Jewell Loyd was supposed to play limited minutes in last month’s WNBA All-Star Game. The Seattle Storm guard had rolled her right ankle the previous week and sat out the Storm’s final game before the break for precautionary reasons.
Loyd had other ideas. The midseason showcase was back in Las Vegas for the first time in four years, and it meant something to Loyd. The 2019 All-Star Game was the last time she’d seen her mentor, the late Kobe Bryant.
“I remember halftime, I went over there and talked to him,” Loyd recalled. “He was like, ‘You’ve got to start cooking. Go take this s—.’ I actually was coming off an ankle injury that year too, so I wasn’t fully healthy. So I knew coming into this All-Star that the last time he told me to go get it and I had to make sure that I was going to do it.”
Loyd’s young niece and nephew, both in attendance this year, had also given her the goal of making 10 3-pointers.
The first came less than two and a half minutes into the game, as part of a four-point play. By halftime, she’d hit five 3-pointers and any minutes restriction was out the window. Loyd ended up playing 24 minutes and matching the challenge of 10 3-pointers, setting records for both 3s and total points (31) in the WNBA All-Star Game en route to MVP honors.
“To have something like that, to play and win it for my friends and family, knowing that’s something we talked about as a goal for me, it’s special,” Loyd told ESPN.
The All-Star MVP was a highpoint in a season in which Loyd stepped into her own as the WNBA’s leading scorer after the departure of longtime teammates Sue Bird (who retired after last season) and Breanna Stewart (who signed with the New York Liberty as a free agent).
The effort was also the product of the work Loyd has put in — including beginning to talk with a life coach last summer — to become the best version of herself on and off the court. And it took on new importance last offseason as Loyd prepared for a different role in Seattle by putting in long hours on both the basketball and the pickleball courts.
“For me looking outside in for Jewell, it feels like everything is in alignment,” Storm coach Noelle Quinn, who’s been alongside Loyd as a player or coach since 2016, told ESPN. “Everything is in perfect alignment right now and I think that has a lot to do with the work that she’s done with herself.”
How do the biggest WNBA stars spend their off days?
From pickleball to cooking, LaChina Robinson catches up with all the biggest WNBA stars to see how they spend their off days.
Last July, a friend connected Loyd with Sheri Riley, a high performance life coach whose team works with about 30 athletes and entertainers and conducts group sessions for teams, including the WNBA’s Indiana Fever.
“I just wanted to unlock other aspects of my thinking and have a way to just figure out my thoughts, emotions and processing things,” Loyd said. “There’s a lot to process and if you’re constantly in work mode all the time, you never really have a chance to stop.
“Talking with Sheri allows me to stop whatever I’m doing for an hour a day to just think and be still, which is nice for someone like us. Athletes are always going, so it’s nice to reflect and really think about where you are and where you want to be and give yourself a little bit of grace.”
From their first conversation, which was supposed to simply be an opportunity to get to know each other, Riley recognized areas where she could help Loyd.
“When I’m listening, I’m listening to hear what the real challenge is,” Riley told ESPN. “Is it on the court, is it off the court? Our conversation, I was able to identify that there were some mental barriers that were affecting her on the court that had nothing to do with basketball. I knew she needed some immediate help based on where they were in the season, what was happening with the team.
“She trusted me, to her credit. She trusted me to be very transparent in this first get to know call. We had a coaching session right then and there and were able to address, unlock what those immediate challenges were. It gave her that immediate impact to go out and not only perform on the court, but honestly begin that process of her unlocking the barriers to understanding her true greatness.”
Loyd and Riley have connected for meetings once or twice a month since, with Loyd able to check in via text or call more frequently. Quinn, who invited Riley to host a group session with the entire Storm roster not long after the All-Star break, has seen the impact.
“A couple of games this year, maybe Jewell wasn’t doing well, efficiently offensively, but she came and hit a big shot, got a big stop, had a big possession,” Quinn said. “To me, that growth is just her staying in the moment and being focused on the now. That hasn’t always been the case. Sometimes she was dwelling on whatever has happened in the past in the game. That is a huge difference, to me. Also the leadership.”
When Loyd and Stewart joined the Storm as No. 1 picks in back-to-back years, Bird served as their guide to the league. She remained the ultimate leader through last season, while Stewart grew into a vocal presence in her own right. Their departure thrust Loyd into the same role with Seattle’s multiple rookies that Bird once played for her.
