Breanna Stewart is going home.
No, not Seattle, her adopted home since the Storm selected her No. 1 overall in the 2016 WNBA draft and the place where she became one of the brightest young sports stars in the history of the city.
The 28-year-old Syracuse, New York, native is returning to the East Coast and joining the New York Liberty, which plays in Brooklyn, about a five-hour drive from her hometown.
After weeks of guessing where she’d land and cryptic tweets filled with emojis, Stewart left no doubt about her choice on the first official day of free agency, posting a Statue of Liberty emoji with an image of “Stewie” on the Empire State Building.
“It’s been a roller coaster of emotions for sure,” Stewart told ESPN’s Malika Andrews during an interview from Istanbul, where she’s playing with her Turkish team Fenerbahçe. “I decided to go to New York because I want to continue to be great and I want to go to the place where I can continue to help this league become better [and] to continue to raise the standard.”
Wednesday was the first day free agents could sign with teams, and the terms of Stewart’s contract have not been released. She could have received a supermax salary of $234,936 annually from the Storm while the most the Liberty can offer her is $202,154.
A league source indicated the two teams are working on a possible sign-and-trade deal, which would help the Storm replenish a depleted roster.
“I feel like, why not go to the biggest market in all of sports?” said Stewart, who won four NCAA tournament titles with the University of Connecticut Huskies. “I’m really excited to go after their first championship.”
New York is getting one of the most dynamic, versatile and productive stars to ever play in the WNBA. Stewart was voted by the league to its all-time Top 25 team in 2021.
The lanky 6-foot-4 forward averaged 21.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 0.9 blocks last season.
Stewart, the 2018 WNBA MVP, two-time Finals MVP and four-time All-Star, joins forces with 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones and All-Star point guard Sabrina Ionescu in making a superteam that will try to bring the Liberty, one of league’s eight original franchises, their first WNBA championship.
“This group has a ton of potential,” Stewart said. “There’s a lot of amazing players. … The selflessness is going to be what’s really going to set ourselves apart from everyone else. I’m ready to get to work. Obviously, training camp in the WNBA doesn’t start for a while, but I’m excited. I’m ready and I can’t believe it, to be honest.”
At the moment, New York appears to be the only team capable of matching firepower with defending WNBA champion Las Vegas, which added two-time WNBA MVP Candace Parker and former Storm defensive ace Alysha Clark to a stacked roster that includes reigning MVP A’ja Wilson, All-Stars Kelsey Plum and Jackie Young and 2022 Finals MVP Chelsea Gray.
“Superteams are the new thing, as you can see,” Stewart said. “We’re just trying to make sure we’re as good as possible and we have all of our boxes checked. When you look at the talent, there’s a lot of amazing players on this roster. We’re going to go after the championship.”
Stewart spent seven years in Seattle, including the 2019 season she sat out due to an Achilles injury. She leaves behind an astonishing legacy in which she’s ranked fourth on the Storm’s all-time scoring list with 3,723 points, second in rebounds (1,577) and blocks (272), fourth in assists (535), sixth in steals (246) and ninth in games (183).
Last year, the Storm decided not to designate Stewart their core player, which would have contractually secured her for two years and in hindsight led to her departure.
At the time, Stewart, who was an unrestricted free agent, rebuffed overtures from New York and returned to Seattle in large part to play one more year with Sue Bird.
This time, Stewart, who met with the Liberty, Storm, Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics, used her free agency to spark industrywide conversations about the WNBA’s prioritization rule and its stance on air travel, which prohibits teams from chartering flights.
“Stewie’s free agency is the story of the WNBA at an inflection point: Players understand their value, the potential of the WNBA and are eager partners in growing a business that has incredible momentum,” Stewart’s agent, Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman, told ESPN in a statement Wednesday. “She owned the process and the responsibility that comes with power in ways that hopefully will impact how smart free agents of all genders approach similar opportunities.”
Stewart’s departure marks the beginning of a massive rebuilding project for the Storm, which lost Bird to retirement and forward Stephanie Talbot, who signed with the Los Angeles Sparks on Wednesday.
Seattle has just two players under contract, which leaves general manager Talisa Rhea with a little over $1 million to build a team around four-time WNBA All-Star Jewell Loyd and promising center Mercedes Russell, who played just five games last year because of recurring headache syndrome.
The 2023 WNBA salary cap is $1.4 million and teams must carry at least 11 players and a maximum of 12.
Aside from extending qualifying offers to forward Gabby Williams and center Ezi Magbegor, the Storm has been eerily quiet during free agency while several teams scramble to accrue players and make headlines on the busiest day of transactions in the offseason.
Without Stewart, the Storm are in desperate need of a veteran star to partner with Loyd and could possibly re-sign two-time WNBA scoring champion Tina Charles, who joined the Storm at midseason last year and started 16 of 24 games, including the playoffs.
The Storm could also pursue top free agents including former Kentwood High star Courtney Vandersloot, who announced Tuesday that she’s not returning to the Chicago Sky.
On Wednesday, several media outlets said Vandersloot chose to sign with the Storm, but Colas, her agent, denied those reports, according to ESPN.
The Storm have the ninth overall pick, two picks in the second round at No. 18 and 21 as well as a third-round selection at No. 33 in the WNBA draft on April 10.
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