Storm coach Dan Hughes wishes he hadn’t signed off on the plan to rush Jewell Loyd so quickly during her recovery from a severe right ankle sprain.
In retrospect, he regrets not lessening her workload and slowly building her minutes before a rapid return to the starting lineup.
Four weeks after Loyd injured her ankle, the two-time All-Star made her first start in the WNBA All-Star Game on July 27, which was a crowning achievement in her five-year pro career.
The following week, she regained her spot in the starting lineup for the Storm seemingly ready to resume her role as the team’s second leading scorer.
However, Loyd tallied eight points on 2-for-8 shooting and 0 for 4 on three-pointers in 24 minutes against Washington.
Two days later in Los Angeles, she converted 1 of 6 shots from the field for four points while committing three turnovers in 22 minutes.
Seattle lost both games and slipped to 12-11 in the standings.
At that point, Hughes sat down with Loyd to reassess her recovery and removed her from the starting lineup.
“We talked about putting the minutes back at a lower level and letting her kind of increase over the next two weeks to get her back to normal,” Hughes said. “Our hope is to grow Jewell over the next and half and by the end of the season get her back into exactly who she is.
“It took us stepping back and saying it’s going to be about 8 weeks before Jewell is really able to return to the wonderful athlete that she is.”
The decision to move Loyd to the bench was hastened by the ascension of backup guard Sami Whitcomb who is having a breakout year in her third WNBA season.
In 11 starts, Whitcomb is averaging 10.6 points, 3.5 assists, 2.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 28.6 minutes while shooting 34.5 percent on three-pointers.
Whitcomb has scored in double figures in 6 of the past 9 games, including a season-high 18-point outing during Sunday’s 84-69 win at New York.
Meanwhile in the past five games, Loyd is averaging just 8 points, which is her lowest scoring average over a five-game stretch since her rookie year in 2015.
In 18 games this season, Loyd is averaging 12.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 25.7 minutes – each a season low since her first year in the league.
Still, benching a star player this late in the season is never easy because team chemistry and player’s egos can be irrevocably shattered.
“Luckily, Jewell Loyd cares more about the team than she does anything,” Hughes said. “Can it be tricky? Absolutely. Is it tricky with Jewell? No. Jewell truly wants what’s best for the team. She is a great teammate. I really appreciate that about her.”
Seattle (14-11) finishes its three-game road trip against the top two teams in the league starting with Wednesday’s 5 p.m. matchup against Washington (17-7) followed by Friday’s tilt at Connecticut (16-8).
The Storm is 1-1 against the Mystics, including a 99-79 defeat two weeks ago in which leading MVP candidate Elena Delle Donne tallied 29 points and 13 rebounds.
Washington is the highest-scoring team in the WNBA that averages 87.9 points while Seattle has the league’s stingiest defense that allows just 74.0 per game.
“We all recognize that these are two of the best teams in the league, but I’m open-minded,” Hughes said. “This team has not been one that you put it in a box and say here’s who we are and this is all that we can do.
“They’ve gotten outside their comfort zone so in no way do I want to inhibit that. I want them to get as far outside their comfort zone and attain what they can attain. … Quite honestly, Washington kicked our butts the last game and I’m trying really hard to make sure we have a different story in this one.”
Hughes deserves WNBA coach of the year consideration for keeping the injury-riddled Storm in the thick of a playoff race despite the absence of reigning MVP Breanna Stewart and perennial All-Star Sue Bird.
With nine games left, Seattle is 3½ games out of first place and one of six teams seriously in the hunt for the league’s best record and the No. 1 playoff seed.
“You try to get your team to a position where you feel like you’re playing good basketball as you close out the year,” Hughes said. “Our thinking always is make the playoffs as you’re playing good basketball regardless of how we end up where we end up.”
At that point, Hughes hopes the defending WNBA champions are full throttle, including Loyd.
“For us to make a mark at the end of the season and into the playoffs, we need Jewell to be Jewell,” Hughes said.