Jewell Loyd is ascending.
In one quick motion, the Storm guard catches an inbound pass, springs from the floor and turns midair to get off a shot over the outstretched arm of 6-foot-4 Satou Sabally in less than 0.8 seconds.
The 28-foot three-pointer sails high in the air — “It felt like it took forever for the ball to actually get in the hoop,” Loyd says — before splashing through the net as time expires and the crowd erupts during the Storm’s thrilling, 105-102 victory over Dallas on Friday.
It was the kind of shot that has become symbolic of Loyd, who is in the early stages of what appears be an incredible season.
Through nine games, the seven-year veteran is averaging career highs in points per game (20.7), assists (4.8), steals (1.6), blocks (0.4), minutes (33.6), field-goal percentage (46.7%) and three-point percentage (42.9%).
If Loyd maintains her pace, she would be the first WNBA player to average at least 20 points, 4.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals.
The numbers say Loyd is a statistical anomaly, and her game-winning shot that beat Dallas and her buzzer-beater against Los Angles last year suggest the 26-year-old star is rising into elite status among the league’s greats.
“She has that clutch gene,” coach Noelle Quinn said. “If you look at the overall progression of Jewell and her game, she’s blossomed before our eyes. What you see is the consistency. You see confidence. You see just stability. She practices those shots. She has the DNA to hit those shots, and she doesn’t mind taking those shots. But she puts the work in.
“It’s not a surprise that she’s been able to do that. She’s been so good this year. … Her consistency on both the offensive and defensive end, think you’ll just continue to see her blossom and taking on the ownership of being steady for us night in and night out.”
Loyd has displayed glimpses of greatness during her previous six years, which inexplicably preceded protracted bouts of ineffective and listless performances.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 draft lost her starting job after two games in her first season after she connected on just 2 of 20 field goals. Following an 11-game stint on the bench, she returned to the starting lineup and averaged 10.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 1.9 assists to win the league’s Rookie of the Year award.
In 2018, Loyd garnered her first of two WNBA All-Star selections but struggled in the postseason. Her 9-for-37 shooting slump in Games 2-5 against Phoenix in the WNBA semifinals resulted in a diminished role and reduction of minutes as the series progressed.
And in 2019 Loyd dealt with the first serious injury of her career, an ankle sprain that forced her to miss seven games. She started 21 of 34 games while averaging 12.3 points and shooting 39.1% from the field — both career lows.
Loyd returned to All-Star form last year during an abbreviated 22-game season in which she averaged 15.5 points, 3.2 assists, 2.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals while shooting 44.3% from the floor and a personal-best 39.0% from long range.
Loyd’s 2020 campaign was highlighted by a career-high 35-point performance against Indiana as well as a personal playoff-best 28-point outing against Las Vegas in the WNBA Finals.
“Jewell has improved each season,” ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said. “She’s gotten better moving without the ball and also knowing the right shots to take. She’s improved defensively. She has always had the tools to be a great player. It seems like everything is coming together this season.”
Entering Wednesday’s game at Atlanta (4-4), Loyd has scored at least 20 points in five games for Seattle (7-2), including 25 in each of her past two outings.
“Jewell is just continuing her play from last season,” Storm guard Sue Bird said. “Last season, because we had in my opinion the MVP on our team (Breanna Stewart) playing amazing, you didn’t always get to talk about Jewell as much as we should have.
“She’s just continuing that play. With age and maturity, she’s getting more and more comfortable on the court and just more comfortable with who she is as a player and taking advantage of things out there. But you can just tell her play is rising. Her confidence is rising and that has been happening. It’s not just a 2021 thing.”
Loyd has been so good of late she’s drawn early MVP consideration as the WNBA completes a quarter of its 32-game schedule.
The other top contenders include Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones, New York’s Betnijah Laney, Washington’s Tina Charles, Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale and Stewart.
“It’s staying patient,” Loyd said when asked about her ability to make clutch shots. “Staying ready. Not trying to overthink. Experience. Confidence. And my teammates. I give credit to a lot of people who are in my circle that have always had my back and kept me motivated. It’s not just me.”
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