How far can Breanna Stewart take the Seattle Storm and WNBA?
With a basketball cupped in her hand, Breanna Stewart casually strolled along the baseline before taking two explosive steps and elevating for a dunk on the other side of the rim.
Several courtside observers at Royal Brougham Pavilion on Seattle Pacific University’s campus hooted and hollered their approval of the post-practice impromptu slamfest and shouted, “Stewie, Stewie!”
A few others barely noticed.
“She does that all time,” Storm teammate Monica Wright said nonchalantly. “For women, it’s not normal. But for her, everybody knows she can do that. It’s nice to see though.
“The first time I saw her do it I was a little surprised, and I thought, ‘It was just so easy.’ That’s what surprised me the most.”
Stewart’s rise to the top of women’s college basketball is well chronicled. Yet there’s so much to discover about the 6-foot-4 former Connecticut superstar taken No. 1 overall by the Storm in the WNBA draft.
For instance, she’s a dog lover and secretly wishes she had brought RJ, her 4-year-old goldendoodle, and Carlos, a slightly older Shih Tzu/Lhasa Apso mix, with her to Seattle.
But the 21-year-old Syracuse, N.Y., native, who shared an apartment with two teammates in college, plans to live alone for the first time as she transitions to her new city.
Stewart, who is renting an apartment in Lower Queen Anne, looks forward to visits from her parents, Brian and Heather, and her grandparents this summer.
But she also anticipates starting a new stage in her life — on her own.
“This is where I live, and this is where I’m going to be,” Stewart said assuredly. “I’m fine. I got this.”
Last Sunday she participated in graduation ceremonies at Connecticut, and on Monday the UConn women’s basketball team visited the White House and President Barack Obama — which unofficially capped her historic college career.
“This is what I’ve always been looking forward to — being in this opportunity where I play basketball and that’s my job,” Stewart said. “I have free time to figure out what I want to do.”
Her Seattle to-do list includes visiting Pike Place Market and the Space Needle. She wants to explore downtown and hike a few Northwest trails.
While Stewart gets to know Seattle, Storm fans will discover over the next four months if she can help resurrect a once-proud franchise that is undergoing a reconstruction. The Storm opens the season Sunday at Los Angeles.
Stewart also is unwittingly among those tasked with reviving a league that’s slightly younger than her.
Entering its 20th year, the WNBA still is fighting for relevancy and fan support at a time when the product is far superior ever.
In a story for ESPN The Magazine this month, writer Elizabeth Merrill noted how Stewart is following in the footsteps of previous No. 1 overall picks, a list that includes Tina Thompson, Candace Parker and Diana Taurasi.
Merrill wrote: “On the court, they have lived up to the hype, winning MVPs and championships. But none of it has provided enough traction to give the league a significant boost in attendance, revenue or TV ratings.”
Players such as Lisa Leslie, Cynthia Cooper and Sheryl Swoopes literally got the ball rolling when the WNBA launched in 1996.
They passed the torch to Taurasi and Parker, who share the spotlight with the league’s brightest young stars, including Maya Moore, Elena Delle Donne and Brittney Griner.
Despite an abundance of stars, league-wide attendance decreased last season to an all-time low 7,318 per game, according to sportsbusinessdaily.com. In Seattle, crowds at KeyArena have declined in each of the past six years and bottomed out to an average of 6,516 last season.
Meanwhile, TV ratings also have steadily declined.
Into this quagmire steps Stewart, the would-be savior.
“In the NBA, the draft is about hope for a franchise,” Lon Babby, a senior adviser for the Phoenix Suns, told Merrill. “In the WNBA, it’s not just about whether the pick is going to make the Mercury or Seattle or the Silver Stars better.
“It’s also about whether this player is going to make the league better. Because the league is constantly fighting this challenge to succeed and endure. They’re always fighting the perception that the quality of play is not worthy, and in the early days, maybe that was valid. But it sure isn’t valid now. The play is extraordinary now.”
Durant a ‘huge fan’
Stewart could be best to ever play in the WNBA. Her style of play has been likened to those of Cleveland Cavaliers forward LeBron James and Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant.
The James tag is derived from her resume. No one has entered the WNBA with loftier credentials than Stewart, who won four NCAA championships, four NCAA tournament Most Outstanding Player awards and three National Player of the Year awards. The Huskies were 151-5 during her four years there.
The comparison with Durant is due to their similar build and styles. The lanky, 170-pound Stewart has a 7-foot wingspan that enables her to score in the post. She also possess an accurate perimeter shot that allows her to step out to the three-point line.
Stewart — the only women’s player in NCAA history with 400 blocks and 400 assists in her career — also is adept at handling the ball.
“For a girl that tall, she can do a lot with the basketball,” Durant told New York reporters in February. “She’s very skilled. She can shoot, she can pass, she can rebound, she can run, she can jump. So there’s something I haven’t seen — in the women’s game or otherwise — in a long time. I’m a big fan, a huge fan.”
WNBA analyst Rebecca Lobo, one of the league’s founding players and a former UConn star center, believes post players are undergoing an evolution led by multi-dimensional players such as Stewart.
“Opportunities for post players (have changed); for there to be just a traditional two bigs on the floor isn’t really there as much as it was in the early days of the WNBA,” Lobo said noting that many teams now favor a four-guard lineup that includes a versatile post. “It will be interesting to see the ebb and the flow of the traditional post player vs. the kind of stretch 4 (big forward) who can shoot the three throughout the course of the next few years in the league.”
Big money and expectations
According to the WNBA rookie salary scale, Stewart is slotted to earn $50,617 as a rookie and $159,040 over the next three years with the Storm. The team has the option of exercising a fourth year in the deal.
It’s a fraction of what Stewart, who signed with Nike, will command overseas and in endorsements. A league source estimated she’ll earn at least $1 million and potentially $1.5 million in Europe. That would put her on par with Taurasi, who reportedly is the highest-paid female basketball player.
Adding to her long list of accomplishments, Stewart is the only rookie and the youngest player selected to USA women’s basketball team that will play in the Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
“It’s been a crazy year, and it’s only going to get crazier,” she said. “It’s kind of been like boom, boom, boom — just one thing after another.
“With so much going on, I try focus on the little things and keep it small. I’m focused on getting better every day. I’m focused on this team and getting into the season getting started. I can’t wait.”
Storm fans wonder if Stewart will jell with second-year star Jewell Loyd and comprise a title-winning guard-forward tandem akin to future Hall of Famers Sue Bird and Lauren Jackson, who led Seattle to championships in 2004 and 2010.
New WNBA president Lisa Borders understands that it’s a lot to ask a 21-year-old rookie to revive a franchise, let alone a league.
“I wouldn’t put all the weight on Breanna’s shoulders even though she’s the No. 1 draft pick,” Borders said. “She’s one player, and basketball is a team sport.
“She comes in with four national championships and is a four-time MVP. No one has done that, male or female, in history. So she comes in with a checkmark besides her name. … But she’s starting now at a whole new level of play. The field is leveled for everybody, and it’s time to make history again. And here’s hoping she’ll start that here in Seattle.”