This story ran in the March 24, 2014 issue of Sports Illustrated. To read more from that issue and subscribe to the magazine, check out SI Everywhere.
In most Connecticut women's basketball games there is a shift -- sometimes instant and sometimes gradual -- when the opponent's chances of winning go from possible to not gonna happen. On March 1 top-ranked, undefeated UConn hosted Rutgers at Gampel Pavilion, and the shift came, as so many do now, courtesy of Breanna Stewart.
Stewart, a 19-year-old sophomore, already has a national championship and a Final Four Most Outstanding Player award. She's 6' 4" with a 7' 1" wingspan, and as Scarlet Knights coach C. Vivian Stringer conceded after the game, "she's just scratching the surface" of her potential. What makes Stewart special isn't difficult to quantify -- she has averaged 19.7 points this season and scored 1,000 in just 63 games, the second fastest to reach that mark in school history. But there's something else: Stewart is a new prototype for women's hoops. "I don't know that there's been anybody 6' 4" that can do what she does," Huskies coach Geno Auriemma says of his second-year star. "She's the first Durantesque player in the women's game."
What Stewart can do is score from the lane, where she's nearly unstoppable, and from the three-point line, where she shoots 37.0%. She can also block shots (2.8 per game), hold her own on the boards (8.2), take the ball up the court, beat defenders off the dribble and -- under the right circumstances -- dunk. It's too soon to call Stewart the greatest ever (though some already have), but she is undeniably the most athletic swing player of her size the women's game has seen.
Against Rutgers the Huskies were up 9-4. In the next 2:25, Stewart scored on a spot-up three-pointer at the top of the key, on a jumper from the elbow, on a layup off a steal and on a fast break feed from senior guard Bria Hartley. Suddenly UConn led 18-8. Stringer took a timeout, but the shift had occurred: UConn went on to beat the 24th-ranked Scarlet Knights by 37.
When a unicorn of a player comes around, it's worth exploring the origin story: How was Breanna Stewart even allowed to happen? Once a girl reaches a certain height, she almost always becomes a post player. It's simple supply and demand: At the high school level a player taller than 5' 10" -- even one who's developed a good -perimeter game in her shorter years -- will probably serve her team better in the lane. (When I was 14 years old, for example, I was a point guard; in the next year I grew half a foot, to 5' 11", and I never brought the ball up the court again.)
Women's basketball remains a highly specialized sport, rooted in clear-cut skills that align with distinct positions. If you are small and speedy, you'll play the point. If you are tall and efficient, you'll play on the block. There are outliers, sure -- Elena Delle Donne, the 6' 5" former Delaware star now with the Chicago Sky, can shoot the three as well as anyone, and 6' 6" Australian forward-center Lauren Jackson has a reliable jumper outside the paint. But spotting up for a trey is not the same as playing the wing. Stewart's athleticism essentially allows the Huskies to play with four guards, leading to favorable mismatches.
Growing up in Syracuse, the elder of Brian and Heather Stewart's two children (brother, Conor, is 11), Breanna was always tall. "I wasn't one of those people who was a guard and then shot up," she says while eating a bowl of gumbo in the Gampel weight room after the Rutgers win. "And being taller, the assumption was to go by the block and post up. My dad was the one who got me started with dribbling [drills]."
The Stewarts lived on an oval block; Brian, an MRI technician, estimates that it's a quarter mile around. When his daughter was in the fifth grade or so, he suggested that she work on her ballhandling skills. Every day she'd put on headphones and dribble around the block four times, switching up her routine with each lap. "It wasn't a requirement per se," Brian says now. "It was more, Hey, if you really want to be good, maybe you should do this."
The coach at Cicero-North Syracuse High, Eric Smith had noticed the tall, gangly girl when she was at the middle school where he worked as a phys-ed teacher. He had her play with the freshman squad as a seventh-grader, then brought her on to varsity the next year, when she played about a quarter of every game. At that point Stewart hadn't quite found rhythm in her long limbs.
"If you watch Bree, her gait isn't the normal gait that you would see in a really athletic kid," Smith recalls with affection. "It just looks like she might not be able to do anything without tripping over herself." That first year with the varsity he remembers her catching the ball "one out of four times," and says she fell over on nearly every possession. "But she had a basketball sense, she had a work ethic and defensively, with her wingspan, she was able to block a shot," he says. "And there was a glimpse of her character and her competitiveness, because her best games were against our best competition."
By ninth grade, Smith says, Stewart was already the best player on the team. She had continued her dribbling sessions, and her outside shot was becoming a weapon. The Northstars depended on her height on both ends of the floor, but, says Smith, "she had the freedom to come to the outside. Our offense tried to get her at the basket, away from the basket and then back to the basket. If there was a mismatch, and we knew we could get it, we'd run an offense to keep her [in the post]. It varied."
