Seattle Storm's stable of point guards pay it forward
Sue Bird, Jordin Canada each take on leadership roles
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Sue Bird has done this a long time now.
This spring is Bird’s 18th WNBA training camp and 20th WNBA season in total. After all the years, games, and minutes, Bird still shows up to camp on Day 1.
“Not in terms of it being 20 years,” said Bird when asked if this training camp felt different. “I could definitely sit here and comparing training camp to training camp. But in the grand scheme, it actually doesn’t feel much different than most years. You get here and it’s like you have jitters on the first day, a lot of teaching on the first day and then every day hopefully gets better from there. They’re all similar in that way.”
Bird said the ramp-up work to ready herself for training camp is more grueling than camp itself.
“A lot of the time with these camps, training camp feels easy because of how hard the ramp-up is,” Bird said. “Today was actually a lot of teaching, so we didn’t really go up and down a lot. So I don’t think the cardio really kicked in for anybody.”
“The one thing that was different about this year’s ramp-up was that I didn’t get to play 5-on-5 very much with COVID and those opportunities not being readily available. You can’t just go to the YMCA to find a pickup game, so that part for me will be getting my rhythm in 5-on-5, reading pick ‘n’ rolls off a screen and that sort of stuff. As far as conditioning and how my body feels, I feel good today.”
The future Hall of Famer has picked up her share of wisdom on and off the court. That includes how to prepare for a new season. Bird quit playing overseas in the offseason seven years ago. Players are able to retain their game shape this way and Bird learned to ready herself stateside, thanks to her trainer, Susan Borchardt.
“I’ve been doing the no overseas thing for a while now and I’ve found that you’ve just gotta give yourself over to the experts,” said Bird.
“I don’t know when I’m supposed to train and why, what’s the best lift to do, should I swim or spin. So I have for the last seven years, I’ve just handed my life over to her and have seen the success of it all. I’m all the way bought in on what she wants me to do. It’s nice because I don’t have to think about it.”
Bird’s experience has given her significant knowledge on and off the court. Her knowledge of the game, skill, and even longevity have made her a magnet for eager young players looking to pick her brain. Bird is more than happy to oblige.
“I’m watching her gather her team and talking to her team,” said coach Dan Hughes after Bird’s first training camp practice. “If you were someone coming in watching us practice, you would see her enthusiastic to share her knowledge and that is a beautiful thing because she is an incredibly knowledgeable basketball player, person, or whatever you want to say.”
A young veteran grows up fast
A quick Google search tells you Sue Bird’s history as a mentor is well-documented. For instance, Storm backup point guard Jordin Canada reached out to Bird as a senior at UCLA and the two have built their relationship from there. Not every highly accomplished and skilled athlete would be willing to invest their time in their successor. Yet, that’s not necessarily what this story is about.
The Storm are in a unique position with seven players missing the start of camp because of overseas commitments. This includes key rotation players like Breanna Stewart, Kennedy Burke, Ezi Magbegor, Mekiah Herbert Harrigan and three others.
For a team that lost Natasha Howard, Alysha Clark, and Sami Whitcomb this offseason, these absences are not ideal for building chemistry. The only players who were present for the first day of training camp who also previously played for Hughes are Bird, Jewell Loyd, and Canada.
Trying to defend a title with so much turnover and continuity seems difficult. This is why this team needs those players to help teach the new players. Hughes said last week players can be more beneficial than the coaches in this regard.
One of the new players is guard Brittany Brown who has previously partaken in WNBA training camps and is looking to land a spot somewhere in the league, if not Seattle.
“She’s the true example of that floor general, that coach on the floor,” said Brown. “She’s constantly stopping certain things and making sure we’re all on the same page and she just wants to make sure everybody is getting it. I really like that about her.”
Bird is hardly the only teacher on the floor the Storm have. Canada, now entering her fourth season, has found herself guiding the younger players. Not long ago, Canada was the one looking to the veterans for guidance.
“I think it’s crazy because time has gone by so fast. Ever since I graduated from UCLA and got drafted, it seems like year after year has gone by so fast. To be in my fourth year, it’s a blessing to still be here,” said Canada. “Hopefully, in the future, I can still be here. It just goes to show you that when you graduate from college, everything goes by so fast. But I’m still happy to be here I’m happy to be a Storm player.”
Among those players turning to Bird and Canada is rookie point guard Kiana Williams. Williams faces tough competition for a roster spot with the Storm but is doing everything she can to help her chances for sticking.
Hughes has been upfront with Williams about playing herself onto the team. What has helped Williams so far in camp is that she doesn’t play like a young player, according to Hughes. Williams' coach praised her ability to understand what’s happening. He added that coaches typically have to slow things down for young players in camp but that hasn’t been the case yet with Williams.
“The things that I saw were eager to learn but not in an overdoing it kind of way. Sometimes players come to camp and try to show you every aspect of their game in the first five minutes,” said Bird about Williams. “You can sense she has a nice disposition about her and let things come to her but was still wide-eyed, ready to learn, and trying to figure things out as she went.”
“She has been very coachable. She’s come to me, Sue, or any of the vets here to ask questions. I’ve spoken to her a couple of times since camp. Just to see how poised she is coming in as a rookie and doing the things that she needs to do to be a part of this team,” added Canada.
Another factor in Williams’ favor is that she doesn’t play like anyone else on the roster at her position. Williams would add a unique dynamic to the roster.
“She is a shot-maker,” said Hughes. “That’s something that’s going to be a ticket for her.” Hughes added that it’s evident she has a high level of skill and is multidimensional. How well-coached Williams has been apparent in the way she seems to understand defensive positioning and angles. This is important for Williams as a smaller guard.
Bird was familiar with Williams having played against her when Team USA played Stanford. She continues to sing her praises.
“Her ability to create her shot off the dribble and hit the 3, those are things that I imagine will transfer to this level. Those are things you kinda have to have as a part of your game as a guard and a smaller point guard.”
“I think she’s done an exceptional job of just hustling, playing her game and playing to her strengths,” says Canada. ”Coming from Stanford, her IQ is high level, and seeing how she is able to make an impact right away at training camp, I’m super happy for her. She’s been doing a great job.”
For Williams, she knows she landed in a great spot despite the competition she faces for a roster spot. Williams called Seattle a “perfect situation to learn” and that “This is a point guard’s draft and I feel like I won” despite being picked early in the second round.
It’s in the culture
A player like Bird who is both talented and successful having a long history of mentoring young players is somewhat remarkable. We have seen many great athletes hesitant to take up-and-comers under their wings in many sports.
Some may view a prospect as someone coming for their job. Others may be too poor of teachers to do the job effectively. And some just aren’t meant for the role, which is fine; not everyone should be able to.
For Bird and Canada, perhaps part of why they have been so willing to pay it forward is related to their position. As a point guard, your job is to ensure your teammates are set up for success. The point guard position is one that is inherently leadership-based.
A few years ago, Bird showed Canada the ropes despite knowing she was drafted as her successor someday. It’s similar to Canada because Williams will likely assume her old role when that happens.
It’s likely both players realize that they benefited from the guidance of those who came before them, too. Similarly, if newcomers like Williams are effective, the team is likely better for it. After all, a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, right?
While Bird’s history of mentoring more inexperienced players is well-documented, she’s not alone in Seattle. The Storm have used the first week of training camp to ensure all players from veterans to rookies are on the same page. That means having coaches both on and off the court.