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The W Is It: Natasha Howard could be the most improbable MVP ever

Major injuries to Breanna Stewart and Sue Bird have given Howard a key role in Seattle, just two years after she was a mere backup scoring four points per game. She’s proving ready for a star’s role.

Welcome to The W Is It, a weekly column about all the stuff that freakin’ rules in the WNBA. Here’s last week’s debut column on Chelsea Gray. Have any tips of topics to cover? Find me @mellentuck on Twitter.

How deep is the talent pool in the WNBA? Consider that when one MVP went down with a torn Achilles, her teammate, two years removed from being a 12-minute-a-game reserve, has become a candidate herself.

Natasha Howard’s meteoric rise has been so rapid that she’s lifted the Seattle Storm out of the injury-plagued wasteland so determined to crush their back-to-back title hopes. With star Breanna Stewart and legend Sue Bird sidelined due to injury, Howard has become an absolute terror. She’s averaging 20 points per game in leading the remaining Storm roster, which has no business holding a record above .500, to a solid 5-4 start nearly one month into the season.

The offseason wasn’t kind to Seattle basketball. Like at all. A month before the WNBA season was set to begin, Howard watched as reigning league MVP Stewart, her Storm and Dynamo Kursk teammate, tore her Achilles in the EuroLeague Final Four. Five days later, Seattle’s head coach Dan Hughes announced he was diagnosed with cancer. Then, four days before the Storm were set to make their season debut, legendary point guard Sue Bird needed arthroscopic knee surgery, for which she’ll be out indefinitely.

The heartbreak was infinite and the Storm’s chances at a back-to-back title were barren.

But Howard, the 6’2 slashing, three-point shooting, shot-blocking, court-running, and position-bending big, has instead developed her game to a level few thought she’d be able to sustain. Despite double- and triple-teams, she’s scoring over defenders in the paint, seeing the floor better than ever and continuing to serve as a defensive anchor.

Her rise is even more remarkable considering the Storm poached her from the Minnesota Lynx for a mere second-round pick and a pick swap that never happened prior to the 2018 season. Stuck behind 2017 MVP Sylvia Fowles and Rebekkah Brunson, Howard didn’t have a clear path to earn playing time. It’s criminal, really. But it shows the surplus of talent a league with only 12 teams and 144 roster spots has.

“It’s something a lot of teams deal with,” Storm GM Alisha Valavanis told SB Nation. “There’s depth that given a starting opportunity on different teams, they may be able to break out.”

Through her game, Howard made her need for a bigger role clear. Anyone who’d seen Team USA’s 2016 Olympic team nearly lose in a scrimmage to the USA Select Team because of a Howard onslaught knew where her ceiling stood. The forward who averaged four points per game in the season prior broke out for 18 fourth-quarter points against the next-best players in the world. After hitting just one three-pointer in eight tries in her first three seasons, she hit three in that one night.

“I think that’s when everyone opened their eyes even more like ‘Wow, Howard is really good,’” she told SB Nation. “They didn’t know I was that good because I hadn’t had the opportunity to show my talent [like that.]”

Now, finally, after four years of learning — and being overlooked just a bit — Howard has taken her chance to shine and is running with it. The Storm are out to an impressive start given the devastating injuries to its most coveted pieces, and that doesn’t happen without Howard’s quick bursts to the rim and much-improved range. She’s proving she can handle a larger plate.

This isn’t just the silver lining to crap offseason luck. The Storm, as they stand right now, are a damn threat because of her.

Here are a few other things to celebrate from Week 4 of the season.

Megan Gustafson is back in the W

Let’s GO! Gustafson, the NCAA National Player of the Year and leading scorer in all of college basketball last year at 28 points per game, was drafted by the Dallas Wings in the second round of April’s draft, but then cut before the season started. That’s how much damn talent is in this league. Anyway, the Wings re-signed her on June 13.

Though she didn’t see any action in the ensuing game, shouts to her dad, who drove 20 hours to see her suit up for the first time. Gustafson had to fly out to Texas the morning after she found out she’d been offered a contract, so he drove from Wisconsin to Iowa, where she lived, to take her car all the way down to Dallas. The day before Father’s Day too!

Dan Hughes is coming back this week!

Specifically, Friday against the LA Sparks, Valavanis told SB Nation. “We are excited to have Coach Hughes back on the sideline.”

Hughes, the Storm’s head coach, was diagnosed with an undisclosed form of cancer in April, and he’s been progressing well. On June 6, he said his surgery had been successful and that he’d been at team practices watching interim head coach Gary Kloppenburg take the helm.

Fever guard Erica McCall rapped on stage with Carrie Freaking Underwood

Who needs Ludacris when you can get the GOAT of WNBA rap, Erica McCall. This was HYPE. I’m delighted to welcome out newest WNBA stan, Carrie.

Amanda Zahui B LIT UP the Sparks

In a win over LA, the New York Liberty big scored a career-high 37 points in 36 minutes and made seven of the eight threes she took. She came into the season with only 38 made threes in four YEARS, yet she came out with flames on the second night of a back-to-back.

WNBA Stan(s) of the Week - LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook

The Las Vegas Aces really are the biggest bandwagon franchise in the league, huh. Please watch as Kelsey Plum daps everyone up.

I’m obsessed with this video for a number of reasons, not limited to the fact that RUSS is part of the banana boat squad now? How? When? Future Laker?

Anyway, this might not be the last we see of Aces Stan Bron. He said he wants to come back for Vegas’ playoff run.

Candace Parker is BACK

On Tuesday night at 10:30 p.m. ET, Candace Parker will make her 2019 season debut at home against the Washington Mystics. She suffered a hamstring injury in the team’s first preseason game, and her team was able to cling on to a 4-3 record in her absence.