The two-year hiatus — her words — is over and Breanna Stewart is ready for her close-up now.
Zoom in and take a good look.
The third-year Storm star doesn’t flinch from the unforgiving spotlight.
In fact, the former Connecticut Huskies standout who won four NCAA national titles and four Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four honors while accruing a ridiculous 151-5 record, shines brightest on the biggest stage of women’s basketball when championships are at stake.
Much like her nude photo shoot earlier this year for ESPN’s ‘Body Issue’ and last October’s gripping first-person account of sexual abuse as a teenager, Stewart is fully exposed.
She’s that rare next-generation superstar and social-justice warrior who deftly intertwines basketball brilliance and political activism in full view of her 200,000 social media followers.
“I’m growing into me,” said the North Syracuse, N.Y., native who turns 24 on Monday. “Those first two years (in the WNBA), I wasn’t comfortable with that. This year has been a better representation of me and what I’m all about.”
Before Sunday’s WNBA semifinal victory for the No. 1 seed Seattle Storm over the No. 5 seed Phoenix Mercury, Stewart was awarded the league’s MVP award, which caps a record-breaking regular-season performance and possibly serves as a precursor to greater postseason rewards.
“It feels really good to win the MVP,” said Stewart, the Rookie of the Year winner in 2016. “But it feels even better to be back in this type of environment and in this type of groove if you know what I mean.
“I’m happiest when I’m winning and doing everything I can to consistently get these wins and to leave it all on the court and show that I’m the best one out there.”
Stewart is the third-youngest WNBA MVP winner behind Los Angeles Sparks’ Candace Parker (22 in 2008) and former Storm star Lauren Jackson (22 in 2003).
During a pregame press conference at KeyArena that included WNBA president Lisa Borders, Storm forward Natasha Howard also claimed the league’s Most Improved award while Sue Bird collected the Kim Perrot Sportsmanship award for the second straight year and third time in her career.
Bird, the last holdover from the Storm’s championship history, has a theory about Stewart’s rise to the top of the WNBA.
Nobody avoids the humbling, the 37-year-old veteran said.
“She’s always been talented and versatile,” Bird said. “You saw the skill set very early and now in her third year, she’s figured out who she is as a player and what she wants to do and when she wants to it. With that, she’s become a much more efficient player.
“I don’t care who you are, how much talent you have or what you did anywhere else, it takes awhile to learn how to be effective in this league. Now she’s learned and she’s being more doing the things she’s always done on a more consistent basis.”
While her rebounding (8.4), assists (2.5), blocks (1.4) and minutes (31.6) have steadily decreased since her first year, Stewart raised her scoring average each season from 18.3 points as a rookie to 19.9 last season and a personal-best 21.8 this year.
Still, she made her greatest strides improving her shooting efficiency. She shot 52.9 percent from the floor and 41.5 on 3-pointers — both career highs.
“Did my game change much? No. Not really,” Stewart said. “I’m just bringing things to another level. Everything is crisper. Everything is more consistent. Just having that mindset throughout the entire season. No highs and lows.”
At 6 feet and 5 inches, Stewart is often characterized as the WNBA’s version of Kevin Durant — a long, lean and angular forward who is arguably the future of basketball.
“I grew up watching Candace Parker, (Elena) Delle Donne when she was in college, KD and Tim Duncan,” Stewart said. “My dad would say you don’t want to be a stand-on-the-block post. You want to be able to go wherever you want.”
This season Stewart tallied a franchise-record 742 points that ranks sixth all time in the WNBA, but she finished second in scoring average and player efficiency rating to Dallas center Liz Cambage, the MVP runner-up.
However, the No. 8 Wings stumbled into the playoffs at 15-19 while Stewart led Seattle (26-8) to the league’s best record and the second-most wins in franchise history.
“To me an MVP takes your team at those critical moments and puts you on the other side of winning games,” Hughes said. “It can be scoring. It can be a key rebound. It can be a presence defensively. A MVP — in the pursuit of their greatness and the way they impact games — they take you from maybe you’re going to win to yes you’re going to win.”
Drafted No. 1 overall in 2016, it’s taken Stewart just 101 games — she’s only missed one during her career — to establish herself among the Storm’s greatest players.
She ranks fifth all time in points (2,019), fourth in rebounds (888) and second in blocks (166).
Of course, the only thing separating Stewart from Hall of Famer Jackson and Bird — Seattle’s architects of 2004 and 2010 WNBA titles — is a league championship.
Stewart surprisingly disappeared when it mattered most in her first WNBA playoff game while scoring just four of her 19 points in the second half of a 94-85 first-round, loser-go-home defeat at Atlanta in 2016.
Last year, Phoenix eliminated Seattle 79-69 in the postseason opener at Wells Fargo Arena despite a team-high 23 points from Stewart.
“Between changing my approach with (nutrition) and conditioning, I fully invested myself to make sure I had a great year and the team did as well,” Stewart said. “The things I’ve done and what we’ve done as a team feel very familiar to me going back to my days at UConn and how successful we were there. … I expected this would happen years ago, but unfortunately I had to go through that and it’s gotten me to this point.
“The losing really bothered me. I remember saying before the season, I was tired of losing. And I was. We changed that. We stopped losing. Now we need to finish this thing the right way.”
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