How is it possible that two starters on the best team in the WNBA are both underrated and underappreciated?
It’s not as if Jewell Loyd and Alysha Clark emerged out of nowhere. Loyd was named National Player of the Year in 2015 by ESPN after she carried Notre Dame to the National Championship, where the Fighting Irish lost to UConn. She was selected with the first overall pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft. Meanwhile, Clark transferred to Middle Tennessee following the 2007 season and went bananas putting the ball in the bucket, leading all Division I players with 28.3 points per game in 2009-10.
Yet here we sit in 2020 – the year of the groan – and despite their prominent roles on the first-place Seattle Storm, Loyd and Clark still aren’t receiving enough shine for my liking.
It’s easy to see why. Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird play for Seattle. Those two are future Hall of Famers and media darlings. When everyone is healthy, Natasha Howard rounds out the starting five. She is another widely discussed fixture in the Storm system. The quiet consistency Loyd and Clark display isn’t alluring to most. But it should be.
Loyd and Clark are ideal modern basketball players. Both effectively space the floor with accurate three-point shots and can operate in the post. Both defend with verve for the full 40 minutes, using their bodies in creative ways to disrupt opposing offenses. Both have extremely sharp instincts, able to anticipate a takeaway before it actually materializes. Their intrepid nature on both ends lifts Seattle from “really good” status to title favorites.
Choose an advanced stat. Any advanced stat. Win shares, you say? Entering Thursday’s slate of games, Clark ranked 5th in the league. Loyd ranked 12th. PIPM (player impact plus-minus)? Clark 6th, Loyd 13th. Wins added? Clark 5th, Loyd 11th. Positive Residual’s Estimated Contribution metric? Clark 4th, Loyd 9th. A small sample size warning must be issued here, but it remains incredibly impressive seeing Clark and Loyd alongside the league’s luminaries. This is not a fluke.
Seattle shines brightest on the defensive end, leading the league in defensive rating by a mile. The Storm are the only WNBA team to log over 10 steals per game. Loyd and Clark are major catalysts in this regard. Clark, Stewart, and Loyd hold the top three spots in WNBA.com’s defensive win shares metric.
Some would say Alysha Clark is the best defender in the WNBA. That group includes Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, who knows a good defender when she sees one because few can slow her roll. Taurasi, the leading scorer in league history, had this to say about Clark during a between-quarter interview on August 8:
“She’s probably the best defender in this league. She’s strong, she’s physical. It’s like having a little bodyguard wherever I go.”
Clark excels at every type of defense imaginable, but it’s the most fun watching her guard in space. Here, Clark ices a Napheesa Collier – Sylvia Fowles pick-and-roll, goading Collier into throwing a pass she knows she can get her hands on. Clark’s arms are deceptively long, turning seemingly routine passes into steals and easy buckets. She has a phenomenal sense of timing, knowing exactly when to abandon her post and double-team the player with the ball.
Loyd doesn’t have Clark’s length, but she maximizes her frame with tremendous leaps and expert knowledge of opponent tendencies. Here, Loyd leaves her assignment, Natisha Hiedeman, alone in the corner at precisely the right time, blowing up a Jasmine Thomas – Alyssa Thomas pick-and-roll that had layup written all over it. When faced with a mismatch, Loyd knows how to position herself and avoid getting exploited.
The Storm love turning swarming defense into transition offense. Clark and Loyd are especially proficient at pestering opponents on one end and then creating for teammates on the other. Watch Clark slide into this Washington passing lane, turn, briefly collect herself and then fire a one-handed pass to Bird in stride.
Now, observe Loyd take away two Mystics at once on a Washington fast-break, below. First, she step slides into the path of Jacki Gemelos, eliminating her driving opportunity. This was all for show, however, as Loyd immediately darts back to three-point extraordinaire, Ariel Atkins, knowing that Gemelos intends to feed Atkins the rock. After intercepting Gemelos’s pass, Loyd takes her foot off the gas with Washington’s Emma Meesseman looming. Instead of trying to force a shot over the taller defender, Loyd hits Jordin Canada with an impeccable bounce pass for an easy jumper.
Clark and Loyd have played 132 minutes alongside Bird this season. In those minutes, the trio have posted a ludicrous 39.2 net rating, Seattle’s best three-player lineup. For reference, the Storm currently lead the league with a net rating of 15.4.
Stellar defense is fine and dandy until you get exposed on the other end. Lockdown defenders often struggle shooting the ball or are unable to make plays that directly lead to points. Not the case here.
Clark has ranked in the 90th percentile or above in effective field goal percentage since 2015. Her 1.12 points per possession mark is elite. Her shot chart is somehow greener than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s policy proposals.
Clark is so effective because of the way in which she adapts to the teammates surrounding her. While running with her fellow starters, Clark helps create tons of space thanks to her 42 percent mark from three.
When Clark is out there with members of Seattle’s impressive bench, or if the Storm are caught in a scoring drought, she’ll put her prolific post game to use. This is the most fun part of Clark’s game. Her footwork is nifty and her looks are creative; only Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas rivals Clark when it comes to the oh-so-glamorous lefty push shot. Clark’s very first bucket of the 2020 season gave New York rookie Sabrina Ionescu an idea of the headaches implicit in professional defending.
I saved Loyd’s offensive game for last because it’s such a treat to consider. She, too, is shooting over 40 percent from three, but where Clark exists on the perimeter solely as a spot-up threat, Loyd will take you off the dribble in isolation.
I mean, come on. This is silly. Loyd creates an absurd amount of separation from Nia Coffey with just one crossover dribble, then hits the deep trey to beat the buzzer. Her reaction says, “I expect nothing less.”
Loyd will rhythmically dribble between her legs, making a defender think she’s considering a drive to the hoop when all that’s truly on her mind is a pull-up J. Especially when Stewart sits, Seattle relies on Loyd’s ability to score one-on-one.
Of course, Loyd is also effective in conjunction with her teammates. She’ll bury defenders who go under ball-screens with jumpers. She moves well without the ball, working here with Clark, who finds her out of the post for an easy look. Occasionally, Loyd will screen for teammates before flaring out behind the three-point line, taking advantage of Los Angeles’s imbalanced defense on this possession which results in an open corner three.
Loyd has turned the most scorned offensive area on the floor – the mid-range – into efficient territory for Seattle. She’s shooting 46 percent on looks from inside the three-point line and outside the paint, nearly eight points above the league average. Her ability to launch off-balance shots, leaning in the air as she releases the ball, is mesmerizing.
We could be here all day discussing underappreciated members of the Storm. Rookie Ezi Magbegor has phenomenal two-way potential and is already a key contributor off the bench. Sami Whitcomb only gets better from behind the arc. Canada is a walking highlight reel.
Ultimately, Clark and Loyd are more important to Seattle’s title hopes than the aforementioned three. Stewart leads the Storm in minutes per game at 29.9; Clark (28.9) and Loyd (27.3) are second and third, respectively.
They may not have MVP awards. They may not be locks for the Hall of Fame. They may not trend on Twitter with regularity.
Who cares? Jewell Loyd and Alysha Clark are the lifeblood of the Seattle Storm.