After nearly two weeks of training camp, the defending WNBA champions will get a chance to see how its eclectic mix of returners and newcomers fare in a game when the new-look Storm travel to play the Phoenix Mercury.
Saturday’s 3 p.m. exhibition opener at Phoenix Suns Arena will not be televised and the Storm is missing five players, including two-time WNBA Finals MVP Breanna Stewart.
Still, Dan Hughes, who returns to the Storm sidelines for the first time since 2019 — he was unable to coach last year due to medical reasons — is treating the team’s first dress rehearsal like a real game.
“We’re going to play to win,” Hughes said. “But winning the day is about us doing it across our lineup and doing it in a way that we feel like we’re making sense with what we’ve done the last two weeks.”
The Storm will start Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd in the backcourt with Candice Dupree making her Storm debut alongside second-year center Ezi Magbegor up front.
Hughes is undecided about who will start at small forward. He’ll choose between training camp invites Stephanie Talbot and Tamera Young, with possibly one starting the first half and the other starting the second.
The starters will play 15-20 minutes, which Hughes hopes is an opportunity to start building chemistry, while leaving enough time for the Storm coaching staff to get a good look at several newcomers vying for roster spots, including second-round draft picks Kiana Williams and N’dea Jones.
“The one thing that’s positive is we’re going to get another look on Monday, and we actually might have a little more time in that situation that we can do that,” Hughes said referring to Monday’s closed-door scrimmage against Phoenix in Seattle. “What I don’t get accomplished (Saturday), I’ll try to make sure I get accomplished on Monday.”
Stewart is quarantining in Seattle and going through WNBA protocols, which require six straight days of negative COVID-19 tests, before joining the team next week.
Hughes expects Katie Lou Samuelson to arrive sometime next week, however he was unsure if Epiphanny Prince, Mercedes Russell and Mikiah ‘Kiki’ Herbert Harrigan would be available for the Storm’s May 15 regular-season opener against Las Vegas.
“There’s a lot of moving parts on our roster,” Hughes said.
Saturday’s exhibition is also the Storm’s first game outside of the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, where the league held the entire 2020 season due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Hughes admitted he’s anxious and curious about the WNBA’s travel protocols and safety guidelines.
“To be honest with you, I’m taking the time to read what we’re supposed to be doing and how we’re doing it,” he said. “As much as winning the day on the basketball court, I have really messaged winning the day in our situations with protocols, testing and all those things. I’m glad we get on the road and get an idea of what it’s going to look like. It’s different. I’m asking a lot of questions.
“I’ve been doing this over 20 years and I got to ask questions. Can I go out to eat here? Can I do that? What about this? It’s a new norm, but we want to win that too.”
Still, Hughes joked he won’t have any problems with the league’s 8 p.m. dinner curfew.
“That’s not going to be a problem,” he said laughing. “That’s my bedtime. So we’re cool on that. … Now for the players that might be a little different. But the head coach is going to be in at eight and he is going to be on his way to sleep. That’s one advantage of a 66-year-old in that position.”
Changing of the ball
or the first time, the Storm will play a game with the WNBA’s new Wilson basketball, which replaces the Spalding version that had been used since the league started 25 years ago.
Early reaction to the Wilson ball has been positive.
“I actually prefer it to the Spalding ball,” Dupree said. “It’s got a lot more grip to it. I have really, really big hands. I just kind of play with it and all that kind of stuff. I’m definitely a fan.
“I bought a couple in the offseason to see what I was going to be working with and to work out with those. I definitely love them.”