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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Setting A Tone

Who sets a tone to start the season better than the Minnesota Lynx?

For the last six years, the Lynx have been undefeated in the month of May, with 23 straight wins dating back to 2012.

Behind the play of center Sylvia Fowles, who is the Western Conference Player of the Week for the second week in a row, Minnesota is doing its standard thing – setting the tone (not to mention the pace) for the entire league.

Earlier this week, veteran guard Lindsay Whalen credited Minnesota’s penchant for preparation.

“In all seriousness, it’s training camp and it’s our coach, she puts us in that mind frame every year to come out and start it out right away,” Whalen said. “Play hard, treat the first game as it’s our most important game. We just kind of feed off it from there. I think it’s training camp leading into that first two weeks. We had a lot of games in that stretch and every night we were able to come out and get the win.”

But there are other teams and players who are also setting a tone in the early weeks of the WNBA season.

Seattle Storm. The Seattle Storm thought maybe this was the year they would be able to put it together, the young talent on the floor – led by Jewell Loyd, the league’s leading scorer, and Breanna Stewart, combined with the experience of players like Sue Bird and Crystal Langhorne, combined with the cohesiveness of a team that’s been playing together for a while. Since opening the season with a loss as Bird and Stewart sat with injuries, the Storm have won four in a row to move to 4-1, including impressive wins over Eastern Conference powers New York and Washington. And now a barometer game, Saturday’s big matchup against Minnesota in Key Arena. Seattle is averaging 87.3 points during its four-game win streak.

“One of the things that’s special about this team is we have a lot of weapons and a lot of people who are willing to play as a team,” head coach Jenny Boucek said in the Seattle Times following Seattle’s dominant win over Indiana. “Different nights, it’s going to be different people depending on what the defense is doing and the matchups. That’s where your humble superstars come into place.”

Sami Whitcomb. For all that’s been great about Seattle’s start, the Storm have also had room for perhaps the league’s biggest surprise, and one of its best stories. Sami Whitcomb, a University of Washington product, is 28 years old and in her rookie season in the WNBA. The hot-shooting guard was the last player cut from the Chicago Sky as a fresh-out-of-college player back in 2010. And it’s taken her a long while to get her second chance, a journey that has included stops in Germany and Slovakia and an extended stay in Australia, in which she honed the skills to earn her spot in the WNBA. Against New York last week, Whitcomb hit 6 first-half 3-pointers and finished with 22 points in 15 minutes. Whitcomb set records in the WNBL in Australia. So what she is doing isn’t a true surprise, but certainly a pleasant one for those who didn’t know Whitcomb could come in and make this kind of impact eight years after she ended her college career.

Layshia Clarendon. The Atlanta Dream are playing this season without Angel McCoughtry, the franchise’s heart-and-soul player and one of the league’s most gifted scorers. Guard Layshia Clarendon is taking on the role of floor general. Clarendon is averaging 14.5 points a game – by far her career-high – to go with 7.6 assists per game, putting her among the league leaders. Clarendon, the Cal product who came to the Dream last season in a trade with Indiana, is settling into her leadership role quite nicely as the Dream are off to a strong 3-1 start.

Elena Delle Donne. The 2015 MVP is in a new city, facing huge expectations and settling in with new teammates and a new system with Mike Thibault. While the Mystics are finding their way at 4-2 overall, Delle Donne, the No. 3 scorer in the league in the early going, is quickly rounding into All-Star form. Delle Donne has scored at least 20 points in four of her five games so far this season, including consecutive 20-point efforts against her old team, the Chicago Sky. Delle Donne’s dominance will be even more important as forward Emma Meesseman will be out for more than a month, playing for the Belgian national team in the 2017 Eurobasket Tournament.

Allisha Gray and Kaela Davis. The South Carolina duo, still less than two months from their 2017 NCAA Championship run, are quickly becoming a pair of players to watch in the WNBA. Gray and Davis, heading into Tuesday night’s game against Indiana, were averaging a combined 24.0 points per game. They are ranked as the top two scorers in the league among rookies and also lead all WNBA rookies in minutes play thus far. Gray finished with 14 points and nine rebounds Tuesday against Indiana.

Jonquel Jones. The Connecticut Sun are struggling out of the gate, trying to get themselves on the right path into June. Nobody is trying harder than second-year post player Jonquel Jones.  Last Sunday, Jones became the 13th player in league history to put up 20 points and 20 rebounds in the same, both career highs. Jones is the team’s leading scorer and rebounder as they Sun face another season without No. 1 pick Chiney Ogwumike, who is rehabbing her injured Achilles tendon. The Sun are so close to success they can taste it, with three losses that were one-possession games in the final minute. Jones leads the WNBA with 12.2 rebounds a game – more than Fowles, Candace Parker, Tina Charles and Brittney Griner.

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith will have a weekly column on throughout the 2017 season.

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