How Ogwumike makes Seattle a WNBA championship contender

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Updated: February 5, 2024



Kevin Pelton, ESPN Senior WriterFeb 5, 2024, 04:50 PM ET

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Formerly a consultant with the Indiana Pacers
Developed WARP rating and SCHOENE system

Just how good will the Seattle Storm be after adding former MVP Nneka Ogwumike in free agency after already signing six-time All-WNBA selection Skylar Diggins-Smith?

In Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike, the Storm signed the top two players in my free agency projections to change teams. By joining holdover star Jewell Loyd, the league’s leading scorer last season, they give Seattle a big three in a similar mold to Loyd’s partnership with Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart that won WNBA championships in 2018 and 2020.

Given the dominance of the two-time defending champion Las Vegas Aces, who knocked off the Storm in the 2022 semifinals before Bird retired and Stewart signed with the New York Liberty in free agency a year ago, winning a title will be a challenge for Seattle’s new big three. Yet after a year in the draft lottery — the franchise’s first since drafting Stewart No. 1 overall in 2018 — their arrival signals a return to contention for the Storm.

Let’s take a look at just how competitive Seattle might be as well as what Ogwumike’s decision signals about free agency.

Ogwumike should slot into a role similar to the one Breanna Stewart had in Seattle: as a finisher out of the pick-and-roll with the team’s star guards, and a creator in one-on-one opportunities with good spacing. Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty ImagesHow Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike fit the Storm

On the surface, Ogwumike picking the Storm because of the opportunity to contend for a title seems odd given the team’s 11-29 record last season — six wins fewer than the Los Angeles Sparks team Ogwumike decided to leave. However, Seattle fell into the lottery because of gaping holes at both point guard and in the frontcourt, which Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike massively upgrade instantly.

The Storm tried three starting point guards last season, beginning with journeywoman Yvonne Turner and giving international veteran Ivana Dojkic a long look before settling on veteran Sami Whitcomb, who’s a more natural fit on the wing. In games Whitcomb started at the point, Seattle was a more competitive 7-11 (.389), compared with 4-18 (.182) the rest of the season.

With Diggins-Smith’s arrival, there’s no question who will start at point guard. The last time we saw her on the court — with the Phoenix Mercury in 2022, before she sat out last season after giving birth to her second child — Diggins-Smith was an All-WNBA first-team pick while averaging 19.7 points, 5.5 assists and a career-high 1.6 steals.

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Seattle coach Noelle Quinn also rotated through options alongside first-time All-Star Ezi Magbegor in the frontcourt, with rookie second-round pick Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu getting 21 starts after supplanting veteran Mercedes Russell. Both Fankam Mendjiadeu and Russell now slot into reserve roles behind a starting duo of Magbegor, who’s versatile enough to play both power forward and center, and Ogwumike.

Like Diggins-Smith and Loyd, Ogwumike is coming off an All-WNBA season. She has made the second team each of the past two years, and last year’s 19.1 points per game were Ogwumike’s most since 2016. We can expect to see her in a role similar to the one Stewart played in Seattle: as both a finisher out of the pick-and-roll with the team’s star guards and as a creator in one-on-one opportunities with good spacing around her. For Ogwumike, having so much supporting talent should be a pleasant change of pace. She hasn’t had a teammate make the All-Star Game since Chelsea Gray and Candace Parker left the Sparks in free agency after the 2020 season.

It’s the #PNnW 🌩️ pic.twitter.com/e0RLhJKzhg

— Nneka Ogwumike (@nnekaogwumike) February 5, 2024

Compared with the Bird-Loyd-Stewart trio, this version of the Storm’s big three is a bit higher-usage. In their most recent seasons, Loyd (33%), Diggins-Smith (29%) and Ogwumike (27%) combined to finish 89% of their teams’ plays while on the court, a number that will inevitably go down as they play together. By contrast, the Bird-Loyd-Stewart group had a combined 71% usage rate in 2020 during the team’s most recent title run.

