WNBA 2020 season: Can Storm star Breanna Stewart recapture MVP form upon return from torn Achilles tendon?
The last time we saw Breanna Stewart on a WNBA court, she was celebrating after leading the Seattle Storm to the 2018 title. Named regular season and Finals MVP for her efforts, she had asserted herself as the best player in the league at just 24 years old, and looked destined for all-time greatness.
Then, a month before the 2019 season, she tore her Achilles tendon while playing overseas for the Russian side Dynamo Kursk. All of a sudden her future, and the Storm’s, was thrown into disarray. Without her, and Sue Bird, it must be noted, Seattle barely finished above .500 last season, and were routed by the Sparks in the second round of the playoffs.
Now, heading into what will be the strangest WNBA season in history, both Stewart and the Storm are looking to reclaim their place atop the league. Coming off such a devastating injury, however, there are plenty of questions about which version of Stewart will hit the court this season.
Gary Kloppenburg — serving as head coach while Dan Hughes sits out of the bubble — and her teammates have been quite impressed with Stewart during the first few weeks of practice. Jewell Loyd, in fact, went so far as to say during media day that “if you didn’t know she got injured, you really couldn’t tell.”
The thing is, no matter what she looks like, no one from the team is ever going to say anything negative about her. That isn’t to say they’re lying, it’s just that we need to see the evidence for ourselves. Luckily, we can. Or, at least, kind of.
We’ll have to wait until opening day on Saturday to see her in the yellow and green again, but Stewart has played meaningful games since her injury. Returning to the court this winter, she suited up both for Team USA and UMMC Ekaterinburg in Russia before the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports across the globe.
These games were months ago, so presumably Stewart has improved since then, especially from a physical standpoint, and the opponents were often vastly inferior. Still, it’s worth evaluating how she looked in her first meaningful minutes since a potentially career-altering injury.
Stewart herself noted how important those games were for her. “I was really happy that I got the opportunity to play USA Basketball and overseas and Russia just because I got some minutes and reps under my belt,” Stewart said. “So to get to that point for me was amazing because I knew my leg would last, and my body would last and it just helped me from a confidence standpoint.”
The biggest concern in regards to a torn Achilles is the loss of athleticism. Basketball skills aren’t going to disappear over the course of a year, but if you aren’t as quick or can’t leap as high to use those abilities, you’re not going to be the same player.
Quotes out of Seattle’s camp indicate that Stewart looks like her old self. Beyond Loyd’s comment about how you wouldn’t even know she was injured, Mercedes Russell added, “She looks fluid. She doesn’t look like she’s slow or stagnant.”
To that extent, let’s compare a few standard plays from before and after the injury.
Rebounding: Stewart is not your typical low post presence, but she’s still an impressive rebounder, thanks in large part to her unique length and athleticism. She’s never pulled down fewer than 8.4 rebounds per game in a season, and never finished worse than sixth in the league in that category.
Prior to her injury, she would routinely make plays like this, where she simply out-leaps everyone for the ball.
Here’s a look at her making a similar play this February against Bourges in EuroLeague Women play.
It’s hard to tell exactly how high she jumps in the clip from after her injury, but it’s clear she can still get up there. Perhaps not to quite the same extent, but again this was one of her first games back, and even if she has lost a few inches off the vertical, she was so far ahead of most players prior to the injury that she’ll still boast an advantage.
Driving to the basket: Stewart is so difficult to guard because she has the height of a traditional big, but the perimeter skills of a wing. Yes, she can shoot it from 3, but more importantly, she can put the ball on the deck and get into the paint.
One of the big questions in coming back from an Achilles injury is whether she’ll still have the same quickness and burst to beat defenders and then finish at the rim. Losing even just a step can make a big difference in that regard.
Watching her games from before the pandemic, this was perhaps her biggest area of weakness. Here, against Bourges, she gets a clear pathway to the rim and tries to go up and over the waiting defender, but just sort of dies after the contact. Then, she misses the follow-up attempt.
During Team USA’s matchup against Serbia, she had a similarly tough time finishing in traffic, flailing at two wild baseline efforts.
Compare that to her form prior to the injury. First, she powers right through the defense to finish at the rim on the fastbreak.
And watch how composed she is in this clip as she finishes around the defense.
