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Originally published May 23, 2013 at 8:02 PM | Page modified May 24, 2013 at 9:53 PM

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Storm reshapes roster to compete without Sue Bird, Lauren Jackson

Veterans Temeka Johnson, Noelle Quinn and Nakia Sanford were signed by the Storm. Seattle will be without Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who are out with injuries, and Katie Smith, who signed with New York as a free agent.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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You might remember them from their college days.

There's point guard Temeka Johnson from the famed LSU teams that played in the Final Four. Guard Noelle Quinn helped UCLA beat Stanford for the 2006 Pac-10 tournament championship. Center Nakia Sanford was a member of nationally-ranked Kansas squads that won Big Eight and Big 12 championship in the late 1990s.

Now, the three WNBA veterans are together in Seattle, free agents brought in to replace all-stars Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who will miss the season due to injuries, and Katie Smith, who signed with New York.

"When you lose two players like Sue and Lauren, it definitely plays little tricks on your mind and what you're looking forward to," said four-time WNBA champion Tina Thompson, who is returning for her second Storm season. "Once I got over the fact that they weren't going to be here, it wasn't hard to look forward and work with what we have."

With Bird and Jackson gone, you won't find the Storm on the home page of the WNBA's website or in commercials leading up to the league's opening on Friday. The Storm opens its season Sunday at Los Angeles.

Seattle is disregarded in preseason predictions. Even the team's fans wonder if there is much to cheer for or even show up and watch at KeyArena. The Storm's only all-star is Thompson, a 17-year veteran.

But the newcomers — and five of 10 active players on the roster are in their first year with the Storm — are optimistic.

Johnson, 30, is with her fifth WNBA team. Last season, she played for Tulsa. In 2009, her job was to get the ball to Diana Taurasi, helping Taurasi win the MVP award and her Phoenix team win the league title.

Sanford, 37, has played 10 WNBA seasons, the past two with Phoenix. She took a job as a waitress in a steakhouse in Kansas after college, unsure of her professional prospects, before landing on Washington's roster in 2003. She has made a career, happily, of being a backup.

"There are a lot of superstar players, but finding a player that's going to work hard and have a good attitude, that goes a long way," said Sanford, who has missed just five games the past seven seasons. "You can get discouraged a lot for all the ups and downs those years, but I genuinely love being a professional basketball player. That shows through the longevity of my career."

How to measure success?

Even Storm veterans Tanisha Wright and Camille Little, the remaining members of Seattle's 2010 championship team, can be viewed as overshadowed. But those who know the Storm well know that Wright is the soul of the team.

Wright, a 5-foot-11 guard, became a fulltime starter in 2009, teaming with Bird. Wright rested her knees this offseason, and is confident she will pair well with Johnson, a former teammate with USA Basketball.

Johnson, 5-3, is lightning-quick and a strong defender. She will help the team try to continue playing the solid defense it has been known for under coach Brian Agler. Offensively, Johnson could lead a team that will rely more on transition than the pick-and-roll game favored by Bird and Jackson.

"Every club has their superstars or whatever but a lot of players miss out on the accolades when you're on the team," Jackson said via phone from Australia. "It's funny, in 2010 when we made the championship run, (Wright) hurt her knee right before we went into the playoffs. I thought it was worse than it was and went home and said, 'There goes the championship,' because she's that crucial to our success. I get tingles thinking about it. I have a lot of respect for her and Camille."

Little, a 6-2 forward, secured a starting position in 2009 when Jackson suffered a stress fracture in her lower back. Last season, with Jackson competing in the Olympic Games and returning injured, Little started every game and averaged a career high in scoring (11.3) and 5.1 rebounds.

Also in the post rotation to help with rebounding and scoring are Thompson and rookie Tianna Hawkins, a 6-3 forward. Second-year wing Shekinna Stricklen is expected to join 28-year-old Quinn in providing offense outside and by slashing to the hoop for buckets or drawing fouls.

"It's not a lack of respect at all," Wright said of being overlooked. "What (Temeka) needed to give for her team to be successful wasn't everything that she's capable of doing. And that's for all of us.

"For years (Camille and I) have been the people that do the little things. Now this year it may be a little bit different. But when you see these types of players go overseas, we're much more valuable to our teams and expected to do a lot more. In a sense, it's a lot of respect for players like us because we are able to give what the team needs and adjust. Without players like us, teams aren't as successful. Point-blank, period."

But what will define success for the Storm this season given all the changes?

The franchise has made a WNBA-record nine consecutive playoff appearances, winning two championships. If Seattle doesn't make the playoffs this season, is that failure? Even with Jackson and Bird, the Storm has lost in the opening round seven of those nine postseason trips.

Agler, who was hired in 2008, had a lot of work to do this offseason, trying to put together a roster without Bird and Jackson.

"In the past, I think some players have come and they've struggled because they don't necessarily play the way we play," said Little, a trade pickup by Agler in 2008. "This year Brian did a really good job of bringing in tough-mined, defensive-minded players. Nakia, Temeka and Noe bring defense and they bring leadership. They've already shown us that as opponents."

Jackson, a three-time league MVP, had her contract suspended to not count against the team's salary cap or 11-player roster limit. Bird will finish rehabilitating with the Storm this summer and counts as the team's 11th player.

True, it's another obstacle to have a 10-player rotation. But handling perceived shortcomings is what this roster is all about.

"Although we're different, this team isn't completely depleted," Thompson said. "The competitive personality of the team is still there. When you have that, anything can happen."

Jayda Evans: 206-464-2067 or jevans@seattletimes.com.

On Twitter @JaydaEvans

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