All eyes are on the Commissioner’s Cup, set to tip off between the Seattle Storm and the Connecticut Sun at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday.
That includes those outside of the WNBA.
“It’s a really good idea. Another opportunity for people to see these women compete at the highest level,” Spurs assistant Becky Hammon told the Associated Press. “It’s not foreign to women playing overseas. The WNBA players are used to it.”
Hammon played 16 seasons in the WNBA, starting her career with the New York Liberty and ending it with the San Antonio Stars. Almost every offseason, like most WNBA athletes today, she went overseas to play for another professional team and supplement her WNBA salary.
“They are always fun, always bonuses in everyone’s contract. That was overseas,” she said of the Commissioner’s Cup-style games she was used to. “Put a little something extra on the line.”
For the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup championship game, that bonus includes $500,000 in prize money. The winning team will line each player’s pockets with an additional $30,000, while the game MVP will take home an additional $5,000.
Sun forward Jonquel Jones appreciates the innovation behind the event.
“It’s funny because I feel like in our league we do things first and then you see things on ESPN about how the NBA is thinking about doing an in-season tournament, and I’m like, ‘Been there, done that,’” Jones said. “We are always the first to do things and other leagues do it after that, and I like that we are always the first to bring things up.”
Other players and coaches involved recognize the challenges surrounding the championship game Thursday. The Sun have had three weeks of practice to prepare, while the Storm had five players competing in the Tokyo Olympics and haven’t had as much time to get up to speed with their full roster. That includes Breanna Stewart, Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd, who helped Team USA win its seventh consecutive gold medal in Tokyo.
Neither team has played a WNBA game in five weeks while the league was on a break for the Olympics.
Sun guard DeWanna Bonner said Connecticut has been preparing to perform at their peak, working on plays and defensive schemes and getting some lifting sessions in.
“Coach Miller definitely didn’t take it lightly on us, that is for sure,” Bonner said. “It felt like college all over again.”
“It’s a great story for the broadcast,” Sun coach Curt Miller told reporters on Monday. “Not playing a game for five weeks, are you a little rusty? Are you a little nervous? Are you playing a little fast? Do you settle into the tempo of the game? Or does Seattle look tired and look like they haven’t practiced together?
“We have to get the cobwebs out — we haven’t played a game in five weeks,” Miller continued. “That is the benefit that Stewie, Bird and Lloyd have. They played games throughout this whole stretch and while they may not be beach with their core group practicing as hard as we practiced, there is no substitute for games.”
Meanwhile, the three players returning to the Storm aren’t exactly coming back with fresh legs. Bird and Lloyd tallied 150 minutes and 112 minutes, respectively, for Team USA at the Olympics. Stewart, logging at least 34 minutes in four of the six games, played a tournament-high 192 minutes.
“Obviously it’s not the best for us,” Stewart said in Tokyo about the timing of the Cup game. “We’ll see what happens.”
Jones believes the Sun can take advantage of the Storm’s fatigue.
“It’s just playing smart basketball,” she said. “We can probably get up and down the court a little bit quicker than them. We will just try to work them early to see how tired they are.”
Storm coach Noelle Quinn acknowledged that the minutes Seattle’s three Olympians played in Tokyo and the time the team spent apart in the past month will play a key role in Thursday night’s game.
“It wasn’t that our Olympians were away on vacation; they were away on a work call so to speak,” Quinn said. “I’m hoping that it’s seamless, but there’s very much the reality that the play may not look great those first few possessions because of the time that we’ve had off. We have to get back into a groove and a rhythm.”
Storm center Mercedes Russell feels similarly.
“Honestly, I feel like those first four minutes may get us because we have been off for a month, but it will be nice to be back in game mode,” she said. “For it to be the first Cup of the WNBA is exciting.”