the Seattle Storm for the Indiana Fever as a free agent. Since then, the Seattle Storm has searched for a backup to All-Star point guard Sue Bird. By signing Shannon Johnson as a free agent, the Storm has added not only a player to spell Bird but much more.
"Tully added so much," Johnson said by phone from Spain, where she is playing during the offseason. "She was a big sparkplug off the bench. Hopefully I can bring that same attitude back to Seattle by being able to play some backup point."
Johnson's resume makes her vastly overqualified to be a backup. Arguably the league's top point guard during her days with the Orlando Miracle, Johnson was a four-time All-Star pick in Orlando and Connecticut who teamed with Bird to help the U.S. win gold in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Before coming to the WNBA, Johnson started her career as an ABL All-Star who led a Columbus Quest team coached by Storm Head Coach Brian Agler to both titles in the league's brief history.
Filling the seven or eight minutes a night Bird spends on the bench has proven challenging for the Storm since Bevilaqua's departure. In hindsight, the team was spoiled by having Bevilaqua behind Bird. Since leaving, Bevilaqua has started all 129 games she has played for the Fever and has twice been named to the All-Defensive First Team.
The Storm has tried a variety of players behind Bird, including Francesca Zara, Edwige Lawson-Wade and 2008 draft pick Kimberly Beck, who will be in training camp this year. Ultimately, the team has kept coming back to Tanisha Wright, a shooting guard by trade who has never been entirely comfortable playing the point and enjoyed a breakout campaign last year when given more opportunity to play alongside Bird.
When Bird was on the bench last season, the Storm was outscored by nine points per 40 minutes. With Johnson running the show, that figure should improve considerably. But Agler decided to prioritize adding another point guard with more than just those seven or eight minutes a night in mind. He's also excited about Johnson playing the point while Bird is looking for her own offense, as she did while making a run at MVP honors over the second half of the 2008 season.
"To me, the difference is when they have the ability to play together," said Agler. "I don't think there's any question people recognize Sue has the ability to score. When we have people on our team who can set her up to do that, it's going to make us tougher."
"I think it's going to be a great opportunity for me because I respect Sue as a point guard," said Johnson. "Last year she put the team on her shoulders and played really well in terms of putting the ball in the hole. Playing against her was a hard job. Now I get the opportunity to play with her, so she's going to make my job easier and hopefully I can make her job easier also.
"Having a veteran point guard come in at times and being able to play with Sue gives you a different look. Sometimes it creates matchup problems having two quarterbacks on the floor at the same time."
During the course of their careers, Bird, Johnson and Wright have all played both guard positions. Any combination of the three will give the Storm a backcourt with two players whom opponents must respect as passers and scorers. Agler can even envision playing all three in a smaller, quicker lineup that would create matchup problems for opposing defenses. Bird is a given in the starting lineup, but either Johnson (who started 32 games last year in Houston) or Wright could get the nod alongside her.
Johnson and Agler have a lengthy history together. In addition to their experience in Columbus, Agler worked with her when he served as an assistant coach when both were in San Antonio. Johnson's comfort level with Agler was a key reason why she came to the Storm as a free agent, a decision she says she made, "Mainly because of Brian."
The other factor in Johnson's thought process was coming to a veteran team that will contend for a championship. Johnson is still looking for a WNBA title to complement the two rings she won in the ABL as well as her gold medal, having lost in the WNBA Finals with the Shock in 2007.
"That's the one thing that I haven't done," she said. "I've been successful in my career as a professional, being an Olympian. I just haven't been able to win a WNBA championship. I got close once in Detroit. It's something that I've wanted for a long time, and hopefully I can join a squad that is heading in that direction and get that opportunity."
If the Storm is to reach that level again, Johnson figures to be a key reason. The combination of Bevilaqua and Bird led the team to the 2004 WNBA championship, and the Storm has been unable to match that success in the postseason since Bevilaqua's departure. The hope is that a veteran complement to Bird could once again prove the difference for the Storm.