We’re about to see the real Jewell Loyd in 2019.
By any number of metrics, the 2018 season was the best of Loyd’s WNBA career. She was an All-Star for the first time and set personal highs in win shares (4.2), win shares per 40 minutes (.164) and net rating (14.1). She also had a .550 true shooting percentage and .501 effective field-goal percentage, both of which were career highs.
The way in which Loyd adapted her game to suit the Storm’s needs was particularly notable.
Loyd’s 24.4 usage rate was her lowest since her rookie year in 2015, and she attempted the fewest shots (12.6) since then as well. Whereas scoring accounted for a large chunk of Loyd’s contributions through her first three seasons, she focused on helping the Storm in other areas of the game in 2018. She averaged 4.6 rebounds—more than a full rebound better than her previous career high—and her defensive rating fell to 97.6 after hitting 104.7 and 103.3 in 2016 and 2017.
No game summed up Loyd’s change in mindset better than the Storm’s 94-84 win over the Phoenix Mercury to clinch a WNBA Finals berth. Loyd only played just under 21 minutes, finishing with six points, five rebounds and two assists. Seattle was minus-11 with her on the floor.
More vital than what Loyd did on that night was what she didn’t do. She didn’t play at all in the fourth quarter, allowing Sami Whitcomb to play with the first unit instead.
Loyd looks to Kobe Bryant as one of her on-court influences and thus adheres to the Mamba Mentality™. Ceding the floor to your teammate in the most important quarter of the season is the antithesis of Bryant’s entire ethos, and that’s what makes Loyd special.
You want your best players to step up in the big moments and have the confidence to put the team on their back if necessary. Conversely, you also want your best players to be cognizant of the situation. Loyd was exactly that against Phoenix. The Storm outscored the Mercury 35-21 in the fourth quarter, and that may not have happened if Loyd demanded to be in the game.
“You have expectations going into a season and then you realize who’s around you and what they’re doing so you adjust,” Loyd said of the season as a whole, per the Seattle Times‘ Percy Allen. “I did what I needed to do for our team. I put the team first and me second. And we won a championship. That’s all that matters.”
Now, circumstances seemingly demand Loyd channel her inner Mamba.
The Storm will be Loyd’s team in 2019. Breanna Stewart is out for the year with an Achilles injury. The team has slowly decreased Sue Bird’s workload over a period of years. Unlike Stewart, Natasha Howard isn’t the kind of forward who will be bring the ball up the floor and initiate the offense.
Now, we get to see how Loyd operates as the Storm’s go-to option. She wasn’t prepared to serve that role when she entered the league in 2015, and Stewart’s arrival in 2016 immediately made her the 1B to Stewie’s 1A.
Spinning Stewart’s injury into a positive for the Storm is impossible. She’s the reigning MVP and the best player in the league. Her absence will, however, allow the team to learn more about its roster than it would have without the security blanket Stewie provided.
That all begs the question: What’s the purest version of Jewell Loyd? Is she actually a kind of Kobe-like offensive force—all of the good and bad that entails?
Maybe we’ve thought about her all wrong this entire time. Perhaps she works best as some combination of a distributor and off-ball scorer.
Loyd dished out more assists (126) while turning the ball over the fewest number of times (65) in her career in 2018. And in terms of her shooting, she was at her most efficient when she wasn’t necessarily creating her own looks.
According to Synergy, she had a .519 adjusted field-goal percentage on no-dribble spot-up opportunities and a .540 adjusted field-goal percentage on catch and shoots. By comparison, Loyd had a .417 adjusted field-goal percentage when shooting out of the pick and roll and a .352 adjusted field-goal percentage on dribble jumpers.
The 2017 season, when Loyd led the team in usage rate, told the same story for the most part. She was slightly better in the pick and roll (.432 aFG%) and on dribble jumpers (.416 aFG%) but did her best work when she let the offense come to her.
The expectation for many is that Loyd will have the ball in her hands far more frequently with Stewart out. It doesn’t have to be that way, though.
Sue Bird is coming off the two best assist seasons of her legendary career. Jordin Canada will presumably take a big leap in Year 2. Seattle also signed Shavonte Zellous, who’s a solid distributor and a big upgrade over Noelle Quinn in the backcourt. In the frontcourt, Courtney Paris, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Alysha Clark are all good passers.
Last year showed Dan Hughes isn’t going to contort his offense to fit Loyd into a pre-defined role, and Loyd won’t press the issue. As much as the onus is on Loyd to assume a larger leadership role, it’s not as straightforward as putting the ball in her hands more frequently and letting her do the rest.
Theoretically, the Storm possess enough playmakers to have their cake and eat it too. Loyd can take over for Stewart as the focal point of the offense while leaning more heavily into the skills that have served her best.