“I think she’s actually been a lot more vocal than expected in a positive way,” Quinn said. “She’s finding her voice on this team. She has to be a vocal leader because she’s out there the most, she’s the most experienced and she’s been here the longest.”
From afar, Stewart has seen Loyd’s transformation as a leader.
“Making sure that all the things that she’s learned from when we were together or from Sue, she’s continuing to kind of carry it down,” Stewart told ESPN. “She’s continuing to show her leadership with the young players on the team.”
On the court, Loyd knew her game would have to adjust without Bird and Stewart, the other two members of the Storm’s “big three” who won WNBA titles together in 2018 and 2020 as well as the inaugural 2021 Commissioner’s Cup.
That meant training for a heavier workload this season in terms of minutes (a career-high 35.0 per game, third-most in the WNBA) and shot attempts (a league-high 19.8 per game). While dealing with an ankle injury, Loyd had struggled in the absence of Bird and Stewart due to season-long injuries in 2019, when her scoring average dropped to 12.3 PPG — lowest since her rookie season.
Loyd took her offseason workouts at home in Chicago to a new level. She woke up at 4:30 to lift weights, got in some shooting after a nap and played pickup midday before returning to the gym to shoot again in the evenings.
To break up the intense basketball routine, Loyd turned to a different court: the pickleball court. She added pickleball training to her schedule with the hope of eventually playing a second sport professionally.
“If I can go pro in pickleball, that would be pretty cool,” Loyd said. “I don’t think there’s many active professionals for dual sports for pickleball. It’s something I’m definitely eyeing on but obviously I’m still on my way of understanding more and getting better at it. I think that’s always an option, whether now or definitely later.”
In February, Loyd participated as an amateur in the APP (Association of Pickleball Players) Daytona Beach Open, earning a “golden ticket” qualifying her for the national championships held in Dallas in November. Depending on the USA Basketball training schedule ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympics, Loyd hopes to be there.
The time spent playing pickleball also helped Loyd keep her passion for her main sport.
“I was able to get a break from basketball and miss it,” she said. “I would play pickleball all night and all day for minimum five hours and then go play basketball and I missed it. It was a good balance of craving to play pickleball when I was playing basketball and craving to play basketball when I was playing pickleball.”
The level at which Loyd trained has helped her deal with defenses intent on taking away her opportunities as Seattle’s clear first option. That meant facing regular traps off pick-and-rolls, as well as the occasional box-and-one defense designed to prevent Loyd from getting good looks.
“Everybody knows Jewell’s ability to score the basketball,” Stewart said, “but she’s doing it with a lot of different coverages happening this year.”
For Quinn, Loyd coming into training camp in top shape helped with the biggest shortcoming in her game before this season: consistency. In 2022 alongside Bird and Stewart, Loyd scored single digits eight times in 36 games. With only one other Storm player averaging double-figure scoring (first-time All-Star Ezi Magbegor), Loyd can’t afford off nights this year.
“That’s the biggest thing,” Quinn said. “That’s why one of her roles says consistent because historically, that’s kind of been the deficiency if you want to say, or the knock. … This year, there’s less of that.”
With just five games left, Loyd has scored double figures in every game she has played, joining Stewart as the only WNBA player who’s seen action in at least 15 games to do so.
Jewell Loyd gets the tough and-1 to go
Jewell Loyd scores through contact to trim the Storm’s deficit in the second quarter.
Despite Loyd’s strong play, the Storm have taken an inevitable step back after replacing their veteran stars with young talent. Seattle was officially eliminated from the playoff race Sunday and is headed to the WNBA draft lottery for the first time since drafting Loyd in 2015 and Stewart in 2016.
Looming is a decision for Loyd, who could try to stick around and play the same role as Bird for the next generation of Storm stars or head elsewhere next season as an unrestricted free agent who is ineligible for the core player designation. Although Loyd can sign an extension with Seattle through the end of the regular season, she says she hasn’t thought about that decision yet.
“I’ve been staying as present as possible,” Loyd said. “Obviously I’m aware of everything and know what’s on the line for both the organization and myself. That’s a conversation I know that I will be having with my agent.”
Riley watched the All-Star Game at home in Atlanta, and her heart swelled as she saw Loyd’s performance.
“I was proud of her because of the hard work she did in the offseason, not just on the court but the work we did,” Riley said. “For her to understand the level of her greatness, it’s something to hear it and know it and it’s something to truly live it. The work she did in the offseason with her and I, the All-Star Game was really a manifestation of her walking on to that stage with the greatest of the great and really perform at that level.”