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Storm surge: Seattle back in title conversation with new Big 3

Julian Catalfo / theScore

Noelle Quinn knows all about winning titles with the Seattle Storm.

The Storm head coach won her first WNBA championship as a player in 2018 and added another ring two years later as the club's associate head coach.

At the heart of both squads was its All-Star trio of Sue Bird, Breanna Stewart, and Jewell Loyd, which was broken up following a hard-fought loss to the Las Vegas Aces in the 2022 semifinals.

Bird retired after a decorated 19-season WNBA career, while Stewart signed with the Liberty in free agency to form a new Big Three in New York.

With only Loyd remaining, Seattle stumbled to an 11-29 record last season - its second-worst mark in franchise history.

Seattle's front office responded aggressively in the offseason, signing six-time All-WNBAer Skylar Diggins-Smith and former MVP Nneka Ogwumike.

Loyd thrived playing alongside a star point guard (Bird) and post threat (Stewart) and Quinn said replicating that formula influenced their free-agency decisions.

"We wanted to add complementary pieces around Jewell. Elite athletes in primary positions are important," Quinn told theScore ahead of the Storm's preseason opener. "Jewell had an amazing season. She had to carry a lot of that (offensive) load."

Quinn added: "The looks are different having two other prolific scorers on the floor, but (we want) the outcome to be the same as far as efficient offence."

Liv Lyons / National Basketball Association / Getty

Loyd won her maiden scoring title and set a single-season WNBA record for total points in 2023. Despite her individual accolades, the five-time All-Star shot a career-worst 37.1% from the field, and the team was clearly not as potent after Bird's and Stewart's departure.

Seattle finished last in offensive efficiency, tallying nearly six fewer points per 100 possessions than the year prior. The Storm also finished 10th in field goals made within five feet of the basket (475), 11th in points in the paint (32.1 per game), and 12th in assists (17.7).

Diggins-Smith should immediately help in all those areas. The veteran floor general's burst off the bounce was evident throughout her first Seattle appearance. She repeatedly got into the teeth of the opponent's defense, finishing with her signature left-handed floater in the lane or driving all the way to the rim.

Diggins-Smith's playmaking skills were on display, as well, as she orchestrated the pick-and-roll and connected with Loyd on a pair of occasions, including a nifty lob in transition:

"(Loyd) was seeing double-, triple-teams and a few junk defenses and was able to have a career year," Quinn said. "But I think about the shots that are gonna be easier for her because we have an elite point guard. Someone who can find her, get her the ball where she needs it, but also demand a double-team herself."

Ogwumike should be equally impactful on the offensive end. The 33-year-old is coming off one of her best campaigns, finishing in the top 10 in points (19.1 per), rebounds (8.8), steals (1.7), field-goal percentage (51.2%), and free throws made (140).

Ogwumike's an elite finisher around the basket, a threat out of the pick-and-roll, and can create for herself one-on-one. She's also extended her shooting range and improved as a secondary facilitator over the last few seasons.

Quinn experimented with Ogwumike's enhanced passing ability in both the Storm's preseason matchups, using the 6-foot-2 forward in dribble-handoff actions in the high post and 3-point arc.

"I don't want to take away her ability to face up on the block or short corner," Quinn said. "I want to put her in more space, too. You see what Nneka can do in space. You see how smart she is, operating in the elbow, mid-range area."

Loyd, who led her peers in usage rate last season, is more than delighted to have two other stars take on some of her responsibilities.

Loyd and Diggins-Smith's relationship dates back to their time at Notre Dame, where they shared the backcourt in 2012-13. Meanwhile, Ogwumike is one of the most respected players in the women's game as president of the players' association.

It'll take some time for the trio to get on the same page, but Loyd is encouraged with their progress heading into Tuesday's season opener.

"A lot of it is just understanding spacing," Loyd said of the Storm's offensive system. "The way we play here is different. There's more concepts than just absolute plays. With the personnel we have here, it allows everyone to have a different amount of space.

"It's just learning what you can do. Both Skylar and Nneka are still learning how dominant they can be in their games, where they can really challenge themselves to be even better, but also how effortlessly they can help everyone else around them."

Jordan Jones / National Basketball Association / Getty

Quinn's also leaning on Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike to guide one of the league's younger locker rooms.

The fourth-year head coach spoke glowingly of Seattle's marquee additions, complimenting the pair for setting the tone early with their voice and actions. She's been impressed with their conduct in practice and their continued desire to learn.

"It breeds a positive environment where these young players can see these vets who are working so hard," Quinn said. "Vets who they maybe grew up watching because they're so young. But to see what it takes to be the best of the best is very good for these young athletes, who kind of sometimes don't know what it takes to have longevity in the game."

Ezi Magbegor is among the rising talents who'll benefit from the Storm's offseason makeover.

While the new Big Three have dominated headlines, Quinn's quick to remind people Seattle's got a "Core Four," with Magbegor rounding out its star-studded lineup.

Magbegor had a breakout 2023 amid Seattle's struggles, averaging 13.8 points, 8.1 boards, 2.6 assists, 1.9 blocks, and 1.1 steals over 40 appearances. The 6-4 center was rewarded with her first All-Star nod and a second straight WNBA All-Defensive second-team selection.

Magbegor's skill set is tailored to the modern game. The Australian runs the floor in transition, has the mobility to defend on the perimeter, and continues to improve as a 3-point shooter. Two-time MVP A'ja Wilson was the only player who swatted more shots than Magbegor last season.

Ogwumike always admired Magbegor's game from afar and they've struck a personal connection through their Nigerian heritage.

"I'm just excited to play with someone who has such a high ceiling, is such a good person, and has so much to grow in this league, even though she's already an All-Star," Ogwumike told theScore. "I want to hopefully be able to learn from her and help contribute to the legendary pro that we all expect her to be."

Scott Eklund / National Basketball Association / Getty

There's no guarantee the Storm's new superteam will result in a record-setting fifth WNBA title. But both Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike remain hungry as ever in the latter stages of their careers.

"I'm incredibly excited," Ogwumike said. "I think I'm stepping into what it feels like to have fun to play again. I really love being a student of the game and I'm finding that has been my experience since day one.

"It's fun learning from my coaches, my teammates, and being a veteran as seasoned as I am. Coming out here and still being able to impact and change things and have new experiences and goals - I'm just very grateful to be exactly where I'm supposed to be."

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