On some level, this should get better with more reps. She went almost an entire year without facing defenders, and it will take some time to get comfortable playing through contact and using her physicality again. As always, these are limited clips from months ago, but there seemed to be a slight drop-off in her burst, which is a bit concerning. This is an area to keep an eye on once the WNBA season begins.
At the same time, her slashing drives weren’t all bad. She’s still long and crafty and can finish with both hands in the paint. Against Cukurova, she showed her ability to get around the defense and finish with the left.
It looked remarkably similar to a move against the Sky from 2018.
Defense: Another key area of Stewart’s game is her defense, where she’s just as versatile as she is on the offensive end. She was on the All-Defensive team as a rookie and has averaged at least one steal and one block per game in each of her three seasons. In 2018, she was one of only six players to pull off that feat.
She has a good understanding of the game and where to be, especially in help defense, and her length is a big plus on this side of the ball. But again, her athleticism helps elevate her to a truly special defender. If she’s lost some quickness and leaping ability, her defense could be impacted as well.
To be honest, she didn’t get attacked very much in limited minutes in these games, and that in and of itself is a compliment. Even coming off an injury, teams didn’t feel it was worth going at her. But even with limited clips to work from, she still flashed some impressive work on that end.
Against Serbia, by far the toughest opponent she played in any of these games, she showed good instincts and verticality to slide over and stifle a drive.
And here, against Cukurova, she did well to recover after a bit of a miscommunication, shut off the drive and use her length to reject the shot.
In terms of defense, we’ll really have to just wait to see her playing against WNBA competition again to get a true understanding of where she’s at, but she showed some encouraging signs overseas.
Playing like a guard
The Storm’s belief that Stewart is physically back is important, obviously, but perhaps the most notable quotes out of media day were about her improved ball-handling and potential increased versatility.
“We’re looking where can we move her around and how can we utilize her even more because she’s really improved her ball-handling,” Kloppenburg said. “She’s handling the ball like a guard.”
Stewart’s versatility is no secret. She’s a solid passer — 2.5 assists per game in 2018 — and has shown an ability to put the ball on the deck and operate as a point forward. That the Storm feel she’s much improved in the way she can handle the ball is really saying something, and should open up even more options for their offense.
Though there weren’t a ton of opportunities to strictly evaluate her ball-handling, the ones that were there really stood out.
In Ekaterinburg’s contest with Cukurova, she made two strong baseline drives, followed by sharp passes to the corner. One with the left, and one with the right. Those are certainly guard-like plays.
Against Serbia, she made a similar play, driving middle off the handoff, and throwing a one-hand kickout to Skylar Diggins-Smith, who buried the 3-pointer.
Much like with her defense, we’re going to need to wait until we see her in the WNBA, where she’s much more of a focal point of her team’s offense, to really get a feel for her improvement in this area. It also might be difficult to notice much of a difference, just because she was already pretty versatile, and it wasn’t like her ball-handling was a major issue. There certainly weren’t any negative signs in Europe, though.
Another area that multiple members of the Storm mentioned with Stewart is her shooting. Loyd said her shot “looks great,” while Kloppenburg added that she’s improved her “accuracy from 3.”
Stewart shot 41.5 percent on 4.1 3-point attempts per game in 2018, so if she’s improved her shot, that’s bad news for the rest of the league. In her games with Ekaterinburg and Team USA, however, she did not shoot the ball well from the outside.
In the four games we have footage of — two from EuroLeague Women and two from Team USA Olympic Qualifiers — she went 2-of-8 from downtown, and threw up a few really ugly looks.
Obviously you don’t want to miss shots, but there was nothing particularly concerning in regards to her form, and this was an extremely small sample size. Nothing can prepare you for game shots besides actually taking them, and it just takes time to regain your rhythm and feel after such a long layoff. It wouldn’t be a surprise if she struggles a bit shooting from 3 to start the WNBA season, but this shouldn’t be an issue longterm.
Watching Stewart in these four games, there were definitely some rough moments — air balling 3s, losing her bearings under the basket, struggling to finish at the rim, etc. It was encouraging, however, that most of her worst moments looked more like a player struggling with the rust of not playing for a year, rather than one who was no longer herself.
Is she going to be exactly the same player she was before she got hurt? Probably not. Can she still be one of the best players in the league? Absolutely. And that’s more than enough for her and the Storm to reclaim their throne.
Come October, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Stewart celebrating with trophies in both arms once again.