The Storm circled around coach Gary Kloppenburg, and for a few seconds, Breanna Stewart felt out of place.
Because she’s been absent from basketball for so long, sometimes she struggles with the most mundane procedures.
“We’re big on routines,” said Stewart, who missed the 2019 WNBA season due to an Achilles injury. “The first day (of training camp) I was like, I don’t remember my spot. I don’t remember where I used to stand because I haven’t been here in two years.
“It’s almost like we have to take some steps backwards to get everybody on the same page again.”
After four practices at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, all signs pertaining to Stewart’s recovery are positive and the early reports are glowing.
“She really hasn’t missed a beat,” said two-time All-Star Jewell Loyd. “She actually looks stronger. … Her ball-handling looks great, her shot looks great (and) her conditioning looks good. If you didn’t know she got injured, you really couldn’t tell.”
And this from backup center Mercedes Russell: “She looks good. That’s what you want to see with someone coming back from an injury, especially an Achilles. She looks fluid. She doesn’t look like she’s slow or stagnant.”
Kloppenburg added: “Just watching her these few days, she’s improved her ball-handling and her accuracy from three. She’s added to her game in the offseason. The setback and the adversity of that injury made her even more determined to become an even better player than she was.”
Still, Stewart is her toughest critic, and she’s the only one who truly knows how close she is to returning to the player who dominated the WNBA in 2018 while claiming league and Finals MVP honors and guiding the Storm to a WNBA title.
“Stewie, especially, is a huge piece to what makes us go and what makes us successful,” said 11-time All-Star Sue Bird, who also missed the 2019 season due to a knee injury. “I’ve missed seasons and I’m telling you, when you don’t play in the WNBA for close to two years, it’s a shock to the system.”
Nine months after rupturing her right Achilles, Stewart played her first competitive game on Jan. 27 with the U.S. women’s national team for an exhibition against the Connecticut Huskies.
Five days later, she played sparingly during a blowout win over the Louisville Cardinals and made steady improvement while averaging 10.0 points and 3.0 rebounds in two games for Team USA during an Olympic qualifying tournament in Serbia.
In February, Stewart signed with UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia and returned to EuroLeague for a handful of games before the coronavirus pandemic sent her home in March for three months of quarantine.
“I was really happy that I got the opportunity to play USA Basketball and overseas and Russia just because I got some minutes and reps under my belt,” Stewart said. “I played 36 minutes. So to get to that point for me was amazing because I knew my leg would last and my body would last, and it just helped from a confidence standpoint.”
Admittedly, Stewart needed to overcome a few jitters before re-joining the Storm. And she was anxious about reuniting with a slightly revamped team that finished 18-16 last season and is considered a preseason favorite to win the title.
“The first day was super rusty,” Stewart said. “Sue and I hadn’t played with the team in two years. We added three new pieces. There’s a lot going on. Obviously, Dan (Hughes) is not here. But each day is better. … It was much better than yesterday. Just baby steps.”
In 2018, the 6-foot-4 forward averaged 21.8 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.4 blocks and 31.6 minutes while starting every game. She also shot 52.9 percent from the floor, 41.5 percent on three-pointers and 82 percent at the free-throw line.
Kloppenburg will be closely monitoring Stewart’s minutes once the season begins, but he also has plans to expand her role offensively.
“We’re looking where can we move her around and how can we utilize her even more because she’s really improved her ball-handling,” Kloppenburg said. “She’s handling the ball like a guard.
“She’s an amazing player and a person. But she’s just got that, she’s got it. She’s got the ‘It’ factor. She wants to be the best and drives herself.”
For now, Stewart is listening to her body and preparing for the July 25 season opener against the New York Liberty, which begins a truncated 22-game schedule in 49 days.
“It’s not always going to feel amazing,” Stewart said. “That’s the thing that I have to realize.
“When you come back from injury, it’s not always going to feel great. But getting past that point and continuing to do whatever I can to make it so I’m as ready as possible for when the games start and when we really get to the nitty gritty of the bubble.”