When she entered the WNBA in 2016, Breanna Stewart was riding a wave of unprecedented success.
She had just won her fourth NCAA championship and was named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four for the fourth straight year. It is an accomplishment that had never been achieved in the history of college basketball – men’s or women’s. Over the course of her four years at the University of Connecticut, she won 151 games with only five losses.
Winning basketball games was as natural as getting out of bed in the morning. It was part of every day life. It was part of her routine. Until it wasn’t.
One caveat to being selected No. 1 overall is that the team earns that pick by struggling the previous season. So while Stewart was named Rookie of the Year after averaging 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.2 steals, the Storm went just 16-18 and were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
While Stewart’s individual numbers improved in Season Two, the team results did not. The team finished 15-19, made an in-season coaching change, and was once again eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs.
After two seasons in the WNBA, Breanna Stewart had 31 wins and 39 losses – that’s nearly eight times the amount of losses she had in four years of college. Enough was enough. The losing had to stop.
“It’s time to start winning,” Stewart said after a Storm practice prior to the tip-off of the 2018 season. “I don’t want to come off as crass or cocky or anything like that, but losing sucks. It does. That’s just how I feel about it. And, no, I won’t ever get used to it. I can’t. That’s not how I’m wired.”
After finishing seventh in the standings her rookie year and eighth in her sophomore season, Stewart led the Storm to a league-best 26-8 record this season – the second-best record in franchise history and the first winning record since 2011. As the chart above illustrates her production and efficiency continued to grow in her third professional season.
Stewart finished as the runner up for the scoring title for the second straight season, averaging a career-best 21.8 points per game. She was also third in rebounding (8.4 per game), seventh in blocked shots (1.44 per game) and eighth in steals (1.35 per game).
She also set career-best marks in shooting percentages from the field (52.9%, 10th in the WNBA) and from beyond the arc (41.5%, eighth in WNBA). Stewart was the only player in the league to rank in the top 10 in both 2-point (209, sixth) and 3-point (61, ninth) field goals made.
Game-planning to try to slow Stewart down can give opposing coaches migraine-level headaches. What are you supposed to do with a 6-foot-4 forward with guard-like skills and unlimited shooting range? Stewart’s versatility makes it impossible for one player to stop everything she can do.
A smaller player may be able to stay with her on the perimeter, but Stewart can either shoot over them or take them down low and punish them in the post and force double-teams. And vice-versa if an opposing team uses a traditional big to defend Stewart. She can elect to work in the post or utilize her face-up game and pull the big away from the basket and either shoot from the outside or drive to the basket.
It is this combination of unique individual talent coupled with team success that led Stewart to earn 33 of 39 first place votes for the 2018 Most Valuable Player award as she beat out Dallas’ Liz Cambage and Washington’s Elena Delle Donne for the honor. Stewart joined three-time winner Lauren Jackson as the second Storm player to win MVP honors and the 10th different player in the last 10 years to be named MVP.
Like Jackson (2003), Tina Charles (2012) and Delle Donne (2015), Stewart won the MVP award in her third WNBA season. Looking back at league history, more players have won their first MVP in their third season than any other year.
First MVPs By Season
– 1st Season: 3 players (Cynthia Cooper 1997, Yolanda Griffith 1999, Candace Parker 2008)
– 3rd Season: 4 players (Jackson 2003, Charles 2012, Delle Donne 2015, Stewart 2018)
– 4th Season: 2 players (Sheryl Swoopes 2000, Maya Moore 2014)
– 5th Season: 2 players (Lisa Leslie 2001, Nneka Ogwumike 2016)
– 6th Season: 1 player (Diana Taurasi 2009)
– 10th: Season: 2 players (Tamika Catchings 2011, Sylvia Fowles 2017)
Stewart finished sixth in the final MVP voting in her rookie season as she garnered one third place vote, three fourth place votes and 10 fifth place votes. She also finished as the runner up for Defensive Player of the Year in her rookie season as she made an immediate impact on both sides of the court. Only Candace Parker has won MVP honors in her first year out of college; the other first-year players to win MVP (Cooper and Griffith) were established professionals in the early seasons of the WNBA.
After the Storm took a step back in her second year, so did Stewart’s case for MVP consideration as she earned just two fifth place votes, which tied her for 10th overall with Chicago’s Courtney Vandersloot.
One year and 26 regular season wins later, Stewart ran away with the MVP award in her third WNBA season. Throughout her college career Stewart was able to marry her top individual honors (she was the consensus national player of the year from 2014 to 2016) with the ultimate team success by winning national titles in each season.
Can she replicate that success at the WNBA level? She already has the top individual honor that the league bestows, and as the Storm open their postseason run with a semifinal matchup with the Phoenix Mercury on Sunday, her team needs just six more wins to win her first WNBA championship.