A team without many pressing needs plans for the future.
The Seattle Storm were 2018 WNBA Champions, and the large expectation was that they would contend again in 2019 — until disaster struck. 2018 League MVP Breanna Stewart ruptured her achilles tendon on April 14 while competing in Europe for her Russian team, causing her to miss the entire season. Compounding this setback was 11-time all-star Sue Bird’s announcement during the first week of the season that she would undergo left knee surgery, causing her to miss the full duration of the campaign as well.
Somehow, the Storm salvaged what remained of their roster to finish the season at 18-16 and sixth in the final standings. The Storm even emerged victorious in their first round playoff game at home over the Minnesota Lynx before the year concluded with a second-round single elimination loss to the Los Angeles Sparks.
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Should a season occur in 2020 — with league operations beyond the draft indefinitely postponed due to COVID-19 — the Storm will be high on the list of championship contenders given the return of Stewart and Bird alongside the rapid progression of Natasha Howard. The Storm also added veteran guard Epiphanny Prince in the offseason, who arrives after spending the second half of the 2019 season with the Las Vegas Aces. Prince will complement the shooting of three-point specialists Alysha Clark and Sami Whitcomb.
That left Seattle with few pressing needs entering the 2020 Draft on Friday, during which they held the 11th, 19th and 31st overall picks. That didn’t mean they couldn’t bolster their roster with an influx of young talent, or, as ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo phrased it during the ESPN broadcast of the draft, a “pick for the future.”
With their first-round selection, the Storm selected Kitija Laksa, a 6-foot wing from Riga, Latvia. Laksa participated in the draft — conducted virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic — from her hometown and was selected at approximately 3 a.m. local time, staying awake for several more hours afterward to fulfill media obligations.
“It’s a dream come true. It couldn’t have gone any better or join a better team. I’m excited. Definitely a very, very good feeling right now — even at 5 a.m.,” said Laksa on a conference call. “I’m excited to return to the States. I’ve missed it. I’ve missed America. I’ve missed the basketball there, just the people and friends I left in the States, so I’m very excited for the opportunity.”
Laksa played over three seasons with the South Florida Bulls before suffering a season-ending ACL and meniscus injury three games into her senior season. She finished her USF career sixth all-time in scoring at 1,718 points, first all-time in free throw percentage at 89.6 and second in three-point percentage at 39.1.
Following the injury, Laksa opted to forego a final year of eligibility in the NCAA and instead competed for TTT Riga. Unfortunately, Laksa didn’t experience the same kind of success she had at South Florida. She played seven games during the 2019-20 season, averaging just eight points on 30% shooting from the field.
“Maybe my season over here was not the best one or something I would be the most proud of, but it definitely was an experience I learned a lot, and just seeing and being a part of this team helped me just to probably fit in in another team in the future in professional basketball,” said Laksa.
Storm head coach Dan Hughes was drawn to Laksa through several other instances of watching her play, whether with USF against fellow-AAC foe Connecticut or in the 2018 World Cup against USA Basketball, for which the Hughes serves as an assistant.
“She moves without the ball unbelievably, I mean really has a knack for reading screens and quick at stop and start type of things, quick release on her shot,” said Hughes. “[In the World Cup], their whole offense was kind of geared to her, and she was a difference maker on the international stage.”
Continued Hughes, “This is a player that I think understands being a professional. She’s got some experiences that have put her along that road and I think she’s driven towards excellence. I think she’s anxious to get there and we’re sure anxious, when the timing is right, to be apart of that as well.”
The pick, however, didn’t come without controversy in regards to just when she will debut in the WNBA. Hughes claimed Friday that the parties mutually agreed upon Laksa sitting out the 2020 season, saying that “both camps understand this is pointed toward 2021.”
Laksa herself seemed to dispute this in her own statements to the media, saying “that was not my decision, that was the team’s decision, and all together we made that decision, so for us right now I’m just enjoying my draft night, and we’re going to connect and talk about what the future holds for me and the team later on.”
With the 19th pick, the Storm drafted Joyner Holmes, a 6-foot-3 forward from Texas. Holmes was the Big 12 Freshman of the Year in 2016-17 and averaged 13.1 points per game during her senior season.
With the 31st pick, Seattle selected Haley Gorecki, a 6-foot guard out of Duke. Gorecki, a two-time All-ACC First-Team honoree, posted 18.5 points and 7.7 rebounds per game during her senior season. Hughes was particularly relieved with the opportunity to draft Gorecki after his staff projected an alternate team to snatch her in the second round.
“Haley is one of the most productive players in America in the college game,” Hughes said. “She has good size… she gets to the foul line about as well as any player in college basketball a year ago and she has high skill. With all that skill, there’s a toughness about her that was very, very attractive.”
Although none of these players are likely to make a strong impact on the 2020 Seattle Storm — in Laksa’s case, no impact at all — the Storm spent Friday night assembling pieces for the future. With a large majority of its 2019 roster returning, including the injured superstars, Seattle should win a significant number of games purely relying on what they had prior to the draft. Nonetheless, intriguing prospects such as Laksa, Holmes and Gorecki should provide the team with a training camp featuring fiercer competition for final roster spots.
“I think these are culture fits from the standpoint of talent, from the standpoint of some of the skills they have,” said Hughes. “I’m excited, we have a veteran team back but we got people that are going to fit in well and compete with them well as we try to be the best.”
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