Dan Hughes spent the past year hunkered down at home in Beavercreek, Ohio, with his wife Mary, but now he’s returned to his happy place — back on a basketball court and coaching.
“I feel very blessed that I am doing what I’ve done most of my life and being able to interact with players and being on the court and looking at the game from that standpoint,” the Storm coach said during a Monday morning Zoom call from San Antonio, where he’s working as an assistant at a minicamp for the USA Basketball women’s team ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this summer. “Sometimes we take for granted things.
“What this period of pandemic has taught a lot of us is, we don’t take anything for granted any more. We feel blessed when we have a chance to be in that day doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”
Hughes and his wife are fully vaccinated, which he said gave him the confidence “to start getting back out into the world.”
“I was just really lucky,” said the 65-year-old Hughes. “I was one of those people that got it pretty early because they had an extra vaccine that was going to go to waste. They called me and said, ‘Hey can you get here?'”
“What was amazing is I got the call from my point guard in 1978 (at Madison-Plains High School in London, Ohio) who said, ‘Hey Coach, can you get here in 45 minutes? We have an extra vaccine that they’d love to give to somebody. … I jumped in the car and I got it pretty early.”
Last year, the WNBA medical board denied Hughes entry into the league’s bubble at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, due to his increased risk for severe illness if he contracted COVID-19.
In May 2019, Hughes underwent surgery to have a cancerous tumor removed from his digestive tract, which forced him to miss the first nine games that season.
Each time Hughes has been sidelined, assistant Gary Kloppenburg took over, and in 2020 he led the Storm to an 18-4 record and a WNBA championship — the fourth in franchise history.
Hughes, who guided Seattle to a league title in 2018, returns for his third year with the 68-year-old Kloppenburg seamlessly sliding over into the assistant role.
“It’s a partnership,” Hughes said. “He and I have seen a lot of this league. And he and I come at a certain point, where we don’t really care who gets the credit. We care that we’re successful and that we win championships. That’s pretty rare. I like to think I’m that way, but I know Gary is that way.
“We don’t really care about the labels or who the credit is given. That’s kind of the culture we want to come across to the players with and I think one of the special things of my coaching career has been able to partner with Gary.”
Hughes acknowledged defending the WNBA championship will not be easy after a turbulent offseason in which the Storm was forced to revamp the roster due to budgetary constraints.
To recap, Alysha Clark left in free agency and signed a lucrative two-year, $366,000 deal with the Washington Mystics.
Seattle dealt Natasha Howard to New York for two first-round draft choices and traded Sami Whitcomb to the Liberty for Stephanie Talbot.
The Storm swapped its 2022 first-round pick with Minnesota for Mikiah ‘Kiki’ Herbert Harrigan and traded the No. 1 overall choice in the draft this year to Dallas for Katie Lou Samuelson.
In addition, Seattle signed free agent Candice Dupree to a one-year, $170,000 deal while Crystal Langhorne and Morgan Tuck retired.
“It’s different,” Hughes said. “There’s no doubt I would have loved to continue to coach the team that we had basically evolving over the last three years. But the one thing I know is that success often accompanies change. It’s not unusual in professional sports or a lot of things that change is part of the future. So every year is kind of unique.”
Hughes said finding chemistry is the top priority with a Storm team that currently comprises seven returnees and seven newcomers, including Kitija Laksa, the first-round choice from last year, and three training camp invitees (Tamera Young, Haley Gorecki and Talbot).
The WNBA roster limit is 12 and training camp is expected to start in late April.
Here are a few highlights from a 35-minute conversation with Hughes.
— The Storm returns three All-Star starters in Breanna Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird, and Dupree, a seven-time All-Star forward, will replace Howard in the lineup. Seemingly, Herbert Harrigan and Samuelson will get the first opportunities to fill the gaping hole created by Clark’s departure.
— Without Clark to defend opposing team’s top wing players, Hughes said “we’re going to lean on (Loyd) a little harder” on the defensive end.
— Hughes would like Stewart, a 6-foot-4 forward who averaged a career-high 3.6 assists last year, to assume more playmaking responsibilities.
— Hughes understands it’s a make-or-break year for backup point guard Jordin Canada, who is in the final year of her rookie deal and could potentially double her $70,040 salary if she hits free agency.
— It sounds as if Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor will compete once again for minutes as backup centers. Hughes said the Sixth Woman of the Year award would be great incentive for Magbegor, who had a surprisingly solid rookie season last year while averaging 6.5 points, 2.5 rebounds and 13.3 minutes.
— Laksa, who remained at home in Latvia last season, is expected to arrive for training camp and will have an opportunity to crack the rotation.
— With the No. 11 choice in the WNBA draft, which is April 15, the Storm isn’t expecting to select anyone who will make an immediate impact.
“There’s a couple of ways we can go,” Hughes said. “There’s enough flexibility that if one of the players we like is a guard or a post, we can take them. I do kind of believe that. When you pick 11, you just really hope there’s somebody that you feel strongly about that you’re able to select. Eleven, that’s down the road a bit.
“But coming off all the discussions we had, I think it’s possible that this player that we select could have a good opportunity to make your team. When you’re picking at that level, that’s what you want. It’s not a deep or one of the best drafts that we’ve ever seen, but there is a lot of equity. We could get a player at 11 that might be thought about at six. It’s going to interesting to watch it play out.”
— Clark, who spent nine seasons with the Storm before joining the Mystics in January, suffered a Lisfranc injury of her right foot while playing in Lyon, France, and will miss the 2021 WNBA season.