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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Commentary: Where will Breanna Stewart play in 2023? The Storm and WNBA await her decision

Breanna Stewart #30 of the Seattle Storm reacts after her three point basket in overtime against the New York Liberty at Climate Pledge Arena on May 27, 2022, in Seattle, Washington.  (Tribune News Service)
By Larry Stone Seattle Times

The most fraught and impactful free agency in Seattle sports this year officially commences Saturday.

The Storm have already lost Sue Bird, the iconic point guard who retired after last season at age 41. Now the future of another Storm superstar, Breanna Stewart, hangs in the balance.

For the second year in a row, Stewart is an unrestricted free agent. Saturday is the first day WNBA free agents can negotiate with teams, and they can begin signing contracts Feb. 1. It’s not too dramatic to say that those could be 11 days that shape the future of the Storm, if not the entire WNBA.

No one needs to be told how valuable Stewart is. Wherever she has gone in her career, titles have followed, from college at Connecticut to the U.S. national team to overseas in Europe. In six years with the Storm she has helped them to two WNBA championships (as Finals MVP both times), won the league MVP award and easily could have won a second one last year.

At age 28, coming off a season in which she matched her career scoring high (21.8 points per game – including a playoff-record 42 in the loss to Las Vegas that knocked them out of the playoffs), Stewart is in the middle of her prime. Whatever team ends up with Stewart is virtually guaranteed to be a strong contender for the crown.

Last year Stewart put a scare into Storm fans when word leaked out that she had met over dinner in Los Angeles with owners and staff of the New York Liberty in the early stages of free agency. But Stewart eventually signed back with the Storm – ominously, for just one year – and told reporters she was merely doing her due diligence.

“No, there wasn’t a chance I was going to go anywhere but Seattle,” Stewart told reporters at her news conference.

But a year later, there is believed to be a much greater chance that Stewart will bolt from the Storm. Having laid the groundwork last year, the Liberty are regarded as a serious and legitimate candidate to sign Stewart, who grew up in New York state and still has family in Syracuse. It would also be a much easier flight to Spain, where Stewart’s wife, Marta Xargay, is from.

ESPN reported on Friday that Stewart, who is playing overseas for Fenerbahçe in Turkey, will meet with four teams Saturday in Istanbul, the first day she is allowed to do so. Those teams were named as the Storm, Liberty, Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics – which matched the emoji clues Stewart sent out in a tweet Friday (a rain cloud, a cat, the Capitol building and the Statue of Liberty). There is also buzz in WNBA circles that the Chicago Sky could be a dark-horse contender.

All week, in fact, Stewart has been teasing fans with a series of cryptic tweets comprised of an amalgam of emojis and nothing else. After poring over the emojis with my vast knowledge of social media communication tricks, I have come to the conclusion that either Stewie is messing with people, or her 18-month-old daughter, Ruby, got hold of her phone and started pushing buttons.

Significantly, the Liberty this past week made a blockbuster trade to acquire 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones from the Connecticut Sun. No doubt the Liberty will try to sell Stewart on the kind of superstar pairing with Jones that has become so prevalent in the NBA. The Liberty already have another top-flight player, 2020 No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu – and could try to manipulate enough cap space to make a run at free-agent point guard Courtney Vandersloot.

Vandersloot likely figures heavily as well into the Storm’s strategy for convincing Stewart to stay in Seattle. They obviously need a replacement at point guard for Bird, and Vandersloot, a native of Kent, Washington, would be the obvious top candidate. She is also a close friend and former overseas teammate of Stewart’s on Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg (as is Jones). Vandersloot, who has played her entire 12-year career with Chicago, had discussions with Seattle last year but wound up re-signing with the Sky. With only two players under contract – Jewell Loyd and center Mercedes Russell – the Storm have the cap space to be aggressive in pursuing top free-agent talent.

The prospect of teaming up with Vandersloot and four-time All-Star Loyd should be appealing to Stewart. Last year she was drawn back to Seattle by, among other things, the desire to be part of Bird’s final WNBA season. That lure is no longer there, but the Storm hope Stewart was moved by the overwhelming affection Bird engendered by playing her entire career in Seattle. They also hope that her affinity for Seattle and the league-leading attendance at Climate Pledge Arena is an attraction.

This is the season, meanwhile, that “prioritization” starts to become a growing factor in the WNBA. In an attempt to keep its players from having their overseas commitments run into the WNBA regular season, a rule was instituted in the latest CBA requiring players in 2023 with more than two years of experience to report to training camp by the season opener May 20 or be suspended for the season. In 2024, the requirement is even stiffer: Report by the start of training camp or face a seasonlong suspension.

Stewart, who makes a substantial salary in Europe, has been a vocal opponent of prioritization, to the point that some have wondered if she would choose to sit out the WNBA season. That doesn’t appear likely this year – the Turkish season is expected to be over in time – but it could be an issue next year.

The more immediate issue, however, is where Stewart will play her WNBA ball in 2023. The Storm without Bird and Stewart would face a major transformation. But if she remains, they stand to make a run at their fifth title.

The answer is no doubt coming soon to an emoji near you.