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WNBA 2019 Team Preview: Without Stewart, the Seattle Storm (#1) may be in for a long season

Between Breanna Stewart’s Achilles injury and head coach Dan Hughes’ cancer diagnosis, the Storm’s 2019 season is already off to a difficult start. But there are also some bright spots the team can explore more fully now.

NCAA Womens Basketball: Vanderbilt at Tennessee
Mercedes Russell, seen here playing with Tennessee in 2018, will likely see a big uptick in playing time this season after Breanna Stewart’s season-ending injury.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Just a few short weeks ago, everything looked different.

The Seattle Storm had a solid draft outing on April 10, though the consensus seemed to be that they didn’t need very much at all out of it — some reinforcements off the bench, maybe some players to develop over the coming years. But on April 14, Breanna Stewart injured her Achilles, which will keep her out for the season. Then, on April 19, head coach Dan Hughes announced he was diagnosed with cancer and will undergo surgery.

Nine days is all it took for the Storm to go from a team with a solid chance at repeating as WNBA champions to staring down two of the biggest obstacles a team can face: the loss of their star, and the uncertainty of their coach’s health throughout the season.

That doesn’t mean the Storm don’t have bright spots, as most members of last season’s championship squad are returning. In fact, the only player who isn’t returning to the court is Noelle Quinn — but she’ll still be on the sideline as an assistant coach. And with plenty of strong training camp invitees to go with their draft picks, the Storm could put together a winning team yet.

Season outlook: The Seattle Storm in 2019

Familiar faces

Seattle had a straightforward re-signing period, bringing back Mercedes Russell and Crystal Langhorne on the first day of free agency to lock in their championship roster for another season. This kind of stability will prove essential, especially considering the more recent changes the team is facing.

The guard situation is similarly secure, with second-year player Jordin Canada already showing herself to be a solid backup for the venerable Sue Bird, and last season’s team second-highest scorer Jewell Loyd also back for more. But the Storm’s latest issues aren’t in their backcourt.

With Stewart out for the season, replacing her height down low is a primary concern. For the majority of the season, the 6-foot-4 forward was joined in the frontcourt by 5-foot-11 Alysha Clark and 6-foot-2 Natasha Howard. But the only two players at Stewart’s height or taller of the returning players are Russell and Courtney Paris, who totaled 3.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game last season.

While Paris is a seasoned veteran who made the most of her 10.6 minutes per game in 2018, that Seattle re-signed second-year player Russell to a multi-year contract shows their obvious investment in her development. The 6-foot-6 center appeared in just 23 games last season, including one postseason game. But with this opportunity to get some playing time in Stewart’s absence, it could be Russell’s year to break out.

Notable newbies

The signing of 10-year veteran guard Shavonte Zellous was Seattle’s marquee free agency pickup. Zellous will add both depth and experience to the Storm, and could influence the look of the starting five as the team decides how to deal with Stewart’s absence. Although her 2018 season was cut short by injury, Zellous will be back in form for 2019 — with the renewed urgency of playing for a winning team that truly needs her experience.

Although the Storm drafted three players last month, their selections won’t pay off immediately. No. 12 overall pick Ezi Magbegor, for example, won’t join the team until 2020. And although Anriel Howard (No. 24 overall) and Macy Miller (No. 36 overall) are intriguing selections, they’re not locks to make the final roster.

The Storm are re-invested in a different later-round draft pick, though, signing 2018 third-round pick Teana Muldrow to a training camp contract on Feb. 7. Muldrow’s WNBA experience includes appearing in three regular-season games for Seattle and one for the Dallas Wings. But it’s her overseas play that has kept her in the conversation, as at the time of her signing she was averaging a double-double for Israeli club Maccabi Ra’anana.

Muldrow, a 6-foot-1 forward, would provide that extra frontcourt help that Seattle needs. But she’ll likely be competing for a job with the 5-foot-11 Howard, who is also coming off a stellar season as a graduate transfer at Mississippi State. The Storm could use either player, but with so little roster space, it will be interesting to see how the team makes its decision.

Seattle also added three rookies to round out its training camp roster: Zykera Rice (Gonzaga), Presley Hudson (Central Michigan) and Recee Caldwell (California). Each led their respective teams in several statistical categories throughout their careers, and each fit needs the Storm are now looking to fill.

Biggest obstacles

Here are the biggest challenges the Storm will face this season:

  1. The impact of Stewart’s absence cannot be overstated. Not only do the Storm have to find someone to fill her position, they’ll also have to find a way to recreate her MVP stat line, which included a team-leading 21.8 points and 8.4 rebounds per game. Seattle isn’t necessarily lacking scorers, but losing your best player is still losing your best player.
  2. Hughes’ cancer diagnosis could leave team leadership in flux. There isn’t a lot yet publicly known about how Hughes’ health issues will affect his management of the team, other than that he will have surgery “prior to the team’s 2019 season opener.” But losing their head coach for any amount of time will certainly affect the players on a mental level.
  3. After all that, there’s a title to defend. Maybe that’s not exactly at the top of the Storm’s list this season, but it has to be in their minds somewhere. With all the adversity on their plate already, it wouldn’t be unforgivable for them to not breeze through the season. But this team will still give it their absolute best — whatever their “best” ends up being this season.

Game zone

Preseason opener

Seattle Storm vs. Phoenix Mercury

When: Wednesday, May 15, at 10 p.m. ET

Where: Angel of the Wings Arena, Everett, WA

How to watch: TBD

Notes: After eliminating the Mercury in last season’s semifinals, the Storm will have to contend with a team out for revenge right out of the gate. Of course, with so many new players looking to impress on both sides, the absences of Stewart and, for the Mercury, Diana Taurasi likely won’t play as big a role in this meeting.

Season home opener

Seattle Storm vs. Phoenix Mercury

When: Saturday, May 25, at 3:30 p.m. ET

Where: Angel of the Wings Arena, Everett, WA

How to watch: ABC

Notes: With considerably pared-down rosters, this meeting between the Storm and Mercury will look a lot different than their May 15 matchup. Both teams will be expected to have found players to fill the holes left by key injuries, and coming out with a win will be a testament to that team’s early resilience. The Storm will have a lot more to lose, though, as their injured star won’t be returning this season.

Marquee matchup

Seattle Storm vs. Washington Mystics

When: Friday, June 14, at 7 p.m. ET

Where: Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington, DC

How to watch: CBS Sports Network

Notes: Though it comes well into the season, the first of three games between these teams will still say a lot about how they’ve dealt with their personnel changes since meeting in the 2018 Finals. If anything, it should be a lot closer than last season’s series, which Seattle took 5-1 (including the three-game sweep in the Finals).