The Morning After: Bigger Than Before

The Seattle Storm opened the 2020 WNBA season with an 87-71 victory over the New York Liberty on Saturday.

Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird returned to the starting lineup after missing all of 2019. The WNBA also welcomed one of the most heavily hyped rookies in recent memory: Ezi Magbegor. Morgan Tuck’s Storm debut will have to wait as a knee injury kept her on the bench for the entirety of the 40 minutes.

In what might become the norm for her given her supporting cast, Sabrina Ionescu filled up the stat sheet but had a day to forget in her WNBA introduction. The Liberty as a team shot 34.8 percent from the field and 21.4 percent from beyond the arc.

Context-Free Screenshot

You’d be sweating too if your team had to face Breanna Stewart.

The Game in a GIF

Welcome to the league, rookie

The Good

  • Stewie is back.
    More than a year has transpired since Stewart ruptured her Achilles in the EuroLeague championship game. To the extent that she could fully recover from such a significant injury, she should physically be back to 100 percent. The mental recovery can be a different question, though, which Boston Celtics star Gordon Hayward explained in relation to his fractured ankle. Beyond the self-doubt that can arise when you’re unable to play, there’s the fear that a simple cut or drive to the basket could lead to reaggravating the injury.
    Stewart, however, didn’t appear to be playing with any limitations. She had a team-high 18 points and eight rebounds while adding two assists and four steals. It had been too long since we saw those Stewie catch-and-shoots coming off an assist from Bird.
    “She was aggressive at both ends of the floor,” head coach Gary Kloppenburg said after the game, per the Seattle TimesPercy Allen. “She changed some shots. I thought she looked really good for not having played in quite awhile. Just excellent job by her in scrambling and hustling and getting on the floor for loose balls. I was really happy for her to get back into the flow.”
  • It’s probably time to abandon the idea Jewell Loyd will ever become a dominant offensive force in the WNBA. A few years ago, that would’ve been a worrying development. That’s not the case anymore due to how much Loyd has remade her game.
    The two-time All-Star had 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting (1-of-4 from three-point range), but her best work came on defense. She forced three steals and finished with with a 61.1 defensive rating, per WNBA.com. The Liberty had a .382 effective field-goal percentage when she was on the floor.
    Alysha Clark completely transformed herself from an offensive dynamo at Middle Tennessee to a versatile defender who can guard four positions, thus making her an indispensable member of the roster. Loyd may be doing the same to some extent.
    She still has the potential to go off for 20-plus points in any game, but fans should adjust their expectations accordingly based on Saturday.
  • Ionescu will have to check around her shoulder every so often on the IMG campus just to make sure Jordin Canada isn’t still hounding her.
    The Storm might have been the worst possible matchup for Ionescu in her first WNBA game. Gary Kloppenburg is a defensive guru, and Seattle is individually and collectively a strong defensive team. That’s a combination that would inevitably make her life a nightmare. On and off the ball, Canada followed Ionescu’s every move when she was tasked with shadowing the No. 1 overall pick.
  • Last but not least: Ezi!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
    The 2019 first-round pick finally stepped onto the court for the Storm and played well off the bench, scoring seven points and collecting three rebounds. The 6’4″ center held her own, too, when the Libery ran her through the pick and roll to force her onto smaller guards. The stop on Ionescu in the third quarter to force a shot-clock violation was a perfect example.
    The combined presence of Natasha Howard and Mercedes Russell means Magbegor doesn’t have to play a big role for the team. Her energy off the bench could be invaluable considering the likely effects of a condensed schedule on teams with smaller rotations.
    We shouldn’t get too ahead of ourselves, but is Ezi Magbegor already a Hall of Famer?

The Bad

  • Some level of rust was to be expected. The players have been working out at IMG Academy, but they didn’t have a traditional preseason to prepare for the abbreviated season. As a result, fans shouldn’t read too much into the Storm shooting 7-of-23 from beyond the arc and committing 13 turnovers to just 16 assists.
    Having said that, those were all areas where the Storm took a step backward in 2019 compared to 2018. Seattle was first in three-point percentage, tied for first in assists, and tied for fifth in turnovers. Without Stewart and Bird, the Storm fell to sixth, ninth, and 11th in those three categories respectively.
    Especially early on, the pace was pretty frenetic, so the Storm might regress to the mean once they find a sense of normalcy and comfort in Bradenton.
  • Spare a thought for Crystal Langhorne. She opened the 2018 season as the starting center and almost immediately lost the gig to Howard. With Stewart out, Langhorne was elevated to starting status for 2019 but then watched Russell elevated into the first unit. Now, she might be losing her already limited minutes to Magbegor. Langhorne was on the floor for 7:04 compared to 11:50 for Magbegor.
  • Howard was somewhat anonymous, which is partially a testament to Amanda Zahui B and Kiah Stokes. Zahui B and Stokes had two blocks apiece and combined for 17 rebounds.
    Howard finished with six points, seven rebounds, two steals and one block. Not only did the reigning Defensive Player of the Year fail to attempt a three-pointer, only one of her three field goals came in the paint.

The Ugly

  • Calling this “ugly” might be a bit of a stretch, but the bench wasn’t entirely an asset against a young Liberty team that lost one of its best players, Kia Nurse, early into the first half. Even counting Nurse, only nine players got into the game for New York, whereas Kloppenburg rolled out 11 of his players (Tuck being the exception).
    Langhorne didn’t attempt a shot, while Epiphanny Prince was 2-of-7 from the field and failed to register an assist in nearly 17 minutes.
    The difference in depth between the two teams became a factor in the fourth quarter as the Storm pulled away. The game should’ve been over well before that.
  • Nothing against Kelly Graves, but ESPN should never do one of these cutaway interviews in the middle of a game again.

The Verdict

All things considered, this was about as good as fans could’ve reasonably expected from the opener. Seattle set the tone for what could be a big season.

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