Breanna Stewart’s first year as a professional basketball player went about as well as she could have hoped. She had a dominant rookie season in the WNBA, winning Rookie of the Year and guiding the Seattle Storm to a playoff berth. Then, in her first overseas campaign, Stewart was averaging 31 points for Shanghai until an injury cut her season short.
It was a minor knee injury, one that didn’t require surgery when she got back to the States. Stewart had chosen China as her destination because of the league’s short season, but she still wanted to finish it out through the playoffs.
“When I came back and started rehab, I was thinking, I’m going to go back to China and play in the playoffs,” Stewart said this week. “And then they kind of shut that down and told me I should rest. That way I would be 100 percent by the time the WNBA season starts.
“Both physically and mentally, I’m feeling great right now. Having my overseas season cut a little short was disappointing, but it was also a blessing in disguise. Otherwise I wouldn’t have had that time off to rest my body and my mind, and recover in that way. Obviously, you never want to get hurt, but the rehab process was great.”
Up until that injury in January, the last calendar year for Stewart had been nothing short of insane. In between the national championship game and her WNBA debut, she went to New York for the USA Olympic roster unveiling, graduated from UConn, and stopped by the White House. She did countless media appearances during the season, including a trip to the ESPY Awards, where she won Best Female Athlete. She left for China just days after the Storm’s season ended.
Stewart played for UConn, Seattle, the United States and Shanghai all in a span of six months. Basically, she hadn’t gotten a break from basketball since the summer of 2015.
So maybe the injury was, in fact, a blessing in disguise.
“Last year, it felt at times like my hair was on fire,” Stewart said. “I was going all over the place, doing all kinds of things. Year two is always going to be easier, because you’re more comfortable and that type of thing. But it’s definitely a little calmer this year.”
Stewart’s second season in the WNBA begins Saturday, when Seattle faces the defending champion Los Angeles Sparks (5 p.m. ET on ESPN). The league will get its first taste of a fully rested Stewart, which could be a scary proposition.
Even while putting up astronomical numbers for a rookie – 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals – Stewart had some rough patches. In one four-game stretch, she shot 28 percent overall and 0-for-16 from three-point range. Right after the Olympics, she shot a combined 6-for-23 and missed all four attempts from deep in her first two games.
“We did one of their games at Minnesota, and when I talked to her, she was clearly tired,” said Rebecca Lobo, ESPN’s WNBA analyst. “She was willing to say that she was feeling a little bit of that fatigue. Now she’ll be rested, and I think she’ll be able to maintain the highest level of her game throughout the course of the season.”
“With her rested, I expect to see even bigger and better things,” analyst LaChina Robinson said.
Still, there wasn’t much of a gap between Stewart and the league’s best last year. She ranked seventh in Player Efficiency Rating, finished sixth in MVP voting, was the runner-up for Defensive Player of the Year, and earned Second Team All-WNBA honors. Stewart was the only player to finish in the top three of both rebounds and blocks per game.
With Stewart, Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird leading the charge, Seattle built tons of momentum late in the 2016 season. The Storm finished 7-3 after the Olympic break to clinch a playoff berth. But they were knocked out by the Atlanta Dream in the first round, something that is still fresh in their minds heading into the new season.
“We haven’t forgotten what it was like to lose in Atlanta,” Stewart said. “Even though we had a great run to make it to the playoffs, we didn’t want to just be there. We wanted to do more than just get to the first game. I think it’s more fuel to the fire, more motivation for what we want to do this year.”