SEATTLE – What’s next for the person tabbed as the Next Big Thing in the WNBA? Well, that’s easy.
“It’s time to start winning,” Breanna Stewart said after a recent Storm practice inside a basement-level gym at Seattle Pacific University. “I don’t want to come off as crass or cocky or anything like that, but losing sucks. It does. That’s just how I feel about it.
“And, no, I won’t ever get used to it. I can’t. That’s not how I’m wired.”
Of course she would feel this way. During a storybook college career at Connecticut (2012-16), Stewart posted a 151-5 record and entered the discussion of the greatest female basketball player of all time.
Four years. Four NCAA titles. Four Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors.
And yet the 6-foot-4, once-in-a-generation forward who can score in the post, shoot 3-pointers, rebound, block shots and became synonymous with winning in college has finished with a losing record in each of her two seasons with the Storm.
That’s not necessarily Stewart’s fault. In 2016, the No. 1 overall draft pick was brilliant in her first season while averaging 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals en route to winning the Rookie of the Year award.
But Seattle finished 16-18 and was bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Last year, Stewart increased her scoring average to 19.9 – second in the WNBA – while the Storm took a step backward and finished the regular season 15-19 and were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round again.
So here we are at the start of Year 3 and the 23-year-old phenom has a clear focus of where she is in her career and what needs to happen going forward.
“My motivation is for us to win a championship,” Stewart said. “That’s what every team is trying to go after. After the first two years we learned a lot, but now it’s like this season we’re coming out with a little bit of vengeance.
“And I think everybody knows that.”
The week before Storm training camp, Stewart spent three days in training camp with the USA Basketball women’s national team, reaffirming her position among the top players in the world.
The Storm play the second of two exhibitions Saturday at 7 p.m. in Phoenix (the first was Tuesday at KeyArena) against the Mercury. First-year coach Dan Hughes will unveil a new lineup featuring Stewart at small forward.
It’s a seemingly subtle shift in positions for Stewart, a long and lanky power forward who at times was forced to play center with mixed results. But the move could have a profound impact on a team that finished eighth in the playoff race last season and hasn’t won a postseason series since 2010.
“A lot of teams have a player that’s hard to match up with and Stewie is that player for us,” Hughes said. “So if we play her at the 3, there’s going to be some hard matchups.
“There’s already some hard matchups when we put her at the 4, but I want to invest in that hard-matchup thing and have a lineup where it’s a real challenge for them to put a 3 on Stewie.”
Hughes is enamored with a big frontline that includes Stewart and forwards Crystal Langhorne (6-2) and Natasha Howard (6-2). He also plans to tinker with a lineup that has Stewart, Langhorne and 6-4 center Courtney Paris.
“When you have a player like Stewie, it’s very exciting figuring out how she can keep getting better because that’s what you want,” Hughes said. “If she takes her game up another level or two, I’m not sure this league has seen anything like that before.”
Stewart’s under-30 peers in the WNBA include Washington’s Elena Delle Donne and New York’s Tina Charles, who each won WNBA MVP honors in their third seasons.
“I remember being where Stewie is now and it’s a good feeling,” said Delle Donne, a six-year veteran who averaged 23.4 points and 8.4 rebounds – both career highs in her third season when she won the MVP in 2015. “The first year for most rookies is a blur because there’s so little adjustment time coming from college. … Your second year, you’re making adjustments after playing overseas. Then your third year, you’re settled in. It’s your team. You know the league and what’s expected of you. And you can just go out and play.”
In 2003, former Storm star Lauren Jackson won the first of her three MVP awards after her third season.
Stewart is also motivated by past disappointments with the Storm and a burning desire to finish the season again as a champion.
“I’m tired of being 15-19,” she said. “Losing puts me in a bad mood. I’m not used to it. If we lose, I’m (mad). I can’t focus on what’s going to happen next. I’m still thinking about the game because I’m trying not to have it happen again.”
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