- Michelle Smith, Contributor, espnW.com
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SEATTLE -- There is no doubt that Shekinna Stricklen is a young basketball player with the most productive days in her pro career likely still ahead of her. How young, however, is a subject of small disagreement.
Storm coach Brian Agler points out that Stricklen just had her 22nd birthday.
"Um, I'm 23," Stricklen said, laughing. "Really, he said I was 22?"
Off the floor, Stricklen comes easily to her wide smile, though she is shy, polite and soft-spoken. On the court, Stricklen's face changes. She's all business with an unmistakable intensity that might even be called a scowl. Stricklen, the Tennessee product, is trying to become an impact player in the WNBA and she takes that role very seriously.
"For me, it's all mental," Stricklen said. "It's about getting better every day."
Heading into Tuesday's game between Seattle and Phoenix (ESPN2, 10 p.m. ET), Stricklen is coming off one of her best scoring games as a pro, a career-high 24 points -- including 20 in the second half to help cut a 31-point deficit down to 13 -- against Minnesota in the Storm's 90-72 loss on Sunday.
Agler wants more of that.
"I want to see her play up to her potential on a consistent basis," he said. "That's what we are focusing on. She could be a top two or three scorer in this league at some point, that's what we are pushing for."
Stricklen has reached double digits on just a couple occasions this season, scoring 14 points against Chicago and then 20 against Washington in back-to-back games in early July. More often, she has followed up a game where she has scored well with another game where she has struggled. She was shooting just 30 percent from the floor in the four games leading into her Minnesota breakout.
"Yeah, my season has had ups and downs," said Stricklen, who has been battling with Achillies tendinitis. "I want to be able to put together two or three games in a row."
Stricklen's development has been forced to accelerate this season as Seattle endures without Sue Bird or Lauren Jackson, both of whom are sitting out this season healing injuries. Stricklen, who was the No. 2 pick in the 2012 draft, has been a starter in Seattle since July 14, averaging 9.1 points a game. Her promise as a scorer, particularly from beyond the 3-point-arc, leaves Agler and the Storm with high expectations, particularly as Seattle aims at a league-record 10th straight playoff appearance in the Western Conference.
"We don't need her to be our top scorer or rebounder," Agler said. "But we are working on her mentality and focusing on what she does on the defensive end."
Stricklen spent her rookie season getting pulled out of her shell by her more-experienced teammates. She and Agler agree that Stricklen is much more comfortable in her second season as a pro.
"Last year I was learning Brian's system and was learning so much instead of just playing," Stricklen said. "Pat [Summitt] used to get on me about being more vocal, too. I just don't like to talk a lot."
But she's good at listening. Last season, she stuck close to then-Storm guard Katie Smith, and she's still taking a lot of advice from veterans Tanisha Wright, Camille Little and Tina Thompson.
"Tina gives me advice every single day," Stricklen said.
It took Stricklen some time to settle in again at Seattle after spending her first season overseas in Turkey, where she was one of two American players on the team. She learned the hard way some days about the international game and benefits of experience, and realized that older players quickly take advantage of mistakes.
Agler said he had to rebuild Stricklen's confidence a bit when she returned.
"There's no question she's not as shy as she used to be," Agler said. "But I think she didn't have a great experience overseas in some ways, so it's taken us a little bit of time to get her back to where she was."
Stricklen is still able to see her second-year experience in the WNBA as "totally different" from the first.
"I was young when I got here, I was just 21," Stricklen said. "I was so afraid to do anything wrong, I was forgetting to play the game. I don't do that any more."
16dBonnie D. Ford