Seattle Storm peaking at the perfect time as playoffs open

ByMechelle Voepel via ESPN logo
Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The past, present and future of Seattle Storm basketball fully intersected on July 15. Three-time WNBA MVP Lauren Jackson came back from Australia for her jersey retirement ceremony. Sue Bird, who won two WNBA titles with Jackson, stole the show with her hilarious and touching tribute to her former teammate.

And the young duo charged with being the "next" Bird and LJ -- guard Jewell Loyd and forward Breanna Stewart -- smiled while watching the proceedings. But in their minds, you know the wheels had to be spinning just a little: "Might this be us someday? Will we have this kind of legacy?"

Then, of course, it was back to the everyday work of the WNBA season, and for Stewart, the Rio de Janeiro Olympics too. But the second rendition of the same storyline in Seattle -- two No. 1 picks taken in back-to-back years and becoming a dynamic duo -- is in the early stages of playing out very well for the Storm.

Seattle returns to the playoffs after a two-year absence, and as the No. 7 seed will visit No. 6 Atlanta in Wednesday's first-round single-elimination game (ESPNEWS, 8 p.m. ET).

The Storm (16-18) won seven of their 10 games after the Olympic break. Stewart (18.3 PPG) and Loyd (16.5 PPG) are Seattle's top scorers, and Stewart also leads the team in rebounds (9.3) and blocked shots (1.9). She and Loyd both average 3.4 assists.

"I think they're doing great, and it's only their first year together," Bird said. "They still have a long way to go and so much to learn about their games, and how their games can relate to each other. But for the most part, you can see a lot of it already.

"Both are extremely athletic, both very dynamic; their highlights are going to be those alley-oop plays to each other. That right there paints of picture of what they're going to bring."

We know Stewart is quite the ace in regards to one-and-done games such as the Storm will face Wednesday. She and the UConn Huskies won four consecutive NCAA titles from 2013 to '16. Three of those came at the expense of Loyd's Notre Dame team, which UConn beat in the 2013 national semifinals and the 2014 and '15 finals.

Then Loyd opted to forgo her senior season with the Irish and declared for the WNBA draft, going No. 1 in 2015. When the lottery balls fell for the Storm to have No. 1 for the 2016 draft as well, the comparisons to Bird and Jackson began immediately.

Making the "handoff" actually tangible, is that Bird is still right there as the heart of the Storm, having one of her best seasons at the age of 35. She led the league in assists (5.8) and also had her career high in 3-pointers (72) and shooting percentage from behind the arc (44.4). She's the Storm's third-leading scorer at 12.8 PPG.

It might sound too perfect a script. And to be fair, Loyd and Stewart should not always have to be thought in terms of how they relate to the duo that came before them, one of whom is still very much around.

But the thing is, Loyd and Stewart don't seem to be worried about how they're going to live up to such expectations. They get it: They're star players who are exciting to watch individually and as a tandem, and the league needs that. They are the present, and most definitely the future.

Loyd was the WNBA's Rookie of the Year last season, and Stewart is a lock for that honor this year. In fact, Stewart was a legitimate candidate for MVP as a rookie.

"She's fearless; she's not afraid of risks or challenges," Seattle coach Jenny Boucek said of Stewart. "She's a great teammate, and she wants to be coached. As good as she is, there are still areas where she can improve, and she knows that."

The same was said last year about Loyd. The jump in her scoring showed how well she put into practice the things that she learned from her rookie year, when she averaged 10.7 points.

"Having Sue telling me to be aggressive, to keep going -- having her in my ear has made me feel more confident," Loyd said. "The work I did overseas helped me, too. I think the game feels a little slower your second year; I'm seeing things earlier, reacting sooner. I think my defense is better, and on offense I understand mismatches better and where I can get my shots."

And whether this 2016 postseason is very short, or the Storm go on a run, Loyd and Stewart are aware they've landed somewhere pretty special.

"It's been really exciting," Stewart said. "We played against each other a lot. Now to be on the same team ... obviously she's a great young guard, and it's nice being able to grow together."

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