Stewart led Connecticut to a fourth consecutive national title and claimed her third national Player of the Year award. On Thursday, the Storm is expected to select her with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft.
Soon enough, the rest of Seattle will have a chance to bear witness firsthand to the wonders of Breanna Stewart.
For the past two summers, Kelsey Plum got a firsthand preview of what’s coming while playing alongside Stewart for USA Basketball. Plum, the Washington Huskies’ All-American guard, doesn’t mince words when describing Stewart’s tantalizing talents, calling her “the LeBron James of women’s basketball.”
Last week, Stewart led Connecticut to an unprecedented fourth consecutive national championship and claimed her place as the most accomplished basketball player — man or woman — in NCAA history with her third national Player of the Year award. On Thursday, the Storm is expected to select her with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA draft.
4 p.m. Thursday, ESPN2
Storm picks: No. 1 first round and No. 2 pick in third round (26th overall).
Prospects: First round: F-C Breanna Stewart (Connecticut). Third round: F Talia Walton (Washington), G Lia Galdeira (Washington State) and F Tabatha Richardson-Smith (Seton Hall).
On the heels of UW’s first berth in the Final Four and with veteran star Sue Bird and reigning WNBA Rookie of the Year Jewell Loyd back for the Storm, the city is in the midst of a most promising era of women’s basketball.
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“I’m really excited for Seattle,” Plum said. “Stewie is obviously a phenomenal player, but she’s also a great person. … What she’s doing is remarkable.”
Even teammates who have played alongside Stewart for years still marvel at her effortless exploits on the court, and they proudly promote her humility away from it.
Among her many accomplishments, the 6-foot-4 Stewart last week became the first player in NCAA history — man or woman — to be named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for a fourth time, and she was the first player to be named The Associated Press Player of the Year by a unanimous selection. She has been on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice, and she has helped Team USA win five gold medals.
“She never talks about (the accolades),” fellow UConn senior Morgan Tuck said. “She doesn’t make it known; that’s not what she cares about. And that’s why all of us on the team, we go to work for her because she doesn’t throw that in our face or think she’s better than us because of it.”
Said UConn senior guard Moriah Jefferson: “She’s just a normal person; that’s who we see her as. She’s just Stewie.”
There’s a YouTube video featuring Stewart titled “Girl Dunks TWICE!” and it has nearly 568,000 views. That was from a dunk contest at the 2012 McDonald’s All-American game.
At the Final Four last week in Indianapolis, two teammates independently pointed to a January missed dunk that was nearly as impressive as any of Stewart’s actual dunks. On that day, with UConn leading SMU 70-25 late in the third quarter, Stewart ran from the top of the key, leaped and nearly put down a tip-in dunk, just missing the audacious attempt off the side of the rim.
“I don’t think there are any other women in the game that can do that right now,” Tuck said.
After the miss, as Stewart ran back up the court, Jefferson gave her a playful shove. They both laughed.
“To be on the court with someone and you can still be shocked at the things she does, I don’t know if I’ll ever get that again,” UConn sophomore guard Kia Nurse said. “It’s been a great ride.”
Stewart is listed on the UConn roster as a forward, but she’s versatile enough to score with her back to the basket, step out to the three-point line and, if pressed, handle the ball like a point guard. Case in point: She is the only women’s player in NCAA history with 400 blocks and 400 assists in her career.
Stewart was always tall for her age. Wary of getting stuck around the basket because of her size, she took advice from her father when she was in fifth grade and worked diligently to improve her ball-handling. Every day, she would dribble for four laps around her family’s neighborhood in North Syracuse, N.Y., about a mile total. At the start of each lap, she would change her technique — left hand, then right hand; between the legs, then behind the back.
“She works extremely hard, so for her to be the best player in the country isn’t a surprise,” Tuck said.
In a profile of Stewart for ESPN The Magazine last month, writer Elizabeth Merrill noted how tough UConn coach Geno Auriemma has been on his best players over the years. “The Wrath of Geno,” Merrill described it. He was no different with Stewart; in February, apparently feeling Stewart was getting complacent, Auriemma stopped talking to her for three or four days. Total radio silence.
Merrill wrote: “Maybe Stewart is too close to fully appreciate it right now. On the surface, she is perfect. She is so good and does things so effortlessly that sometimes it looks as if she’s not trying hard enough.”
Auriemma, in fact, believes she’s not trying hard enough. He’s always on her about her defense. It has been that way for four years. If she were an infant learning to speak, she’d swear that “Stewie, Get In Your Stance” was her name.
“We’ve had to impress upon Stewie that things are not as easy as you make them look,” Auriemma said last week, a day before UConn’s 82-51 victory over Syracuse in the national-title game. “A lot of times her freshman year she wanted it to be easy. And when it wasn’t she couldn’t deal with it. And now she embraces when it’s hard. She’s the first one now to talk about, ‘Hey, this is going to be hard, but we got it.’ ”
Stewart, Jefferson and Tuck closed their UConn career with 75 consecutive victories — all by double digits — and a 151-4 record over four years. All figure to be high draft picks in the WNBA draft Thursday.
“I want to be better than I can be,” Stewart said. “If you get caught up in everything, all the accomplishments, all the success and awards, you lose what you want to do.”
And as Seattle will soon find out firsthand, there isn’t much Stewart can’t do.