Last week, Storm coach Dan Hughes joked he could sense Breanna Stewart’s impending arrival much like Yoda or Darth Vader feeling a disturbance in the Force.
“It’s a little bit like Star Wars,” Hughes said, smiling. “You can feel her presence coming and that’s a good thing.”
Sure enough, Stewart confirmed she’ll rejoin Seattle on Tuesday, which gives the defending WNBA champs and the young star just five days to get acclimated with a reconfigured roster of returnees and newcomers before the season opener Saturday against the Las Vegas Aces.
“We have the same expectations that we always have,” said Stewart, who won the WNBA Finals MVP trophy last October after leading the No. 2-seed Storm to a 6-0 romp through two rounds of the playoffs, including a 3-0 sweep over Las Vegas for the franchise’s fourth championship. “Obviously, you look at the roster from top to bottom and it’s different than it has been in previous years.
“But being different isn’t always a bad thing. I think we’re going to continue to use our roster and use our new people to our advantage. At the same time, the ones that are coming back they know our system and they know what we’re trying to do. They’ve tasted that winning feeling. We’ve all tasted that and want to taste it more.”
Stewart appeared upbeat and motivated during a 16-minute Zoom interview Sunday as part of the Storm’s Media Day.
The 26-year-old North Syracuse, New York product reflected on an eventful offseason in which she won two championship rings in Europe and delivered an engagement ring to girlfriend Marta Xargay during a surprise proposal two weeks ago.
“It was kind of in the works for a little while,” Stewart said. “I had the ring for awhile and just finding the right time to do it. Getting her to kind of go out into the desert a little bit wasn’t her favorite idea on her off day, but I think she thinks it’s her favorite thing now.”
Stewart is virtually unflappable on the court, but admittedly she was nervous, anxious and uncertain while planning a marriage proposal at Phoenix’s Papago Park to the 30-year-old Spanish guard who is in training camp with the Phoenix Mercury.
“That day, she had a workout or something and that’s when I kind of felt the weight on my chest and the anxiety because I knew I wanted to do it,” Stewart said. “It was like how am I going to make it perfect? How am I going to hide this ring box that’s so big it doesn’t fit in pockets?
“She got back to the room and it was like 12. I had already had a (drink) and she was like, ‘Oh we’re having (drinks) this early?’ I was like, just to calm my nerves. But it went well, especially trying to do things in COVID and dealing with the protocols. For us, it was perfect. She said she didn’t enjoy hiking. She was like why are we here? Afterward, it was like one of her favorite experiences.”
The engagement, which went viral on social media, capped a whirlwind WNBA offseason for Stewart that included leading the Russian team UMMC Ekaterinburg to an undefeated season, a EuroLeague championship and the Final Four MVP award.
Nine days later, Stewart carried UMMC to a 3-0 series sweep over Russian heavyweight Dynamo Kursk in the Russian Premier League Finals for another championship and another finals MVP trophy.
Stewart’s crowning achievements in Russia came almost exactly two years after she tore her Achilles in the 2019 EuroLeague championship game and missed that WNBA season following surgery and a six-month rehab.
“I don’t think I could have hoped for it to have gone this well,” Stewart said when asked about her recovery. “To be able to be here two years post opt and be playing at a higher level than I was before, that’s something that I’m really proud of.”
The latest championship hardware joins Stewart’s impressive trophy collection that includes four NCAA championships and four Final Four Most Outstanding Player awards at Connecticut, three gold medals with USA Basketball and two WNBA titles, two WNBA Finals MVPs and a WNBA MVP.
“Sometimes when I look back, it’s kind of like whoa,” Stewart said. “When I look back and I see all these things and what I’ve done for three different leagues. Winning and having the opportunity to win in three different leagues in the past year is kind of insane.
“And to do that coming off of an Achilles injury is even more insane. It’s what I want to do. Continue to play at the highest level and continue to fight for championships. Just making sure I make the most of every opportunity that I have.”
And that brings us to the Storm.
Several players who are expected to play major roles this season still have not reported to training camp while finishing their commitments with overseas teams or making their way through WNBA protocols.
Katie Lou Samuelson could make her debut in Seattle’s first game, but Hughes isn’t expecting guard Epiphanny Prince, center Mercedes Russell or forward Mikiah ‘Kiki’ Herbert Harrigan to be available.
Stewart also has to adjust to a new lineup featuring 15-year-veteran Candice Dupree replacing Natasha Howard on the front line. The Storm still has not filled the void at small forward created when Alysha Clark left via free agency.
“Hopefully, we can all get the chemistry together sooner rather than later,” said Dupree, who had 11 points and five rebounds during the 88-71 exhibition victory Saturday at Phoenix.
Tuesday also marks a long-awaited reunion between Stewart and Hughes, who was medically prohibited from coaching inside the WNBA bubble last year.
During their last season together in 2018, Stewart averaged career highs in scoring (21.8 points per game), field-goal shooting percentage (52.9%) and three-point shooting percentage (41.5%) while winning WNBA MVP honors.
“She’s at a stage where I’d like to see her grow in various ways,” Hughes said. “I don’t want to do anything to hinder developing her to be the most complete basketball player that we have.
“Whether that’s the face-up game, back-to-the-basket game, with the ball, without the ball, defensively and rim protection. I want her to continue to grow and look at it as a complete basketball player and not just these individual things. I’d like her to touch all the areas that a good basketball player can touch.”
Stewart is in the final year of two-year, $375,000 extension and becomes an unrestricted free agent next year when she’ll certainly garner super maximum offers that pays $228,094 in 2022.
If she remains with the Storm, Stewart, who ranks fourth and fifth on the team’s career rebounding (1,053) and scoring (2,413 points) lists, respectively, will hold nearly every major team franchise record in six or seven years.
“It’s been amazing to watch her grow and mature in her game,” said Sue Bird, the WNBA’s career assists leader. “I think about her rookie year to now and just the way she impacts the game. Not many people can do that. The best result of it all is the winning.”
Bird said she believes her good friend and former UConn teammate Diana Taurasi is the best to ever play in the WNBA, but Stewart already is making a bid to take the GOAT title from the Phoenix Mercury legend.
“Once it’s all said and done, Stewie has a chance to go down as one of the greatest of all time,” Bird said. “She’s already in that conversation at the age of 26. It just speaks to her talent level. It speaks to her ability to continue to get better and to want to continue get better.
“She doesn’t get complacent. The winning doesn’t numb her at all, which is obviously a great thing for a young player. She’s still hungry. The sky is the limit. She’s already done things that no other player has done and winning four titles in college is one of them, and it’s just going to continue to get better. I’m happy she’s here, I’ll tell you that.”