However, we’ve seen all three sacrifice when playing with more star-studded rosters in the past. Diggins-Smith’s usage rate was around 25% her first two seasons with the Mercury alongside Brittney Griner; Ogwumike’s was closer to 21% with Gray and Parker; Loyd’s, 26.5% in 2022. Those marks would put them in the same combined range as when Bird and Stewart played with Loyd.

Jordan Horston and Dulcy Fankam Mendjiadeu are among the young talent that should benefit from the new free agency signings this season. Their development will be key to Seattle’s championship hopes. David Becker/NBAE via Getty ImagesHow good will Seattle be?

With three All-WNBA starters plus a fourth All-Star in Magbegor, the Storm’s starting lineup looks more talented on paper than any outside of the Las Vegas and New York superteams that met in both last year’s WNBA Finals and Commissioner’s Cup final.

Whether Seattle can indeed emerge as the biggest threat to the Aces and Liberty will depend on the development of the team’s young talent. In those four starters plus Whitcomb, the Storm have five reliable players. The rest of the roster will lean heavily on youth, including second-year players Fankam Mendjiadeu, Jade Melbourne and 2023 first-round pick Jordan Horston.

Ideally, Horston would maintain the starting role she filled the second half of last season, which earned her All-Rookie honors. That would enable Quinn to use Whitcomb at multiple positions off the bench. Horston’s defensive versatility will allow her to defend the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, taking that responsibility off Loyd’s plate, but she must improve on her 24% 3-point shooting as a rookie.

Melbourne — who was the WNBA’s youngest player last season, turning 21 in August — is also key. Her emergence as a reliable backup to Diggins-Smith would allow Whitcomb to focus primarily on the wing.

There are plenty of other teams in the mix to be the third-best team in the WNBA next season. The Connecticut Sun, who finished third in 2023, return their core after re-signing DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones on Monday. The younger Atlanta Dream and Dallas Wings both hope to take steps forward, with the Dream upgrading at point guard via a sign-and-trade deal for Ogwumike’s former teammate Jordin Canada. And the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix both added role players in free agency to build around their stars.

Still, if the Storm’s bench coalesces, nobody outside Las Vegas and New York can match Seattle’s top-end talent.

Practice facilities pay off in WNBA free agency

It’s surely not a coincidence that the Storm landed two top free agents the same year the team is set to move into a new, dedicated practice facility. Seattle is following in the footsteps of the Aces, who added Alysha Clark and Candace Parker as free agents to their championship roster as they opened their own practice facility last year.

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Although one of Ogwumike’s finalists was the Chicago Sky, who practice in a public facility in the Chicago suburbs, her decision ultimately appears to have come down to the Storm and Liberty — who also have their own facilities in their home arena, Barclays Center.

Last year, Los Angeles chief administrative officer Karen Bryant told ESPN, “as we go forward [facilities] will be the differentiator.” That future might be now, leaving the Sky and Sparks behind. Investment in players is one factor in why the WNBA has become so top-heavy.

Of last year’s 10 All-WNBA picks, seven now play for either Las Vegas, New York (including Stewart, who has yet to officially re-sign as a core player) or Seattle. If Parker re-signs with the Aces, that total will be eight of 10 from the 2022 All-WNBA teams, with the Connecticut Sun’s Alyssa Thomas the only active player not playing for one of those three squads.

Maintaining that advantage in free agency will be key for the Storm, who have sacrificed some of their future in pursuit of contention now. Diggins-Smith and Ogwumike will both turn 34 during the season, and creating cap space to sign them required the franchise to give up this year’s No. 4 pick in a deal that sent Kia Nurse to Los Angeles.

Ogwumike’s deal is for just one season, per ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. (Diggins-Smith signed for two years, according to HerHoopStats.com’s salary data.) As long as the Storm remain a desired destination in free agency, however, they can continue replenishing the talent around the 30-year-old Loyd. Add in an unprotected 2026 first-round pick that Seattle got from the Sparks in the Nurse deal, and it might be possible to develop a new generation while contending now.





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