For all the talk about Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson's health entering this season, 2009 All-Star MVP Swin Cash also says she's feeling healthier on the court and has been a key figure in the team's 3-0 start.
"It's just fun out here playing it feels good to just be healthy and out there," said Cash, who missed two games due to injury and didn't start an additional three in 2009, after yesterday's practice. "I feel really good, refreshed like body-wise and mentally and all that. That's why when I'm out there I'm always smiling and just having a good time."
What stands out most about watching Seattle Storm forward Swin Cash play thus far this season is not necessarily her 19.7 points per game (3rd in the league as of this morning), but her aggression and how she's getting those points.
"She's one of the great competitors in the league - that's the bottom line," said Seattle Storm coach Brian Agler. "If you watch what she does...she just gets big rebounds, she gets big finishes, she gets to the free throw line and she makes defensive plays. She's a ball player - that's probably the best way to put it."
Right now, the aggression is best demonstrated statistically in the form of her free throw shooting and more specifically her free throw rate - the ratio of free throw attempts to field goal attempts. The combination of her scoring average and her free throw rate reflects exactly what Agler described - an aggressive player that is able to get to the rim and either finish or get herself unguarded shots from the charity stripe.
Cash shot 7 of 8 from the free throw line against the Phoenix Mercury on Saturday for a free throw rate of 61.53% and shot 12 free throws compared to 11 field goal attempts in the Storm's first game against the Los Angeles Sparks, which yields a percentage that doesn't make much sense. Considering that she only shot 3.76 free throws a game last year for a free throw rate of 28.73%, it's both a big change for Cash and a huge asset to the team - Cash currently ranks second in the league in free throw attempts and third in free throws made.
"I'm just trying to stay aggressive - keep my pedal to the metal," said Storm forward Swin Cash as yesterday's practice when asked about her performance thus far this season. "Make teams have to defend me whether it's outside or inside. And when you have a player like Lauren that's in the post, obviously she commands a lot of double teams which opens it up for players like myself that can either slash inside or hit the open jump shot."
There were multiple times during the Storm's 3-0 start when Cash seemed to be the one turning in big plays for her team at exactly the right time, either getting to the free throw line, hitting big baskets as she did in the fourth quarter against the Sparks, or getting big rebounds - Cash also ranks 13th in the league in offensive rebounding. Against a Mystics team that was beaten on the offensive boards by a percentage of 32.4% to 18.8% in their first loss to the Connecticut Sun over the weekend, Cash's rebounding ability from the three spot could be key.
"Obviously I have some talent from God and sometimes it surprises me," said Cash with a chuckle when asked about what's changed this season. "One time I think last game I just jumped up for a rebound like out of nowhere and just got it. So sometimes it's just like, ‘Oh there goes the youth right there.'"
With Seattle Storm forward Lauren Jackson standing out as the WNBA's Player of the Week, forward Camille Little being among the team's more statistically efficient players, and Sue Bird being Sue Bird, perhaps it would be easy to downplay the role of Cash in the team's 3-0 start. However, in watching the team try to stay undefeated against Washington tonight, her contributions will be key to watch.
"She does a wealth of positive things for us," said Agler. "And it's always from a competitive standpoint: getting a steal, running in transition, getting a block, getting her hand on a loose ball. It's just the little things - the intangible things - that makes her such a great player."
"It's been fun thus far and I just hope I can keep it going," said Cash.
Katie Smith helps lift Washington
While it might seem reasonable to be surprised at the Washington Mystics' hot 3-1 start, that wasn't quite what the Storm are feeling as they face the team tonight.
"Because of the change in the league and the number of players per team I think every team has gotten a lot more talented and made improvements," said Cash. "So I'm not quite surprised. Obviously the addition of Katie Smith to the team - she's going to be a leader - and Monique Currie playing phenomenal right now."
If not a surprise, then perhaps we can say Currie has been the key to this team's success in the absence of 2009 All-Star Alana Beard, as described by Kevin Pelton of StormBasketball.com.
