Jantel Lavener played just 10½ minutes in her Storm debut Saturday night, but it was enough time to show what she could bring if she makes the roster.
The 12-year WNBA veteran connected on 3 of 4 shots, including a three-pointer for seven points during the Storm’s 81-68 win over the Los Angeles Sparks.
Lavender, a 6-foot-4 center, also tallied two rebounds, two blocks and an assist in an efficient performance with her new team.
“I had a ball,” Lavender said flashing a wide smile at Storm media day on Sunday. “I haven’t really had fun like that playing basketball in a long time. When you get to this level, it’s like a job in some of the places that I’ve been. I can’t (say) it enough, when people play basketball and know how to play the game it just makes it that much easier.
“For me, it was really fun.”
Admittedly, basketball hasn’t been much fun for Lavender during the past three years.
She underwent surgery to repair a fracture in her left foot on Aug. 14, 2019, which abruptly ended her first year with the Chicago Sky at a time when she was averaging 10 points and 6.7 rebounds while starting 22 out of 23 games.
Lavender needed a second surgery on her left foot the following year, which forced her to miss the 2020 season.
That year, she was traded to the Indiana Fever and her production drastically declined in 2021 for a team that finished last in the WNBA standings at 6-26.
Something had to change and Lavender asked Indiana to release her from the final two years of her contract.
“I don’t like to speak any ill will on any program, but it just wasn’t a good fit for me and I wanted out,” said Lavender who averaged 6.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 20 minutes while starting 14 of 27 games . “Seattle came at the right time.
“I wanted to go out on top. I wanted to go out with people who understood the game and I felt like that program is in building phase. For me, to enjoy my time left playing I wanted to be with a group of people who really had a desire to win a championship.”
After agreeing to pay a $119,000 buyout, the Fever waived Lavender on March 16 and five days later she signed with the Storm.
In theory, Lavender would bolster a frontcourt that features three-time WNBA All-Star Breanna Stewart and includes promising centers Mercedes Russell and Ezi Magbegor.
It’s a diminished role for Lavender, who started 36 of 50 games during the past two seasons that she’s played.
But the 2016 WNBA Sixth Woman of the Year is also acutely familiar to a supporting role considering she’s been a backup in six of her previous 10 seasons in the league.
“I enjoy playing a role,” Lavender said. “I have no issues playing behind Breanna Stewart. It’s a pleasure. Whatever I can bring to this team, I want to bring it. If it can be fun like yesterday, it’s going to be a great season.”
After just a week in training camp, Lavender looked at ease Saturday night amid makeshift Storm lineups that dominated Los Angeles for three quarters and built 29-point lead.
“My takeaway from Tel’s minutes was she was comfortable,” said veteran guard Sue Bird who didn’t play and watched from the bench in street clothes. “It’s great that the shots went in, but even if they missed the way she operated within our offense and the spots that she was able to get open in … that’s a great sign because that tells me she’s getting more and more comfortable. And we’re all developing that chemistry within that.”
The 33-year-old Lavender’s biggest value to the Storm may not be on the court, but in the locker room where she’s provided leadership to Seattle’s younger players.
“She’s only been here a week and she’s turning into a player that’s going to be the glue of our team, the one that kind of keeps everybody together and keeps everybody in check,” Stewart said. “It’s really what we need.”
Stewart favorably compared Lavender to 13-year veteran forward Crystal Langhorne who retired in 2021 after a seven-year stint with the Storm that included two WNBA titles.
“Lang was someone that was an amazing vet and mentor to Ezi,” Stewart said. “Tel is doing the same. Obviously, she wants to win and play well, but she’s really taking pride in mentoring.”
Due to financial constraints, the Storm can only keep 11 players — one shy of the WNBA limit. Their roster is expected to include six players with guaranteed contracts (Gabby Williams, Briann January, Bird, Loyd, Stewart and Russell) as well as its three returning veterans (Epiphany Prince, Stephanie Talbot and Magbegor).
Theoretically, Lavender is among five players along with forwards Kennedy Burke, Mikiah ‘Kiki” Herbert Harrigan and rookies Elissa Cunane and Evina Westbrook who are competing for the final two roster spots.
And yet, Lavender avidly supports her younger teammates with coaching tips and life lessons.
“Tel has helped me out a lot,” said Cunane, a 6-5 rookie center from North Carolina State. “They say you can’t ask too many questions, but I for sure asked her way too many questions. When we were on the court warming up (Saturday) night, she was telling me to stay focused and play my game. Don’t get too caught up in the moment and stay true to who I am. She’s been a great resource for me.”
Lavender doesn’t expect the impending end of training camp following Thursday’s final preseason game at Phoenix and the WNBA’s final roster deadline on May 5 to disrupt the Storm’s burgeoning team chemistry.
“I’m a people person, so I’m really big on the locker room camaraderie,” she said. “It’s a great group of people. Our rookies really listen well. They have bright futures.”
Lavender, who nabbed her only WNBA All-Star nod with the Los Angeles Sparks in 2015, learned firsthand about self-sacrifice the following year when she embraced a supporting role to LA’s Big Three of Candace Parker, Nneka Ogwumike and Kristi Tolliver en route to winning a WNBA title.
“There’s no set formula to win a championship,” Lavender said. “You just have to do all the right things at the right time. Then, you just have to live with the results. Everybody has to understand their role, their job and do it to a tee.”