It’s late in practice Thursday afternoon, and the Seattle Storm has just finished scrimmaging. Team members, legs tired, sweat dripping, line up around the basket to take free throws. It’s in these worn-out moments when mental and physical precision are key, after all. After a round of shots, Storm coach Dan Hughes brings his squad in for one more talk before dismissing them for the day. Practice is over.
But not for Breanna Stewart.
Stewart leads the WNBA in scoring (22.8 points per game) and is fourth in rebounding (8.1 per). The 6-foot 4-inch forward finds herself in the middle of an MVP-caliber season. And MVPs take extra reps.
She sets up on the other end of the practice court at Seattle Pacific University and begins working with her trainer, taking mid-range jump shots from the wing before eventually retreating behind the three-point arc. The former University of Connecticut three-time NCAA Player of the Year is pushing it so hard, in fact, that Hughes approaches her and her trainer to tell them to take it easy on her. “I’m fine,” Stewart assures, sweat dripping.
This year, even her coach can’t stop her.
Stewart’s work is paying off beyond even her individual stats. While the Storm haven’t made it out of the first round of the playoffs since 2010, as of August 7,the team boasts the WNBA’s best record at 22-7 (the next best is the Atlanta Dream’s, at 18-10) and has already clinched a playoff birth.
Trying to get the most out of herself at the professional level is emblematic of Stewart’s evolution as both a person and a player. In her third year as a pro, the former #1 pick has officially made the leap from highly touted prospect to dominant league force.
“What I see on the floor with her is a talented player. But she is also really driven to improve,” says Hughes, a league veteran in his first year coaching the Storm. “It’s one thing to want to be good, and it’s another thing to put the work in. And she has put the work in and continues to understand how to add to her game.”
The Storm are enjoying their first winning season since 2011, the year after the team won the second of its two WNBA championships (the first in 2004). Stewart, future Hall of Fame point guard Sue Bird (the lone holdover from the title teams), and dynamic young guard Jewell Loyd all made the All-Star team this season, forming a “big three” that the Storm hopes can lead them deep into the playoffs — possibly earning a third championship banner to hang in KeyArena.
In the WNBA’s current playoff format, the top two seeds receive byes straight to the semifinals. With this in mind, Hughes says it’s important not to lose focus of the remainder of the season. There’s always room to learn and improve.
“These big games provide a classroom experience to learn things,” notes Hughes. “One of the things you want to learn is confidence. We’re going to treat every one of the games down the stretch as chances to gain information that will become useful for us on the final exam that is the playoffs.”
Last year at this time, the team was struggling with a record under .500, eventually suffering a first-round playoff loss at the hands of the rival Phoenix Mercury. That 2017 team excelled offensively, but wasn’t able to put together a solid defensive plan. This year, with Stewart as a defensive anchor in the middle, the Storm rank as one of the league’s top defensive squads while maintaining their high offensive output.
“Two things in particular have impressed me about the Storm this season: their defensive improvement and their ability to win on the road,” says senior ESPN basketball writer and Seattleite Kevin Pelton. “The offense has improved slightly to the league’s best this year, but the real jump is on defense, where the Storm have surged all the way to third in defensive rating.”
Hughes made a point of improving the defense this year, instilling a philosophy in which defense and offense are viewed as cohesive parts of the game. It’s an integrated approach in which success on one end of the court can translate to success on the other.
The biggest off-court moment for Stewart came last October when she wrote an article for The Player’s Tribune titled “Me Too,” detailing the sexual abuse she experienced as a young person. Stewart’s courageous honesty earned her new fans and increased her stature as a role model.
“Opening up and telling my story was huge for me,” she says. “It was a weight lifted off my shoulders that I didn’t even know I had. And just the impact it’s made on other people, I can’t tell you how many people have come up to me and thanked me for sharing my story. A lot of people are in a similar situation. It’s unfortunate.”