Devanei Hampton has lost 25 pounds since her college days at the University of California and is well prepared to compete for a roster spot on the Seattle Storm. (AP/Ben Margot)
After a scrimmage against their male practice squad during Monday's practice, some Seattle Storm players commented on the strength of the male players.
It didn't quite seem to matter much to forward Devanei Hampton who is playing to earn a spot on the roster - the Oakland, California native is used to playing against guys..
"We played a lot of guys [at Cal] so I'm used to being banged up," said Hampton after Monday's practice. "I actually grew up playing with guys in Oakland so it's ok."
At one point, she made three consecutive baskets against the male player attempting to guard her. On the first, she received the ball on the left block and shoulder faked to the inside, came back to the left and hit a soft fadeaway jumper. On another play in the post, she got herself a layup on the block and on a final play, she got a lay up moving to the basket. Throughout the practice, she showed confidence and strength on the block as well as an good sense of space in the paint to find gaps in the defense without the ball that led to easy scoring opportunities.
Obviously, it's only three plays and it would be an exaggeration to say she was "dominant". However, what makes this sequence of plays significant is what it shows about her development since leaving Cal in 2009. As much as she derives toughness from growing up on the tough courts of Oakland, her dedication to improving her conditioning and rehabilitating her weary knees is most impressive.
"I've just been preparing to get a look to play in the league and I finally got my chance," said Hampton, who said she lost 25 pounds since leaving Cal.
The Storm have been monitoring Hampton's development since she was at Cal and given their needs, she might have as good a chance to make the Storm as any team in the league.
After knee surgeries prior to both her junior and senior seasons, Hampton's mobility was severely limited. Playing alongside current Storm forward Ashley Walker and 2010 Washington Mystics draft pick Alexis Gray-Lawson, Hampton shifted her focus to defense and rebounding, according to norcalnick of SBN's CaliforniaGoldenBlogs. Whether the injuries were the reason for her putting on pounds, it was a concern for WNBA decision makers like Agler.
"We watched her play in college she just wasn't really healthy and in shape at that time," said Storm coach Brian Agler. "If you ask her - Devanei was just talking to me about it - her body's changed quite a bit in the last 12 months. She's worked at it. And she's been impressive. I've liked, to this point, what she's given us in practice. So it will be interesting to sort of see how this thing progresses."
In addition to her own hard work, Hampton reached out to former Cal assistant and current UC Santa Barbara head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, who she remains close to. Gottlieb gave her simple advice that was perhaps enhanced by the way "her body's changed."
"Coach Lindsay just told me to go in and bang and show them what I can do," said Hampton. "I've always been a banger but after losing all that weight I have to be mobile. And everybody is so slim. So now it's just coming in, playing my game and showing them why they picked me."
Part of the reason they picked her had to be that Hampton could add a valuable dimension to the Storm bench.
"Devanei is a back to the basket player that a lot of teams don't have in this league," said Agler.
The Storm are particularly lacking in back to the basket players off the bench.
Last season, the Storm's starters combined for about 80% of the team's overall production. Their most consistently productive post player off the bench was Janell Burse, whom has already announced that she will not be playing in 2010. Suzy Batkovic-Brown, who averaged about 7 minutes per game, will forego this season as well. That leaves 6'4" veteran Ashley Robinson as the lone returning post player on the bench - in her limited time on the floor, Walker played more on the wing. Given that Robinson was not necessarily a strong scoring presence in the post, the roster could use a true interior scoring presence.
Of course the Storm expect a bench that scored the second least points in 2009 to be bolstered with the addition of forward Le'coe Willingham, at least one point guard presence, and possibly Tanisha Smith who is an athletic wing player. Although forward Svetlana Abrosimova is still coming into camp and Agler suggested that there are others coming in, Hampton would appear to provide a unique asset in the bench as a potential post scorer. When asked if Hampton was similar to former Storm forward Kelly Santos --who was more of a back to basket player than some of last season's post players -- Agler suggested that Hampton is similar but probably "a tad bit more versatile".
Nevertheless, the unfortunate reality of today's WNBA is that there are variables beyond talent that might determine whether a player makes the team.
"Here's what I told them yesterday: three or four years ago it was a great accomplishment to make a roster when you had 13, 14, 15, 16 teams, you had a 13 player roster - a lot of people were making the league," said Agler. "Well, there's been a series of graduating classes, there hasn't been very many people retired, and now we're down to 12 teams with an 11 person roster?
"It's hard to make a roster right now. It's very, very demanding and difficult to make a roster. And it's not always the best players that make the roster -- a lot has to do with salary cap too. The salary cap has shrunk. So it's a great accomplishment right now to get into the training camp."
Nevertheless, as a first year player (read: small contract) who stands to fill a unique need, Hampton might have an inside track on making the roster.