After the Seattle Storm's 3-0 start, the undercurrent of championship expectations seemed to gain strength with the dominant assumption that the team had beaten the other pre-season playoff contenders for the Western Conference.
Not so fast, claimed Storm head coach Brian Agler.
"Well, I don't know if they're the top three," said Agler referring to the Los Angeles Sparks, Minnesota Lynx, and Phoenix Mercury. "San Antonio's in second place right now."
Although there might have been have been a feeling prior to the season that San Antonio was on the outside of the playoffs looking in with so much off-season movement from other Western Conference teams, San Antonio is suddenly the team to watch.
In a way, each home game for the Silver Stars has brought a new wrinkle of roster improvement for the Silver Stars: their home opener was a loss to a strong Atlanta Dream team in which Becky Hammon and Sophia Young carried the team. At the time of Agler's comment, forward Chamique Holdsclaw had just joined the team a few days before and scored 19 points on 9-15 shooting in their second home game, a 88-81 win over the Los Angeles Sparks. In their third home game tonight against the New York Liberty, the Silver Stars fans will get their first look at center Jayne Appel, their first round draft pick out of Stanford University.
Two things that Silver Stars coach Sandy Brondello mentioned in her post-practice chat about her team and its new additions is that a) they're an unselfish team with the chemistry coming together and b) suddenly they can take some of the pressure off of the shoulders of guard Becky Hammon and forward Sophia Young.
Clay Kallam of Slam Online described what that means for the team in a little more depth.
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But now, with Holdsclaw playing as aggressively as she did Saturday, two things happen: Things open up for Hammon and Young; and the pressure on Hammon and Young is much less. Again, looking at Saturday’s 88-81 win over L.A., Hammon only took nine shots, and the combination of Hammon shooting fewer than 10 times and San Antonio winning the game was highly unlikely in 2009. Now, with scorer number three on the floor, even not knowing the offense, the Silver Stars are either a) going to have one of their big three going one-on-one, or b) another player on the floor left pretty much wide open (hence Edwige Lawson-Wade and Snow combining for 28 points).
While Holdsclaw adds an established scorer to the mix, Appel adds something that the team lost when center Ann Wauters decided not to play for the team -- an interior passing presence.
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A week after the free-agent signing of six-time All-Star Chamique Holdsclaw, the team has added another weapon to a growing arsenal with Appel finally being cleared to take the court. "People, the last few months, haven't seen the best of Jayne," Silver Stars coach Sandy Brondello said. "This last week has been good for her. She adds another dimension."
One way that Appel takes potentially pressure off the shoulders of the team's stars -- particularly Hammon -- is that she is probably the best passing center ever to enter the league from the collegiate ranks. In the past, this is a team that has been quite effective running a lot of offense through the post -- both the high and low post -- with Ann Wauters. However, it's interesting to note that Wauters was also essentially the team's third scorer -- meaning she was both facilitating offense and looking to score.
With Holdsclaw and Appel, those responsibilities are essentially split -- Appel has typically not been a scoring threat from beyond the low post as Wauters was and Holdsclaw will not likely become the third scorer. So take Kallam's explanation of what Holdsclaw adds and add to that a reliable player who has the skills to run an offense from the post position. Suddenly, they become even more dynamic.
Another way that Appel could potentially help is on the defensive end. She was a very strong rebounder in college by percentage and that typically translates well to pro basketball success, NBA or WNBA. In addition, if you've ever seen Appel in person, she will enter the league as one of the most imposing physical presences around -- she has a wide, strong build, big hands, and outstanding rebounding instincts. In terms of post defense, she demonstrated excellent footwork and positioning during her senior year even while injured. For all that was made of her offensive ability, her defensive contributions should not go unnoticed and will certainly add to what the Silver Stars do.
This is not to anoint Appel as an instant impact player in the league -- there are people who believe she'll be everything from career starter to bust. Additionally, on a team that already has five post players on the roster -- most of whom are veterans -- there's no guarantee (nor should there be) that Appel will play big minutes. But there is no doubt that she gives the Silver Stars a new dimension to consider utilizing going forward.
Aside from the new additions, the Silver Stars will also be getting a bit of a boost from having rested for a week.
Week off allows Silver Stars to heal, learn
Becky Hammon was back on the practice court Thursday, no longer appearing to be slowed by a thigh ailment that, at times, made her look as if she was walking around like Red Foxx of 'Sanford and Son' fame.
Overall, this is a rapidly improving team at least on paper and tonight's game will only be a small glimpse on what they can become.