It's a time full of upheaval and acclimation in the WNBA: The truncated 22-game regular season will be played in a "bubble" at IMG Academy when it tips off July 25 and won't feature a slew of players who are sitting out due to concerns over the coronavirus pandemic or to focus on social justice activism.
But if there's a team relatively insulated from this disruption — at least in terms of roster composition — it's the Seattle Storm, who have only three new players and welcome back 2018 league MVP Breanna Stewart as well as 11-time All-Star Sue Bird after both missed last season with injuries.
That continuity from 2018, when Seattle won its third WNBA title, gives the Storm a bit of a head start, Bird admits. But she isn't under any illusions about how tough it'll be for her and Stewart to transition back to WNBA play and for the team to re-establish its groove after their long absences.
"I've missed seasons before, and I'm telling you, when you don't play in the WNBA for close to two years, it's a shock to the system. I've experienced it," said Bird, who also missed the 2013 season with a knee injury. "I'm fully aware of that, so I know what to expect. It doesn't mean I'm necessarily going to be prepared for it.
"I think there's this balance of, we're in training camp and there were groups out there where it felt like it was clicking pretty quick. But there's still elements where we have to make sure we're playing at a high level."
With Bird sitting out of the 2019 WNBA season with a knee injury and Stewart recovering from a ruptured Achilles, the former Huskies eventually got back on the court in USA Basketball competition. Stewart also played overseas in Russia. When it came to deciding whether to opt into the season in Bradenton, Fla., both were motivated to not further delay their return to WNBA play.
"I wanted to be back in the WNBA, I want to play basketball, I want to be able to get back on the court. And also know that hopefully we're never going to have another opportunity like this where all the WNBA teams are in one place," said Stewart, who is also a member of the WNBA's newly formed played-led council that'll inform the league's implementation of its social justice platform. "So continuing to get back with the WNBA as a basketball player and then be here in solidarity with the rest of the players and use our platform (were factors)."
With a behind-the-scenes perspective on return-to-play negotiations as a member of the WNBPA executive committee, Bird felt confident in the league's plan to hold the season at IMG — and recognized that "if I didn't play basketball this summer, I might have been done" (with her playing career).
"(The possibility that) I wouldn't play basketball for, like, three years? I don't know guys, that's tough, and to just be constantly training for never playing," Bird said. "I don't think that clouded my judgment in terms of my outlook on the virus and whatnot. And I'm also excited to be here with the rest of the players. From a social justice standpoint, it's very exciting and almost invigorating to be surrounded by people where we believe in the same things, we're kind of on this mission and we want to use this moment to continue it and push it forward."
The physical demands of what was asked of them in USA Basketball and, in Stewart's case, Russia don't compare to what they're gearing up to undergo this summer. With a 22-game schedule spanning roughly seven weeks, teams will mostly be playing every other day.
Even as they're getting re-adjusted to things on the practice court, Stewart and Bird used the same word to describe their first few days of training camp: "weird."
"Yesterday was the first time I've had somebody touch me on the court," Bird said. "So that was kind of weird. I think we're all kind of in the same boat, though, so we're just getting through it and getting used to the contact, because it's a whole different beast once people start hitting each other."
"We're big on routines," Stewart added. "We're in our huddle and (interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg) is going to talk to the team and the first day I was like, 'I don't remember my spot,' like I don't remember where I used to stand because I haven't been here two years, you know? Things like that.
"It's just kind of like catching on quickly. It's almost like we have to take some steps backwards to get everybody on the same page again — because Sue and I haven't been here, we added three new pieces — and then we have to go forward a little bit.?
Kloppenburg said he'll assess the need for minutes restrictions for a player like Bird, a 16-year veteran who will turn 40 in October, closer to the season's start and based on how she feels as it proceeds. Stewart was able to play without any limitations by the end of her stint overseas, though even prior to the nationwide shutdown in March she was still working on building her right calf strength and getting power off single-leg jumps. With the WNBA season delayed from its original mid-May start, Stewart used the extra time off to fully heal her leg and says some things, like her balance, are coming back better than ever.
Kloppenburg so far has seen elements of Stewart's game (specifically her ball-handling and 3-point shooting) that are improvements over her pre-injury self. That's a scary proposition considering Stewart's professional dominance in her first three WNBA seasons, when she averaged 20 points per game on 48.9% shooting (37.6 on threes) and 8.8 rebounds per game. Kloppenburg said the team could utilize some bigger lineups with Stewart playing as a small forward or as a guard.
Even if it takes time for Stewart to get into the swing of things, with her back on the floor — along with the likes of Bird, Jewell Loyd, Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark and a deep bench — it's no wonder the Storm are among the favorites to win it all once more this fall.
Kloppenburg said of Stewart, "She's such a hard worker. I think the setback, the adversity of that injury, made her even more determined to become an even better player than she is. And from what I've seen so far, she did that. She's an amazing player and person, but she's just got that. She's got it, she's got the it factor. And she wants to be the best and drives herself, and that's what I've seen so far with her."
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