Long after the Storm’s afternoon practice ends and players have filed out of Royal Brougham Pavilion at Seattle Pacific University, Evina Westbrook gets to work.
This is her time to rediscover her love for basketball.
“I fell in love all over again with being in the gym like my younger self when I never wanted to leave and always wanted to be here,” the Storm rookie said earlier this week. “I’m trying to get as much work in as possible. It kind of just hit me when I was at the hotel.
“I was like, Evina this is your job. I don’t have to think about school. I don’t have to think about anything else besides getting better at the thing that I love to do, so I’m going to put all of my energy into that.”
Westbrook takes over the sound system and cues up Luther Vandross, whose soulful and melodic ballads from the ‘80s provide a soundtrack as she fires up shot after shot in an attempt to reclaim the game that propelled the Salem, Oregon, native to national prominence several years ago.
Sitting across the gym, Noelle Quinn takes notice.
The Storm coach loves everything about this scene from the choice in music to the post-practice routine in which Westbrook has been the last person off the floor after nearly every day in training camp.
“That says that she wants it,” Quinn said. “That says she has an innate ability to push herself and has that want to get better, that want to be in the gym, that want to be in this city and be with this organization to prove that she can run with us and make this team.
“A lot of young individuals don’t have that desire to do that on their own. It’s good to see her. It’s natural. It’s not that she’s trying to show us she can be a something she’s not. That’s who she is. There’s nothing better to see that.”
Westbrook, who was taken 21st overall in the second round of the WNBA draft, needs these moments if she’s going to buck the impossible odds and latch on with the Storm — or another WNBA team — this season.
The odds are stacked against her for various reasons.
One of the benefits of the WNBA’s widely celebrated collective bargaining agreement, which went into effect in 2020 and runs to 2027, was the increase in salaries. This year, the player maximum salary is $228,094, which is a significantly higher than the $117,500 super max salary in 2020.
However, despite bigger salary caps, several teams, including Seattle, are financially constrained more than ever to fill the roster with just 11 players, which is one shy of the league maximum.
The WNBA likes to tout its 144 players in the league, a number that it stitched into every jersey. But in reality, the WNBA will begin the regular season next week with about 138 players on team rosters.
That makes things increasingly difficult for players like Westbrook, considering Seattle hasn’t had a rookie play their entire first year since Jordin Canada in 2018.
“I wish we had 14 roster spots,” Quinn said. “I wish we had a developmental team or league. Not just Evina, but you look at a player like Raina (Perez) or Elissa (Cunane). A place to give them time to develop in our system would be amazing for us.
“This is the difficult part because we are in win-now mode and we have to make tough decisions on where we are with our team and who is going to be most beneficial to have. Every spot is crucial.”
The Storm don’t have the luxury to stash and develop a rookie at the end of the bench like it did with third-year veteran Ezi Magbegor in 2020 or second-round draft pick Kiana Williams, who spent half of the season in Seattle last year before being waived June 28 after appearing in eight games.
In many ways, Thursday’s 7 p.m. preseason game against the Phoenix Mercury at Footprint Center is Westbrook’s last and best chance to make a favorable impression on the Storm before next week’s final roster cutdowns.
“It’s definitely a big game for everyone trying to claim your spot,” said Westbrook, who is theoretically contending with veterans Jantel Lavender, Kennedy Burke, Mikiah “Kiki” Herbert Harrigan and Cunane for the final two roster spots. “You just got to go out there and play at the end of the day.”
Westbrook appears to have the size, skill and athleticism to play in the WNBA.
At 6 feet and 156 pounds, she’s displayed versatility to defend point guards and power forwards.
Admittedly, Westbrook is trying to break habits she honed during her three years at the University of Connecticut, which have been counterproductive as she learns and tries to integrate into the Storm’s free-flowing schemes.
“They’re telling me you’re not at UConn anymore,” said Westbrook who tallied three points on 1-for-5 shooting in 14½ minutes of Saturday’s 81-68 preseason win over the Los Angeles Sparks. “Get out of that. Whatever is in your head, you thinking you always got to cut or screen, no. Think about you. You know how to pass. That’s never going to go away. You’re going to make the right pass, but keep being aggressive.
“In the W, it’s about getting possessions. They want as many possessions as possible. As soon as you’re open, shoot it. You see a straight line drive, go to the basket. It’s really simple. I try not to complicate it in my head, but I was just so used to doing one thing for however many years. I was trained to do this. Every time someone came at me with the ball, I was trained to back cut. Jewell (Loyd) said stop back cutting. Go get the ball. Little things like that I have to get out of.”
Quinn added: “In this league — make or miss — you take the open looks because you don’t get a lot of open ones. You have to take them. Reps remove the doubt. She has to trust herself to take those open ones.”
And that’s why Westbrook is in the gym longer than anyone else.
She wouldn’t change anything about a college career that includes two-year playing stints at Tennessee (2017-19) and Connecticut (2020-21) — two of the storied women’s basketball programs in history — where she averaged 10.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 4.4 while making four trips to the NCAA tournament and compiling a 102-29 record.
Westbrook credits her time with the Huskies for honing her leadership skills. After sitting out the 2019-20 season due to NCAA transfer rules and undergoing two knee surgeries, UConn teammates began affectionately referring to her as “Momma E.”
The 23-year-old Huskies captain embraced the role. She offered rides, cooked dinners, helped with school and surprised teammates with a secret Santa Christmas party and a Valentine’s Day scavenger hunt around campus.
Three weeks ago, she tallied seven points, four rebounds and two assists in a 64-49 NCAA tournament championship game loss to South Carolina that still causes her to grimace when the topic is broached.
These days, Westbrook doesn’t have time to reflect on her basketball journey that skyrocketed to stardom after leading South Salem High to back-to-back Oregon Class 6A state championships in 2015 and 2016 and being the No. 2 nationally ranked prep recruit in 2017.
“Honestly, the only thing I have in my mind are these 50 plays that Coach Noelle has put in,” Westbrook said smiling. “I’ve always been that player I was in high school, but that just wasn’t my role and I was OK with it because I was trying to benefit my team at the time.
“Being here, I’m in my own skin again and getting comfortable. The confidence that the coaches are giving me, there’s no better feeling. I’m just trying to learn from all the greatness that’s in the gym right now.”
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