STORM: Insider Preview - Storm vs. Washington
Instead, Currie has stepped up her level of play. Four games into the season, she leads the league in Wins Above Replacement Player, having averaged 18.0 points, 6.0 rebounds and 2.3 steals in just 29.3 minutes a night. Currie is shooting the lights out, hitting an even 50.0 percent from the field, 46.2 percent from beyond the arc and 90.9 percent from the free throw line. When Currie had an off game, fouling out with six points on 2-of-9 shooting on Sunday, Washington predictably fell.
"She's playing with a lot of confidence," said Storm Head Coach Brian Agler. "First of all, she's probably improved over the offseason. Second, with Alana Beard not being in the lineup, she's probably taken it upon herself to step it up scoring-wise. And she's been in competition with playing time last year with Coleman. Any time there's competition, it raises the level of play."
However, as Cash commented, the addition of her former Detroit Shock teammate Katie Smith is obviously a huge factor in this team's success.
"Her physical presence obviously," said Cash when asked about what her former Detroit Shock teammate Katie Smith adds to Washington. "She's versatility enough where she can play multiple positions and they put her in situations to be successful. She's obviously a leader and winner and she's competitive - she's gonna compete for 40 minutes."
Agler elaborated on what Smith brings to the team.
"If you watch their games - which I have on film - they've played with a lot of poise, they're playing real solid defensively, they're a versatile team, they play people in different positions," said Agler at yesterday's practice. "Katie will play 1, 2 or 4 - she can do a multitude of things and that's why they're such a tough matchup."
Against the Storm, who have a similarly versatile player in Cash, a player like Smith will be valuable, especially her savvy as they go on the road against a team known for having a strong homecourt advantage. So this talented Storm team is not underestimating or looking past the Mystics by any means.
"Obviously, they're a much improved team this year and we understand that," said Cash. "So we just have to take care of business at home and that's been the goal from the start: to win our home games."
Keys to the game:
Points off turnovers: Seattle's emphasis on defense in the pre-season is paying off. There are currently second in the league points off turnovers with 21.67. Conversely, Washington is 2nd to last in the league giving up 21.50 points off turnovers per game. That can be read in one of two ways - Washington is able to win while giving up a number of easy points or Seattle has an opportunity to exploit a weakness.
Points in the paint: Another point of tension here: Seattle ranks third in the league in points in the paint through 3 games with an average of 36.00 while Washington ranks 2nd in points in the paint allowed at 26.00. It's only a few games in, but that will likely be an important battle to watch.
Bench play: You will get tired of me harping on this about the Seattle Storm, but it's going to be important for their success this season, healthy or not. However, what's interesting is that through their first four games, the Mystics' bench play has been better, but still at the bottom of the league - the Mystics are 11th in the league in bench scoring per game at 15.25 while the Storm have lagged well behind the pack at 7.00.
Update from coaches pre-game chats (6:15 pm PST):
Crystal Langhorne: Despite all the talk about Currie, Agler identified Langhorne as the go-to player in his pre-game chat and Mystics coach Julie Plank concurred.
"I definitely think inside," said Plank. "Lang is totally consistent -- she does whatever we need her to do. She shoots a high 50 percentage-wise and has done that throughout her career, even at Maryland. So she's definitely a finisher for us and we count on her a lot as well as on the boards."
Stopping the pick and roll: When asked how to approach the Storm, Plank first suggested that they hope for an "off night" noting their scoring potency and core starters that have played together for a while. However, as she got more specific, she also mentioned stopping the pick and roll.
"We're going to see a lot of pick and roll and a lot of rebounding and then they switch defensively," said Plank.
Discipline on defense: Agler mentioned that Washington is among the most efficient teams in the league as they have had effective field goal percentages of over 50% in their three wins. So staying with shooters is a focus and the problem is that they don't necessarily have one focal player to stop.
"They've got four players that can -- well, I should say five because Ajavon had a big night against us last year -- they've got multiple players who can beat you," said Agler. "Harding is playing well, she's real aggressive with the ball. Katie Smith -- I don't think anybody's gonna question what she's capable of doing on any given night. Currie is playing with a ton of confidence, probably as aggressive and as focused as I've seen her play."