Willingham Adds Quality Depth for Storm
Kevin Pelton, stormbasketball.com | February 9, 2010
The Seattle Storm took a major step toward achieving its offseason goal of improving its depth on Tuesday, signing forward Le'coe Willingham away from the Phoenix Mercury as an unrestricted free agency. In Willingham, who started every game the Mercury played en route to last year's WNBA championship, the Storm has added another quality player to the rotation.
A reserve in Connecticut the first four seasons of her career, Willingham got the opportunity to contribute after signing in Phoenix two years ago. In a breakout 2008 campaign, she led the WNBA by shooting 57.0 percent from the field and averaged 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds per game. Even with the Mercury adding All-Star Penny Taylor and Sixth Woman Award-winner DeWanna Bonner, Willingham held on to her starting role and averaged 10.0 points and 4.2 rebounds a year ago. That performance impressed Brian Agler, the Storm's head coach and director of player personnel.
"I thought she was an excellent finisher," said Agler. "She plays extremely hard, she runs the floor. You've got to guard her 94 feet because of the way she runs in transition. She has the ability to do the little things on the floor that help you win. The other thing that impresses me about her is that she knows how to play to her strengths. She's a good rebounder, she takes a lot of pride in her defense, she's competitive, she's physical, she's got the right mentality that matches our squad."
While Willingham will likely have a chance to compete for a starting job in training camp, the Storm seems set up front with Lauren Jackson committing to re-signing as a free agent. Alongside Jackson, Camille Little started all 34 games for the Storm a year ago. The possibility of playing a reserve role wasn't an issue for Willingham.
"The one thing she said to me," noted Agler, "was, 'It's not important to me that I start. It's important to me that I'm on a team that wants to win, be competitive and is playing for a championship and that I can contribute and help.' That fits us pretty well and she can definitely make us better."
Agler sees the opportunity for Willingham to play alongside Little in addition to splitting minutes with her at power forward. The versatile Little can step out to the perimeter to play small forward in addition to playing in the post. That combination would give the Storm a pair of premier finishers at forward. Willingham has made 53.3 percent of her shot attempts in her career. Only once in franchise history has a Storm player shot better than that in any season (Jackson made 53.5 percent from the field in 2006). Like Little, Willingham has also developed the ability to step outside at times. She has made 16 three-pointers in 12 Euroleague games, hitting them at a 42.1 percent clip.
That ability to add to her game has helped Willingham overcome concerns about her listed 6-0 height that led to her going undrafted when she came out of Auburn in 2004.
"She's been somebody her whole career who has overachieved and I think she will continue to get better," said Agler. "She sees herself and her game in a special way, thinking, 'I've got to get better at this. I'm going to work at it and make it happen.'"
Willingham's feel for the game also was attractive to Agler, who thinks it should help her adjustment from playing for the league's fastest-paced team in Phoenix to the more deliberate style favored by the Storm.
"It's going to be a different system for her, but I don't worry or get concerned at all about her picking things up," he said. "She's a very intelligent player," he said. "She just has good instincts for the game of basketball. She's an excellent player even though in terms of height she's not considered a real big post player. She plays strong, she plays physical. She has a sense of toughness about her."
The Mercury would have liked to keep Willingham, but the restrictions of a lower salary cap for the 2010 season made it impossible for Phoenix to bring everyone back from the championship team. For Willingham, the ring capped three trips to the WNBA Finals - the first two of them, including 2004 against the Storm, on the losing side as a reserve for the Connecticut Sun.
"It just gives us another player who's been there," said Agler of adding another former champion to the roster. "Obviously there are a lot of things that go into winning a championship - playing well, having the right people on your team, playing with an identity and then staying healthy, obviously. If you look at the teams that have won championships in the past, they've had all those qualities going for them. She helps our talent base, she's a proven winner, she's an efficient player both here and in Europe."
With Willingham in the fold, the Storm has added an important piece to its 2010 roster, but the process of improving the team's depth will continue. Beyond finalizing a new contract for Jackson, the Storm has a couple more goals to achieve through the remainder of free agency and in the April WNBA Draft.
"We need to add one more post player, preferably a younger post player," said Agler, "and we'd like to add a player who can support us at the one and two positions."