Spend five minutes at any Seattle Storm practice and the bubbly exuberance of 6'5" center Ashley Robinson almost immediately stands out.
After practice, it's not uncommon to see the reserve sticking around to channel that natural energy into focused work on her post moves with coaches and teammates. Yet at today's practice the 6th year player out of the University of Tennessee seemed a little more enthusiastic, not only in her efforts to make herself better, but also as a leader for some of her younger teammates. Beyond her normally lively demeanor, Robinson just seemed more invested than usual in getting everyone involved.
"Come on Jana," Robinson said pausing in the middle of a drill to motion toward rookie forward Jana Vesela who was waiting to speak with media. "Oh - you got media? Ok."
Leaving Vesela to her media duties, Robinson turned right back to her post drills along with rookie forward Abby Bishop. At one point after Bishop missed a few of the drop step hook shots they were working on from the left block, Robinson stopped and showed Bishop how easy it is for a defender to block the shot if she doesn't fully extend both the shooting arm and the off elbow.
As they transitioned from working on hook shots to a two-on-two post up drill with lingering male practice players, Robinson called over to rookie guard Alison Lacey who was just finishing some skill work with coaches at the other side of the gym.
"Hey Alison, you want to get in here and pass?" said Robinson.
Sure enough, Lacey stepped into the drill as an entry passer from the wing.
What stood out about today's scene after practice was that Robinson's energy almost seemed to be contagious. Or perhaps more accurately, Robinson showed the charisma of a team leader that people might not expect from a reserve averaging 5.6 minutes a game for the 3-0 Storm.
"I think that's one reason she's on the team," said Storm head coach Brian Agler when asked about Robinson's role as a leader. "I think there's multiple reasons she's on the team but that's one of them."
As media members spoke with Agler, Robinson and Bishop moved to the opposite end of the gym, chatting while sitting on mats just beyond the baseline.
"I mean, look at her down there," Agler said looking across the court at Robinson who was still talking to Bishop. "You're not going to get a better teammate than Ashley Robinson. And the thing I like about her now is that she's really taken a focus to trying to get better - she's staying after practice, she's putting extra time in and she's improving. You can see it on the floor -you can see it in practice and you can see it on the floor. Will that always turn into minutes? That's something we can't predict. But what it shows me and tells me is that I'm not as hesitant to put her in because I know she's putting her time in. And when you invest time into something, you take more pride in it. And you're gonna perform better. And she's doing that."
Obviously, people could find basketball reasons to critique Agler's choice to keep a player like Robinson on the roster: although she serves as an effective defensive presence, she has not been a particularly consistent offensive threat during her career. However, the intangibles she brings to the team - and especially the work ethic she models for the Storm's younger post players - are things that neither fans nor statistics can "see". And yet they're invaluable for a team that is off to strong start and has high hopes for their season moving forward.
"She's somebody that's always going to pick up people that are down," said Agler. "She has a great feel for that - she's even gonna see [about] the coaches. If the coach has got something going on, she's gonna ask you, ‘Hey coach, what's going on?' And she just sort of has a great feel for people. It doesn't matter if it's Lauren Jackson hanging her head or if it's Abby Bishop - she's gonna spend time with ‘em. She's gonna pump ‘em up and she's gonna make ‘em feel good and she's gonna know that they have a friend."
On bench development
Of course, bench production is certainly one of the areas this team was looking to improve this season and the leadership role that Robinson is taking in helping others in their development is crucial, particularly for players like Bishop who did in fact mention hanging her head at times as Agler suggested.
Both Bishop and Vesela saw their first minutes of the season in Saturday's 95-89 overtime win against the Phoenix Mercury. The playing time - which included minutes at the beginning of the 4th quarter - actually came as a surprise to Bishop.
"Probably not three games into the season," said Bishop when asked when she expected to see her first playing time. "I guess I knew it was going to come - Brian's been talking about being ready and everything. So I was ready, but I probably thought it would be a few more games away yet. But, yeah, I definitely made my time worthwhile and was excited and nervous and glad it's out of the way."
Agler has said all season that a major factor in getting the bench more minutes has been both getting players acclimated and figuring out which combinations work best together. Another perhaps underestimated part of getting the younger bench players acclimated is working through that "excited and nervous" feeling that Bishop described, something that Vesela also experienced during her first playing time of the season.
"I got in and I was so nervous," said Vesela, grinning in retrospect. "It was like my first minutes here, but then I started to feel better and it was only five minutes so it was no big deal."
After playing a few possessions, Vesela commented that "it felt like normal because you are playing". So although her time on the court ended up being short, it ended up being a relatively effective stint after she got over the nerves- quality minutes, according to Agler -- that has apparently earned her more time.
"After last game he asked how I feel on the court," said Vesela of her five minute performance. "So I explained how it was. So he said maybe next time I'll go again and more minutes maybe. So let's see what happens."
