Just the Beginning: Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart Showing They Are Next Great Storm Duo

Last month at KeyArena, Lauren Jackson became the first player in Storm history to have her jersey retired by the franchise. Standing by her side as the banner was unveiled in the rafters – she’ll surely have her own jersey up there one day – was former partner in crime Sue Bird.

Seattle took Jackson with the No. 1 pick in 2001, and Bird followed the next year as the top selection. The duo went on to guide the Storm to 10 straight postseasons and a pair of championships.

Now it’s Jewell Loyd and Breanna Stewart, another guard-forward combo, who hope to become the next great duo of back-to-back No. 1 picks in Seattle.

“You can see there’s a foundation for this franchise to build on for the next 10, 15 years,” said Bird, now in her 15th season with the Storm. “I think it’s great that these two players can carry the torch and hopefully accomplish even more than what Lauren and I did.”

In their first year as teammates, Loyd and Stewart have both put together a number of dazzling performances. On any given night, Stewart will use her 7-foot-1 wingspan to block a shot with both hands. Loyd will make fadeaway jumpers look easy. Stewart will sky for rebounds and run the fast break as a pseudo-point guard. They’ve both scored 30-plus points twice, making people jump out of their seats in the process.

Loyd and Stewart are extremely versatile, and they’ve shown glimpses of why this team will be fun to watch for many years to come. Here is an in-depth look at their seasons thus far.

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Stewart has been named Rookie of the Month all three opportunities, and one of the main reasons why is her dominance in pick-and-roll situations. Opposing teams are constantly in a predicament. Stewart has figured out when to actually roll to the hoop, when to flare out for an open jumper, and when to abandon the screen altogether and slip toward the basket.

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Of course, Stewart also regularly brings the ball up the court and plays as the guard in the pick and roll. When she’s on the perimeter in half-court sets, teams have to respect her jumper because she shoots 34.3 percent from deep. The 6-4 forward attempts more than four three-pointers per game, and head coach Jenny Boucek has said she wants Stewart to keep firing even on an off night.

When teams contest her outside shot, Stewart gives the defender a slight pump-fake and gets to the rim. Not many frontcourt players are mobile enough to recover in time.

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Stewart, who will represent the USA in the Olympics starting next week, is averaging 19.2 points per game on 45.4 percent from the field this season. She has an assortment of moves mastered for when a play is designed to get her a bucket in the post, including the hook shot.

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Even with all the fancy moves and outside shots she’s capable of making, the defensive end is where Stewart has her biggest impact. After recording 4.7 blocks per 40 minutes at UConn last year as part of maybe the best college career ever, Stewart is third in the league with 2.1 blocks per game this season. The lanky rookie is also among the league leaders with 1.3 steals per game.

Opponents score 79.1 points per 40 minutes when she’s on the court, compared to 92 when she sits. That’s by far the largest difference on the team and one of the largest in the league.

Can you guess which of these blocks made SportsCenter’s Top 10 Plays?

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Stewart is all but guaranteed to win Rookie of the Year, the award Loyd took home last season after leading all first-year players in scoring. Now, after a productive campaign with Galatasaray in Turkey during the offseason, Loyd is making a case to be the Most Improved Player. The 22-year-old guard averages 16.5 points on 44.8 percent shooting and 31.3 percent from deep.

What makes Loyd unique is the degree of difficulty on her jump shots. She has such an effortless shooting motion, casually knocking down jumpers that not many other guards would think about attempting. Fadeaways, turnaround shots, pull-ups off the dribble – this is how Loyd earned the nickname “Gold Mamba.”

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The 5-10 guard can create a shot for herself almost whenever she wants. It’s no wonder that Kobe Bryant is one of her mentors and the player she mainly watches film of.

On May 28, Loyd hit four fadeaway jumpers in a 26-point performance against the Sun.

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Loyd, who dropped 20 on the USA Olympic Team last week, is also thriving at drawing fouls on her drives and finishing through the contact. And after getting to the foul line, she shoots at one of the highest rates in the league (89.1 percent).

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In addition to their elite scoring ability, both Loyd and Stewart have been vital in helping Bird with the point-guard duties this year. Neither has spent much time at the position in her basketball career, but Stewart (3.5 assists per game) and Loyd (3.0) are two key factors in Seattle being one of the best teams at sharing the ball, statistically.

Loyd’s personal best is 10 dimes, while Stewart nearly reached a triple-double with 14 points, 10 boards and a season-high nine assists on June 3 against Phoenix. Stewart’s rebounding ability – she’s second in the league at 9.3 per game – often helps her start an immediate fast break and create opportunities for teammates down the court. Both she and Loyd have made some beautiful passes in transition.

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Let’s not forget perhaps the most exciting plays of the season so far: Stewart has dished to Loyd for a handful of alley-oop layups that show the instant chemistry they have developed.

Loyd said alley-oop layups are nothing new to her, as one of her teammates at Notre Dame would throw them all the time. Regardless, it’s impressive to have that kind of chemistry between two players who were Final Four enemies and have been playing together for a few months.

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Could they end up being as dominant as Bird and Jackson? Only time will tell. But the Storm is back in the hunt for a playoff spot this year, and the future looks bright with Loyd and Stewart in town.