As hard as it is to fathom, the Seattle Storm could end up getting better as they finish the season, even though they sit atop the league at 19-2 and are currently in the middle of a 10-game win streak.
The reason? In addition to the standard process of a team coming together over the course of the season, the quiet improvement of Czech rookie forward Jana Vesela could end up paying huge dividends for the Storm.
It's probably fair to say that from the moment Vesela arrived in training camp, she has sort of flown under the radar until she suddenly appeared on WNBA.com's Rookie Ranking two weeks ago.
Given the Storm's roster situation, most fans probably didn't even consider Vesela a strong contender for a roster spot until the moment final cuts were announced. First round draft pick Alison Lacey was someone the team seemed quite excited about. They had picked up point guard Loree Moore after she had been released from the New York Liberty, and prior to her injury, it seemed reasonable that should would earn a roster spot to help give All-Star point guard Sue Bird much needed rest while Lacey developed for the future. Second-year forward Ashley Walker had expanded her game and played very well throughout the pre-season. Aja Parham had also performed well enough in the pre-season -- especially defensively -- to merit consideration for a roster spot.
Moore's injury situation notwithstanding, it simply didn't seem likely when training camp opened that Vesela would make it while Moore, Parham, and Walker are all without roster spots.
Since then, Vesela has continued to fly under the radar on a dominant Storm team with a rotation full of championship-focused veterans. Yet still, after getting her first taste of extended minutes in an early June blowout of the Phoenix Mercury, Vesela has slowly shown that she can be a valuable asset for the Storm.
"Some of the rebounds she got, some of the shots she hit, some of the blocked shots she had - those are things that you see a lot when you play against her in Europe and now they're just slowly starting to creep out, and that's a good thing," said All-Star point guard Sue Bird.
In keeping with the theme that multiple coaches and general managers repeated, Vesela's versatility on both ends of the floor makes her an ideal type of player for a basketball league with 11-player rosters. At different times, Vesela has shown flashes of potential to score efficiently from the wing, rebound in the post and block shots while filling in minutes for the Storm at both the 3 and 4 spots.
"The great thing about Vessy is she can play multiple positions and that's always a great thing for any team, not just ours," said Storm All-Star forward Swin Cash. "She's so tall - she's so long. I think once she just finds her comfort zone she's going to be a big asset for us moving forward."
Regardless of whether we try to dismiss her emergence as a matter of an injury-prone or sub-par rookie class, Vesela has now emerged as a strong candidate for the 2010 WNBA All-Rookie team. While that might have come as a surprise to some, those who have followed Vesela in Euroleague were probably considerably less surprised, including Bird and Storm coach Brian Agler.
"The thing about Jana is that she's very versatile," said Bird. "I've played against her numerous, countless times. And the things that I've seen her do, the things I know she's capable of, at first she's just trying to get her feet wet, she's trying to get comfortable and now you're starting to see those things come out."
Agler had been scouting Vesela for the past two years before finally convincing her to come over and, like Bird, was struck by her versatility. Yet despite being a 26-year-old rookie who is already a known quantity in Euroleague -- where many women's basketball players play in the off-season to supplement their otherwise pedestrian WNBA salaries, as described by the New York Times earlier this year -- Vesela's still going through a standard rookie adjustment period, first getting on the court and then getting comfortable with the system.
"Sometimes it's hard whenever it's a new system, new coach," said Cash. "You have to understand, even though she speaks very good English, things are always coming really fast. And so trying to process that in your mind and what we do, we do so many different things and interchangeable things on the defensive end that once she finds that comfort level, then offensively she'll find that comfort level as well. Sometimes you're just out there trying not to make mistakes and for her, once it gets to the point where it's not about making mistakes and just playing she'll be great."
How great? Storm coach Brian Agler has likened Vesela to Cash in terms of how he would like to use her: a player who can do a "wealth of positive things" playing the 3 or 4 and allow the team to show different looks on both ends of the court. Vesela has also shown three point range at times and clearly knows how to move without the ball and find opportunities for herself within the flow of the offense. However, Storm fans may not have even seen the tip of the iceberg of Vesela's defensive ability.
"I've seen her guard (Phoenix Mercury All-Star) Diana Taurasi, I've seen her guard Lauren (Jackson), I've seen her do these things," said Bird. "She's also hurt us offensively as well so I knew she was capable of it."
Agler has maintained throughout the season that he's wanted to play Cash and Vesela together to give the Storm a different look and Storm fans have seen more of that lately, particularly with Vesela playing extended meaningful minutes in a 78-70 win against the New York Liberty on July 6, the last time the Storm played a home game. Vesela finished with a season-high 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting -- including 2-of-2 from the 3-point line -- as well as three rebounds, including two offensive rebounds. In that game, the 6-foot-3 Vesela played with a frontcourt of the 6-foot-1 Cash and 6-foot-2 Camille Little, who is having an outstanding season in her own right.
"I think that she's getting around to getting used to the physicality in the WNBA - it's not so physical over in Europe," said Storm forward and WNBA MVP candidate Lauren Jackson. "But I've seen her play in international pro leagues and she's a great player, so you wouldn't really expect different from her at this point."
Since having a week-long break before the Storm's 83-72 road win over the Tulsa Shock on June 27, Vesela's minutes have increased to the 13 minutes per game, up from 7.6 minutes prior to that point. During that time, perhaps her shooting percentages over the last five games best illustrate her increased comfort: she has quietly shot 12-of-14 from the field in her increased minutes, suggesting that we haven't seen the best of her yet.
"When you play more and more it's like you can do more and more," said Vesela after that Phoenix game back in June, perhaps forecasting her own trajectory in matter-of-fact terms.
Ultimately, the more Vesela plays and continues to adjust to Agler's complex defensive schemes, her teammates, and the overall physicality of the WNBA, the better she will become. And if she continues to become an efficient contributor to the Storm's rotation, she can both bolster the Storm's championship hopes and take home All-Rookie honors at the end of the season.
For more on how Vesela stacks up against other WNBA rookies, see the latest WNBA rookie rankings on SBN's Swish Appeal.