As a player who has looked comfortable both on the wing and in the paint during practice and her brief game time, Agler sees Vesela as a player who can give the Storm a tough and versatile perimeter game along with Swin Cash. Asked how that combination might help the team, Agler said he doesn't exactly know yet, but articulated a few options that it gives the team.
However, while Bishop and Vesela have obviously shown improvement in practice and might add a new wrinkle to the Storm on both ends of the court, Bishop had a much simpler explanation for how to get more playing time moving forward.
"Um, I guess, you know, just um, seeing how tired Lauren and Camille are I guess," said Bishop with a laugh when asked about her understanding of what it will take to get more consistent minutes. "But no I think today's practice was good. You know, ARob has been practicing really well and I guess there's also Le'coe and Jana and stuff. So hopefully I get in for a few minutes but we'll just wait and see. Until then, I'll just be cheering on the bench and being prepared and getting ready to get in if I get my opportunity."
All jokes aside, if Bishop is to "spell" Lauren Jackson at times, she showed off a glimpse of what she might offer beyond a warm body to fill minutes while their star forward rests. After working on post moves, Bishop cycled around the three point line shooting off of feeds from Robinson. Similar to a three-point contest, she took about 5 shots from each spot and by a distracted rough count she hit double figures before sitting down to chat with Robinson. So in addition to waiting until Jackson or Little gets tired, being patient and cheering on the bench, Bishop is also putting in the work necessary to earn minutes rather than leaving it to chance.
"For Brian to leave me on for that little bit extra was good and I think it gave me that little of confidence that now I just got to come out at training and get better everyday," said Bishop of seeing some time at the beginning of the 4th quarter. "I've kinda been down a little bit and I think now I've got to get out there and just do my thing and stop thinking about everything else and just do what I do best and bring that everyday."
Jackson wins WNBA Player of the Week
Of course, the persistent focal point for prospective Seattle Storm success always seems to be the play of forward Lauren Jackson, who has gotten off to an outstanding start in 2010. Agler told her about her most recent Player of the Week award - a WNBA record 15th, tying her with legend Lisa Leslie - shortly after practice before she wandered over to talk to media.
Perhaps it's typical for Jackson to downplay her personal accolades, but she took it a step further saying she's not excited about her individual performance given that the team has just gotten started and had a lot of "teamy" wins. Furthermore, she's not excited about the 3-0 start because they've been there before and have then fallen on hard times. Fair enough, but obviously her defense has been outstanding, perhaps partially due to her health and partially due to the core unit having a year under their belt with which to support her.
"Well, it's funny: I don't really feel like my defense is that great," said Jackson when asked about her defense. "So, I don't know. Like I said, it's so early in the season you never know what's going to happen tomorrow or the next day. It's just a matter of trying to get better each day and trying to work on the things I need to work on at the moment. I don't feel like I'm outstanding at the moment -- I'm not sort of where I wanna be -- but especially I just wanna keep getting better and keep listening to Brian and keep working with the team and hopefully we'll win some more games."
While the thought of a healthier Lauren Jackson improving upon anything might be frightening to opposing coaches, fans, and players alike, that's what the former Defensive Player of the Year is focused on.
"Well, defensively I can certainly do more in the post and just fouls," said Jackson, sort of matter-of-factly. "Offensively, scoring, getting inside a little bit more. Just that sort of stuff. Just more consistent on my shots - you know, I'm putting up a lot of shots."
Perhaps one had to be there to fully grasp just how unmoved Jackson was about her performance in the sample size of three games. But correct me if I'm wrong: it would seem as though the perennial all-star is headed for another MVP-caliber season if she indeed continues improving.
Anyway, with a 3-0 start and internal development occurring across the roster - including the player who will likely end the season with the most Player of the Week awards ever -- it might sound reasonable to start thinking ahead to that elusive first round playoff series victory. Certainly, visions of another championship in Seattle are what drew reserve Svetlana Abrosimova to the team. So as observers, maybe we can let our imaginations run wild with how far this team can go, but as one might expect, the team is focused on the present. While winning a championship is ultimately everyone's goal, right now the focus is on just winning the next game.
"Obviously, it's very early in the season, but I think that if you don't come into the season with the mentality of winning a championship then you're really not setting the bar very high," said Cash. "So we have that goal in mind. But winning a championship, I understand that it's a day to day process -- it's a practice to practice process, a game to game process. So we have to just continuously keep getting better. And obviously, we're 3-0 now and if we keep getting better we'll be 4-0 and just keep moving on that."
- Robinson even asks lowly "internet writers", such as myself, how they're doing. After last Friday's morning practice for which media was asked to arrive at 9 am, I was maybe less awake than usual.
"You look kind of tired," Robinson said to me as she was hustling out of the gym with that characteristic bounce in her step to pack before leaving for Phoenix. "Were you out partying or something last night?"
I was sort of caught off guard because I wasn't quite yawning like some others around me. So I mumbled some incomprehensible nonsense in response, probably reinforcing her initial assumption. But no: sadly I was not out partying. It was just kinda early for someone who's enjoyed more than his fair share of student life. But it was nice of her to ask anyway.