Jewell Loyd is Taking the All-Star Leap in 2018

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Mamba d’Or

The Loyd giveth and the Loyd taketh away. That basically sums up Jewell Loyd’s first three seasons in the WNBA.

Through three games last year, Loyd was averaging 26.0 points and shooting 57.7 percent from the field, including 61.5 percent from three-point range. Sure, it wasn’t a large sample, but it was enough to raise hope Loyd was on the cusp of a breakout.

Instead, the 2015 No. 1 overall pick finished 2017 averaging 17.7 points and hitting 43.1 percent of her shots. Loyd didn’t necessarily have a bad year, but one couldn’t help wonder whether she still had another level to reach—one where she could be an All-WNBA guard.

Here we are seven games into the 2018 campaign, left to analyze another hot start by Loyd followed by a performance she’d like to forget in Saturday’s 94-90 defeat to the Dallas Wings. Loyd scored 16 points but shot 1-of-8 from three-point range and didn’t exactly stuff the stat sheet (three rebounds, one assist and two turnovers).

That disappointing showing shouldn’t obscure what has otherwise been a great 2018 for Loyd so far. According to Basketball Reference, she has already amassed 1.5 win shares. That’s already halfway to her career high, and Seattle has 27 games left in the regular season.

Loyd is third in the WNBA in scoring (21.6 points per game), and her .422 three-point percentage is well above her career average (.337). According to Synergy Sports, Loyd’s 1.119 points per possession on offense have her in the top nine percent of the league.

We should have seen this coming. Loyd was a 20.8 percent three-point shooter as a rookie in 2015. She proceeded to hit 30.3 percent of her threes in 2016 and then 38.6 percent in 2017. Loyd’s scoring average also improved from 10.7 to 16.5 over her first and second seasons and then to 17.7 a year ago.

Some players hit the WNBA and immediately take the league by storm—no pun intended—while others require a little more time to develop.

In that sense, playing alongside Breanna Stewart has to some extent been a double-edged sword for Loyd. Stewart earned a third-place MVP vote and was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year as a rookie in 2016. Whether fair or not, it was hard not to contrast Stewart’s instantaneous impact in Seattle with Loyd’s more incremental progress.

Loyd didn’t necessarily help herself by showing flashes of her potential but failing to sustain much efficiency over a prolonged stretch of time. And when you call yourself the “Gold Mamba,” you better deliver.

Not that long ago, Loyd’s future in Seattle was the subject of some speculation. Howard Megdal reported for Vice Sports in April 2017 the Storm were among the teams interested in acquiring the No. 1 draft pick from the San Antonio Stars, which would’ve allowed them to select Kelsey Plum. Megdal then reported for High Post Hoops last July that “no fewer than three different people” floated a three-team trade in which Loyd landed in Chicago, with Plum coming to Seattle.

If general manager Alisha Valavanis and the Storm’s front office were having reservations about Loyd’s long-term fit with the team, then those concerns weren’t entirely unfounded.

Loyd clearly wasn’t suited to be the heir apparent to Sue Bird, and she wasn’t exactly exceeding the expectations set by virtue of her status as the No. 1 overall pick and winning Rookie of the Year in 2015.

That’s why Loyd’s early returns in 2018 are so encouraging. Not only is she having a career year and on her way to her first All-Star appearance, but she’s also building a strong MVP candidacy. For the first time in a long time, Loyd truly looks like a centerpiece of the Storm’s future and every bit the equal to Stewart.

And unlike last year, Loyd’s production in 2018 shouldn’t be another false dawn.

For one, the presence of Jordin Canada means Loyd doesn’t have to be Seattle’s primary playmaker when Sue Bird is off the floor.

Canada has understandably had some hiccups while adjusting to the speed of the WNBA—4.0 turnovers per 36 minutes—but there’s little doubt she can fill the void Bird leaves when she retires, which is probably going to be around 2056 at this point. Seattle rested Bird against the Wings last Saturday, which elevated Canada to the starting lineup. She responded by dishing out nine assists and scoring nine points.

Look no further than Loyd turning the ball over a career-low 2.3 times per 36 minutes so far to see the impact Canada has had.

For evidence of Loyd’s growth as a scorer, the Storm’s two matchups with the Phoenix Mercury illustrate how she has learned to adapt her game more to fit the opponent.

Seattle lost 87-82 to Phoenix to open the season, with Loyd scoring 10 points on 3-of-11 shooting. She missed all five of her shot attempts inside the arc as she was completely flummoxed about how to combat Brittney Griner’s presence inside. Even when Griner was off the floor, the Mercury were forcing Loyd to get increasingly difficult looks, such as this shot from behind the basket.

Screen Shot 2018-06-05 at 3.03.14 PMIn the second game, Loyd had a game-high 29 points and was 8-of-12 inside the three-point line. The Mercury focused largely on limiting Loyd to mid-range jumpers, and she was all too happy to oblige. Loyd’s mid-range game effectively neutralized Griner defensively, which helped free up so much of the Storm’s offense.Jewell Loyd Jumper vs. Mercury

Looking beyond the Mercury games, consistently hurting teams from between 15 to 20 feet unlocks so much of Loyd’s potential.

She has always been an excellent ball-handler. With that said, few things have been more frustrating about Loyd than her propensity to rely on her dribble too much, kill the offensive flow and end the possession with an ill-advised jumper.

Loyd’s confidence to create on her own isn’t misplaced, though. There’s virtually nothing you can do on defense when she’s really cooking.

Struggle to fight through a pick and you’re toast.

Jewell Loyd Jumper SkySag off to try and prevent Loyd from beating you off the dribble and you’re toast.

Jewell Loyd Jumper MysticsTry to go over the screen and, well, you get the picture.Jewell Loyd Layup Aces

So when Loyd is finding a comfort zone just inside the arc, there’s little way to stop her short of having an elite perimeter defender on your squad. You can only do so much when a player is capable of scoring from all three levels.

The early season hasn’t been without some issues for Loyd, namely her defense. According to Synergy Sports, her 1.034 defensive points per possession put her in the 21st percentile. Opponents are shooting 53.3 percent against Loyd in the pick and roll and 55.6 percent off screens, two areas teams exploited when playing Seattle in 2017.

But you’re much happier now balancing Loyd’s below-average defense with her hyper-efficient offense because the points she’s scoring far outweigh what she’s giving up on the other end.

Loyd has added another dimension to her skill set by making a more concerted effort to crash the glass. Her 5.1 rebounds are third on the team, and she’s averaging one more offensive rebound (2.1) than Stewart. Seattle was 11th in rebounding in 2017, so having Loyd collect one to two more board every game isn’t an insignificant change for the team.

We’re into Year 4, and Loyd is finally becoming the player the Storm hoped she’d be when they made her one of the faces of their rebuild in 2015.

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