Standing Tall and Talented

Need proof that it’s best not to blink when Breanna Stewart is on the court? Just ask the University of California.

With SLAM in the building for a late-December tilt at Madison Square Garden, the exacting and precise UConn sophomore dropped 9 of her team’s first 10 points with a barrage of long-range bombs, hook shots and pull-up jumpers. Matter of fact, she single-handedly outscored the then-20th-ranked Bears in the first half.

“To do that as a sophomore in college and on a big stage, you can’t take those type of performances for granted,” says Cal head coach Lindsay Gottlieb, whose team fell one short of Stewart’s 21 first-half points. “She played like the superstar All-American that she is.”

For Stewart, affectionately called “Stewie” by her teammates, the performance was business as usual: 29 points, 10 rebounds in 27 minutes en route to a 12th straight victory to open the Huskies’ 2013-14 season. She’s the engine powering a finely tuned Connecticut squad, and the team’s stayed in fifth gear all season.

The 6-4 forward was averaging 19.7 points, 8.1 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.8 blocks through the team’s first 34 games—all of them wins. Perhaps even more impressive, Connecticut is winning by an average of 35.7 points per game, and no opponent has come within 10 points by the final buzzer.

Two seasons into her college career, Stewart already has WNBA teams looking ahead to the 2016 draft. “There’s nothing Breanna Stewart can’t do,” Gottlieb says. “I think every WNBA team would take her first in the draft if she was coming out this year.”

Standing 6-4 with a stretchy 6-10 wingspan, the 19-year-old Stewart is most comfortable playing on the wing, but she can slide effortlessly into the post, handle the rock and swat shots on defense. Stewart won’t speculate about her potential, but she hears the whispers.

“[Some people say] that I could be the best player in women’s basketball,” Stewart says. “When you hear that, you want to reach those goals. You want to get to those levels. Hearing that from people really lights a fire in me and makes me want to continue to get better and be as good as I can.”

As the consensus No. 1 player coming out of high school, Stewart was expected to follow in the large footsteps of Maya Moore, Tina Charles and the other UConn greats before her. And despite a bumpy regular season as a freshman in 2012-13, Stewart delivered when it mattered most.

She scored 105 points in five games during the 2013 NCAA Tournament, including a combined 52 points against Notre Dame and Louisville, making her a layup selection for the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four, and the first freshman to win the award since 1987.

“You couldn’t ask for anything better as a freshman, coming to UConn and winning a National Championship,” Stewart says. “And to be named Most Outstanding Player, it’s a nice award, but it’s all extra because in the end, the big goal was to win a National Championship, and that’s what we did.”

Stewart is now the undisputed star on a UConn team that has its sights set on nothing less than another dynasty. But if you ask the people who know her best, nothing has changed about the happy-go-lucky Stewie.

“She’ll just say something random that has nothing to do with what we’re talking about or nothing to do with what we’re doing. Just anything,” says sophomore forward Morgan Tuck, who met Stewart in 2009 at the U16 national team tryouts. “She could bust out a dance move. She’s just very random. So whatever comes to mind, that’s kind of what she does.”

“She knows pretty much everything about college basketball, and she knows a lot of weird facts,” says sophomore guard Moriah Jefferson, Stewart’s roommate.

Stewart loves to play video games with her little brother Conor, go to the movies with her pops and shop at the mall with friends. She’s a normal teenager, who also happens to have five Gold medals from her summers playing with USA Basketball.

“She could have 55 points and 30 rebounds and just absolutely annihilate your team, but you’d want to get her autograph afterward because she’s just so humble about it,” says Eric Smith, Stewart’s high school coach. “She’s not rubbing it in your face. She plays hard. She never makes an inkling about being great. After the game, she laughs and giggles and goes on like a teenager. So you can’t really dislike her.”

A native of North Syracuse, NY, Stewart began playing basketball at the age of 6 as a way to spend more time with her dad, who was a regular at the local YMCA’s weekend pick-up games. In eighth grade, the long-limbed Stewart made the varsity team at Cicero-North Syracuse (NY) High School, but she admits that she “wasn’t born as a basketball player.”

