- Mechelle Voepel, espnW.com
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Lauren Jackson has done her part -- and then some, by a long way -- to make the WNBA what it is today. The No. 1 draft pick a month before her 20th birthday in 2001, Jackson has helped Seattle claim two league championships, has won three MVP awards and -- when healthy -- has been one of the very best players in the history of the women's game.
The healthy part has been her biggest challenge as a pro player. Jackson has dealt with various leg, foot, ankle, back and hip problems over the years but has still played in 317 WNBA regular-season games and 31 playoff games.
She has also been the anchor for the Australian national team, and competed in Europe and her home country. All while getting the living crap beat out of her, as she did the same thing to her fellow post players. Frankly, that's the life of the big women and men in basketball, and it takes high pain tolerance and fortitude. Jackson has both in abundance.
But, as much as Seattle and the WNBA will miss her, Jackson's taking the 2013 season off -- as was announced by the Storm on Wednesday -- is for the best. She is trying to heal a hamstring injury that has prevented her from playing in Australia this winter (summer there) and that required surgery.
"She does get pulled in a lot of different directions, and she's tried to keep everybody happy," Seattle coach Brian Agler said. "And it's impossible to do that with all the injuries she's had piled up.
"I think she is determined to try to play in the next Olympics and finish her WNBA career with the Storm and play more in Australia. So she wanted to get on top of the injuries and be able to enjoy the rest of her career. It's hard to argue with that; in fact, we embrace it and encouraged her to do it because she's been so successful and valuable to us."
Jackson was available in limited capacity the previous two WNBA seasons. At least now the Storm know well in advance of this season that LJ will not be playing and can plan accordingly.
Does this make life harder for Seattle? Of course it does, especially in a Western Conference that has a highly motivated 2011 champion (Minnesota, ticked off about losing in the 2012 WNBA Finals to Indiana), a talented and hungry team that got a needed missing piece (Los Angeles, which signed point guard Lindsey Harding this week), and a calculated underachiever from last season that should be back at full strength plus adds the No. 1 draft pick (Phoenix, which is expected to welcome Baylor's Brittney Griner).
The WNBA released its schedule Wednesday, which you could say is a bit of bad timing, coinciding with Jackson's announcement. That said, fans were getting antsy about when the slate of games would be released (as were some of us journalists), so now we can start looking ahead to matchups.
Defending champ Indiana announced great news for its fans this week as franchise stalwart Tamika Catchings, Briann January and Shavonte Zellous all signed deals to be back with the Fever. They get the honor of opening the WNBA season Friday, May 24, although it will be on the road at San Antonio.
The Silver Stars, by the way, recently confirmed the terrible news that standout post player Sophia Young suffered a torn knee ligament playing overseas and will miss this season. Suffice to say, Agler and his San Antonio counterpart, Dan Hughes, have some things to figure out, personnel-wise, before the season begins.
For the first time, the WNBA draft will be broadcast in prime time (ESPN2, 8 p.m. ET on April 15). Then the teams currently with the top four picks will be playing in an ESPN2 doubleheader on Memorial Day, May 27.
Washington (No. 4 pick) will play at Tulsa (No. 3) at 3 p.m. ET, followed by Chicago (No. 2) at Phoenix (No. 1). Meaning Griner, Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, Notre Dame's Skylar Diggins and somebody else will all be rookies on display on national television to help tip off the season.
The All-Star Game will be Saturday, July 27, at the Mohegan Sun Arena (ABC, 3:30 p.m. ET).
The LJ-less Storm will open their season Sunday, May 26, at Los Angeles. Harding's departure from Atlanta to L.A. wasn't really a surprise; it puts her with guards Alana Beard (a fellow Duke grad) and Kristi Toliver (whose Maryland team beat Harding's Blue Devils in the 2006 NCAA championship game). How intriguing is it that all these years later, they could combine -- along with the likes of Candace Parker and 2012 WNBA rookie of the year Nneka Ogwumike -- to give the Sparks a shot at another WNBA title?
As bright as things appear they could be in L.A., it's understandably a bleaker outlook -- at least today -- for the Storm, who also announced Wednesday that post player Ann Wauters won't return for 2013.
But again, at least there is time for Agler and the Storm to do what they can to adjust. And it's not as if they don't have some practice filling in the gap when LJ is gone.
Jackson was limited to 13 regular-season games and three playoff contests in 2011 by a hip injury. Last year, she stayed with her national team through the London Olympics, then joined Seattle for nine regular-season games and three in the playoffs.
She went back home to Australia after the Storm were edged 73-72 by Minnesota in the deciding third game of their first-round playoff series. Jackson's 3-pointer at the buzzer had sent Game 2 of the series into overtime, in which the Storm eventually won. But in Game 3, her baseline jumper as time expired bounced off the rim.
That will have to be the last LJ memory for a while in WNBA play. She and Agler say she fully expects to return in 2014.
Make no mistake, this decision wasn't easy for Jackson or the Storm. Both expected she'd be back for the 2013 season, but the hamstring issue became more serious and, initially, was pretty scary for Jackson.
"They were having a hard time diagnosing just what the issue was in her hamstring," Agler said. "She was getting more and more frustrated, and there was even a point where she felt like her career might be over."
When you consider all that Jackson has overcome to play as much as she has -- including a broken back suffered in 2009 before she returned for a 2010 MVP season -- you realize how trying this current injury has been. Agler said a recent surgery was helpful, and there was an outside chance Jackson could have made it back for part of 2013.
But the two, who talk frequently in the WNBA offseason, realized -- finally -- that the best course of action was for Jackson to give herself a lot of time to feel better. Meanwhile, the Storm will see what they can do with available free agents, plus they have the No. 6 pick in the draft.
Agler said the Storm won't necessarily take a post player in the draft; they will go with the best player available who will be a long-term investment for the team. The "quick fix," if you will, for the post position needs to come from free agency.
Not that there's really one player available who can give Seattle everything a healthy Jackson can. That will need to be a collective effort.
Jackson is one year into a three-year deal with the Storm and will not be paid for this season. So her salary won't count against Seattle's cap for 2013, giving the franchise some money to work with.
"She talked about coming back near the end of the season, but in doing that, she'd be rushing the process," Agler said. "And it would put us in a limbo where we're counting on her and couldn't really move forward this season.
"She's one of the best players in the world, and obviously, it's hard not to have her. But now it gives us some clarity about 2013. And she can totally focus on getting healthy. If she has any setbacks, she can take her time and get through them. For her to really finish her illustrious career in a fine manner, she needs that chance to heal."