When Breanna Stewart walked onto the stage at Mohegan Sun Arena and held up her new jersey for the first time, Storm fans knew they had a star coming to town.
Having put together the most successful college career ever – and been drafted No. 1 overall – Stewart entered the WNBA with an unprecedented amount of hype and expectations. Just a few weeks after guiding UConn to its fourth straight national title, she began her first training camp with the Storm. Then in the middle of the season, Stewart went to Brazil and won a gold medal as the USA’s youngest Olympic player since 1988.
In every challenge she’s faced this year, Stewart has lived up to the hype. One could compile a gigantic list of unreal statistics and records set in her first campaign, such as the WNBA’s all-time mark for defensive rebounds in a season or the most points scored by a Storm rookie.
It certainly helped having familiar teammates in Seattle. Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis played three seasons with her at UConn, Jewell Loyd often played against those UConn teams, and Sue Bird had also known Stewart for many years. She couldn’t have asked for a better point guard to play alongside right away.
Nonetheless, Stewart’s peers were impressed by how quickly she adapted to the WNBA.
“She really handled everything with such ease,” Bird said. “And it can be hard. There’s a lot of hype being the No. 1 pick, a lot of hype coming off the college career she had. And she just handled it. What really stuck out to me the most was the maturity in which she did handle it. She’s a very easygoing person anyways, so she just got the job done and handled it.”
On Thursday the inevitable was announced: After sweeping the Rookie of the Month awards, Stewart officially won Rookie of the Year. But not only did her season prove that Seattle made the right choice with the No. 1 pick, Stewart also proved to be one of the most impactful players in the entire WNBA.
The 6-4 forward averaged 18.3 points (sixth in the league), 9.3 rebounds (second) and 1.9 blocks per game (third) while shooting 45.7 percent overall and 33.8 percent from three-point range. She also averaged 1.2 steals and dished out 3.4 assists per contest, which ranked third among all true frontcourt players. Stewart led the league in plus-minus – which measures a team’s success with a certain player on and off the court – and ranked third in estimated impact behind MVP Nneka Ogwumike and runner-up Tina Charles.
The Storm improved in numerous statistical categories from 2015 to 2016, and much of that can be attributed to other players making individual strides. But Stewart’s presence – specifically the attention she demands on offense and her versatility on defense – undoubtedly made it easier on her teammates.
Most importantly, Stewart helped Seattle reach its first postseason since 2013.
“I think we did well at adapting to her strengths,” Mosqueda-Lewis said. “We tried to, not necessarily work everything around her, but try to form everything to where she would succeed. And whenever she did great, our team did great. That’s something we all took into consideration when we played. Whether or not she was the one scoring, it’s always good for our team when she touches the ball or is involved in some way.”
So after a remarkable rookie season, what should we expect from Stewart in the near future? Well, in college her biggest jump in terms of statistical improvement was from freshman to sophomore year. Stewart’s sophomore season at UConn actually featured the highest scoring average of her career.
In the offseason, Stewart is going to play for Shanghai in China’s WCBA, where she’ll go up against Loyd, Crystal Langhorne and other WNBA stars. The WCBA season is just four months, which will allow Stewart some time to recover for Storm training camp after an insanely busy 2016.
The Rookie of the Year believes this season was just the beginning of a special run in Seattle.
“My first year went even better than I thought it was going to go,” Stewart said. “To be able to adjust as quickly as I could, make an impact on the Storm and make an impact on the WNBA, it was huge. My goal coming in was to get the team to the playoffs, and that’s what we did. Looking to next year, we’re going to do even more than that. We’ll have bigger goals and higher aspirations.”