“She was a very tall, gangly girl who looked like she wouldn’t be able to get out of her own way,” Smith says. “She could block a shot or two, but a lot of times, the ball would come to her and she wouldn’t even be able to catch it. Like most young kids, she needed to grow into her body.”

“I was definitely a defensive-minded player because it wasn’t as easy for me to make shots, so I always fell back on defense and blocking shots,” Stewart adds.

Intent on refurbishing her slender frame, Stewart began to spend her summers in the bowels of C-NS, under the auspices of Pete Moore, a trainer in the district who has supervised hundreds of athletes, including Oakland Raiders safety Tyvon Branch.

The work paid immediate dividends. That summer, Stewart played in the Empire State Games, an Olympic-style competition for amateur New York athletes. “She blocked 19 shots in one game playing against sophomores, juniors in high school from all over the state. She doesn’t thump her chest. She just goes about her business,” says her father, Brian Stewart.

At the time, Stewart had hopes of eventually suiting up in the North Carolina baby blue, but “once I started getting recruited by a lot of schools around the country, I opened things back up,” she says.

By her junior year of high school, Stewart narrowed down her options to UConn, Penn State and Duke—all perennial powers in the women’s college game. But Connecticut cemented itself as the favorite when she and Tuck took their official visit.

“It was the Baylor game,” Stewart says. “So, we’re at XL (Center), right behind the bench. I think the game was probably sold out, and it was a great game. It was a loud atmosphere, and it gave you goosebumps. I remember it giving me goosebumps.”

The thrilling 65-64 home win was UConn’s 80th straight victory at the time—a streak that eventually ended at an unprecedented 90 consecutive wins. “We’re like, ‘I think we want to go here,’” Stewart laughs.

Stewart made one more visit to Duke, but it was more of a formality. She committed to UConn upon her next trip to Storrs.

“I thought that UConn was the place where I could reach my fullest potential,” Stewart says. “And everything that Coach [Geno] Auriemma has done for the players and the program that he has helped create, it was kind of a done deal for me.”

Even as the all-time leading scorer for New York’s Section III, back-to-back New York Class AA state champion and winner of every national prep player of the year award one could win, Stewart had yet to scratch her full potential.

“We talked about getting her 20 shots every game. I’ve never done that with any other player,” Auriemma says.

Stewart has hit the 20-shot plateau just six times in her college career, but she shoots well enough that maybe she should do it more often—Breanna is connecting on a healthy 49.8 percent from the field, 37 percent from three and 77.1 percent from the line, while showing flashes of another lanky forward’s game.

“She likes the comparison of Kevin Durant because they’re both lanky and tall, but they’re not post players,” Tuck says.

Smith likes another comparison.

“She’s got a lot of [Elena] Delle Donne’s game: a tall player from the perimeter who can score from the outside and attack,” Smith says. “But she can post just as well. She’ll throw her body around. She’ll post strong and be able to finish there.”

The added attention on offense has necessitated her role as a facilitator this season. She’s deftly hit the open man—averaging the career-best 3.1 dimes and just 1.7 turnovers per.

“[She] opens up the lane and opens up shots for everybody else because people start double-teaming her and even triple-teaming her, at that,” Jefferson says.

Regardless of how you describe her game, the bottom line is she’s as close to an unstoppable force as they come.

“Unless you have a 6-4, really athletic kid who you can put on her for 40 minutes, you can’t stop her from scoring,” Auriemma explains. “Because any big kid, she’s just too quick. And any guard, she just shoots right over you.”

She’s already the most talented player in women’s college basketball and has a chance to go down as one of the greatest to ever play. That’s got to be a lot of pressure, right?

“The funny thing about Breanna is she’s so quiet, and she does not read her own press clippings. She’s not about any of that,” Brian says. “But I know she wants to be the best. She would like to be the best player that she can be, and she would like to be the best player that has come along.”

If her standout performance last March was any indication, Stewart will be playing her best basketball yet in this spring’s NCAA Tournament, as the powerful Huskies aim for an undefeated season and a record ninth National Championship. So don’t blink.

“I think we’re lucky in women’s college basketball to have someone at that talent level,” says Gottlieb, “except when you’re playing against her.”

Ryne Nelson is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @slaman10.

Photos by Steve Slade, UConn Athletics