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Rookie Report: Breanna Stewart “Finding Her Way To Flourish”

One possession, she was grabbing a defensive rebound, leading the fastbreak herself, and kicking to Alysha Clark in the corner for a wide open three. A few minutes later she was banging in the post on defense with the WNBA’s leading scorer, Tina Charles.

Back down on the other end, she was running the point, coming off a pick-and-roll and whipping a perfect pass inside to Ramu Tokashiki for a bucket. Then she showed she can score too, setting a screen, diving to the rim, and finishing inside through contact for an and-one. And that was just in the third quarter alone.

Breanna Stewart may be just 18 games into her rookie season, but it’s clear she’s the future of the WNBA. The 6-foot-4 forward is averaging a near double-double, scoring 18.7 points and pulling down 9.8 rebounds a night, good for sixth and first in the league, respectively. At just 21 years old, she has the skills and athleticism to do things no one else in the league can do.

“She plays point, she plays wing, she plays post,” said Seattle Storm head coach Jenny Boucek after Wednesday’s loss to the New York Liberty. “However you want to classify the positions, she does it all for us.”

Stewart certainly did it all for the Storm on Wednesday night, putting on a remarkable performance that saw her finish with 24 points, 16 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. It may not have been enough for a win, but it was one of Stewart’s best games of the year, and a sign of how quickly she’s become a dominant force in this league.

Even Sue Bird, who’s accomplished more in the WNBA than just about anyone, and herself was once a No. 1 overall pick by the Storm, is already utterly impressed. “She shows you she can really hurt you from almost anywhere on the court,” Bird told Wednesday night. “Offensively, defensively, she really has a presence out there. And when she gets it going like tonight, it’s fun to watch.”

Stewart’s emergence as a star was never a doubt. Even early on in her career at UConn, it was widely assumed she would one day be one of the best players in the WNBA. How quickly she’s managed to make the adjustment to professional basketball, however, is incredible.

Before the season, Boucek told, “She’s got a steep learning curve. Every rookie does. One of the biggest things that they all have to go through is they get thrown into the fire quickly. They have to absorb an enormous amount of information in a very short period of time.”

And Stewart has had (minor) struggles at times. She’s among the league leaders in turnovers, and as Boucek noted Wednesday night, “I think early on the speed of the game, the physicality, the length sped up her shot some.” All things, of course, that are completely normal hiccups for a rookie, especially one that has the ball in her hands as much as Stewart.

In fact, at times it seems as though coaches and scribes are almost searching for things wrong with her game just because that’s such an ingrained part of the cycle. A player encounters challenges during her rookie season, and then either overcomes them or is overwhelmed. That’s just what happens.

Stewart, however, being the transcendent talent that she is, has traversed the rookie learning curve so quickly, it appears as if she simply skipped right over it, bypassing any sort of obstacles to success during her rookie year.

Her multitude of accomplishments in just 18 games already includes: tying the highest single-game point total in the league this season with a 38-point performance against Atlanta (third-most points by a rookie in a game in WNBA history), eight 20-point games, seven double-doubles, three 15+ rebound games, and the Rookie of the Month Award for both May and June.

So what has Stewart herself thought about the transition to the WNBA? “It’s been a lot of fun,” she said before Wednesday’s game, which sounds about right given how she’s been playing.

“Being able to adjust to the pro life. living on my own, being in a new city, new team, that kind of thing, there’s a lot of adjustments,” she continued. “But the journey’s been fun. Being a part of this is what you want to be a part of.”

That journey, and the success Breanna Stewart has had to start the season, doesn’t come without hard work though. Standing 6-foot-4 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, impressive leaping ability, and guard-like quickness, Stewart was blessed with all the physical tools to become a phenomenal basketball player.

But all of the athletic gifts in the world can only get you so far. As the newest member of the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant (who Stewart would kindly request you stop comparing her too), once said, “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” Stewart is not going to let that be the case in her career.

Her former teammate at UConn, Kiah Stokes, broke down Stewart’s work ethic for before Wednesday’s game. “I don’t think everyone realizes how much time she put in at school. She was always in they gym. First one in the gym, one of the last to leave. Extra workouts, extra conditioning, she was always doing something to help better her game.”

“She has a god given ability,” Stokes added. “She’s athletic, she’s talented, she can jump, she can shoot, but I don’t think people realize how much she puts into the game.”

In addition to Stewart’s stellar work ethic, Coach Boucek divulged other unsung elements of what has made the Storm forward so successful.

“She’s very objective, she’s able to talk through hard truths, and take feedback, and she analyzes herself very objectively, but she doesn’t beat herself up,” Boucek said. “She doesn’t over analyze the losses. She’s just got a very steady head on her.”

Except for perhaps a few more Seattle wins, the first half of Stewart’s rookie season could not have gone any better. The sky-high expectations have been no match for the long-limbed Syracuse-native thus far, as she’s established herself as the clear Rookie of the Year, and, as Coach Boucek put it, is “finding her way of flourishing in our league.”

“She loves to play the game of basketball,” Boucek continued. “She wants to be good, she wants to help get us back into championship contention.”

With Stewart’s on-court skills, and the off-court intangibles to match, that might come sooner than you think.