Stewart also started to become an efficient, methodical scorer. Smith remembers one game in which she made a layup, stole the inbounds pass, made a layup, stole the inbounds pass again and made another layup. "Six points within five seconds," he says now, still in disbelief. On defense, with Stewart clogging the lane, teams stopped driving on the Northstars. "The only reason she probably didn't have double the blocks she did [in high school]," says Brian Stewart, "is because people wouldn't even cut into the paint."
While parts of Stewart's game came so easily -- she led her team to two state titles and was the consensus national player of the year in 2012 -- she often seemed embarrassed by her success. When Stewart committed to UConn during her senior year, there was no fanfare; she signed her letter of intent on the hood of her parents' car in a parking lot and then faxed it to Auriemma. "Breanna couldn't stand when people would look at her," Brian says. Smith says she feared that her teammates would feel jealous of the attention she got: "She never wanted that."
Midway through her freshman season at Storrs, Stewart was slumping. She had come to the most dominant program in women's hoops as the No. 1 recruit in the nation. The Maya Moore era had ended the year before, and UConn was ready to celebrate a new star. Stewart embraced the challenge, setting the Huskies' record for the most points by a player in her first 10 games (169). But in the final 10 regular-season games, she averaged just 8.1 points and connected on just 36.1% of her field goals. "They expected a lot from me," Stewart says now, "and I didn't do as well with [handling those expectations]."
A bad stretch for an Auriemma team is always relative: The Huskies still finished the regular season 27-3. It was a reasonable time for Stewart to stumble a bit. "The struggles that she had in January and February of last year were not unlike most freshmen," Auriemma says. "But it's almost like she wasn't allowed to because [when you're] Breanna Stewart, you're not supposed to have a bad week."
That February, Stewart came to associate head coach Chris Dailey and asked for her help, and the two started regular early morning practice sessions. Dailey had known the extra work was necessary for some time but didn't want to force it: "I was waiting for her to come and ask me, as opposed to me making her do it and it not becoming her own." They focused on Stewart's ballhandling, her outside shot and her general physicality down low, where opponents had been able to contain her by being extra aggressive. Auriemma says the bumps had been taking a toll: "She avoided going in the lane because she would get pushed around. So she'd settle for jump shots out on the perimeter."
After UConn's triple-OT loss to Notre Dame in the regular-season finale, in which Stewart scored just five points in 40 minutes, something clicked. "I don't know if she remembers this," Auriemma recalls, "but when the Big East tournament started, I said, 'Stewie, you only gotta do this for nine more games. Not five months. Just nine more games. Four weekends. That's it.' And it was almost like the light went on."
She led the Huskies in scoring in their final four games, including a season-high 29 points against the Fighting Irish in their national semifinal rematch. In the title game against Louisville, Stewart scored 23 points on 9-of-15 shooting; during the NCAA tournament she shot 56.3% from the field and a team-best 60.0% from beyond the arc.
"When they made the championship run, she smiled on the court," Smith says. "I didn't see that throughout the course of the year.
There is still a slight awkwardness to Stewart's gait -- her arms hang like a doll's when she runs; and if she bent a bit her hands would surely sweep the floor -- but this year there's been no stumble. Her defensive game has gotten stronger as well. In high school Stewart was generally assigned to the weakest player so that she could hang out in the lane and collect blocks. She no longer has that luxury, but still ranked second in the American Athletic Conference in blocks while committing fewer than two fouls per game.
In an Instagram video posted in late February, she's seen easily throwing down a one-handed dunk during a team shootaround, though it's unlikely we'll see that from her in a game. ("I told her it's amazing that someone can dunk and still miss as many free throws as she does," says Dailey.) Stewart has been remarkably consistent -- she has led the team in scoring 18 times -- and appears more comfortable in her role, in a way that the nation's best player in the nation's best program has to be. "She knows she has to have that scoring mentality," Hartley says of her younger teammate. "[At UConn] you find out what your role is, and once you find it, you embrace it."
The difference with Stewart is that her role is as close to unrestricted as it can be on an Auriemma team, and in women's hoops in general. "The fact that they expect me to do so many different things means [Auriemma] can get on me for not doing so many different things if I don't do them," Stewart says with a laugh. "I wouldn't want it any other way."
Both Auriemma and Dailey say they've seen a mental shift in Stewart this year. "She wants the ball on every possession," says Auriemma, a trait he saw last season only when she was playing well. Dailey says it's an intuitive adjustment: "Last year she was trying to survive, and this year she's starting to see the game, even before some things happen."
That Stewart hasn't yet reached her ceiling -- that she still has a postseason run and two full years in a Connecticut jersey ahead of her -- is both a daunting and exciting prospect for the women's game. The Huskies outscored opponents by 35.7 points this season, the highest average margin of victory in NCAA history for both men and women. Hartley and Stefanie Dolson, a 6' 5" center, will graduate this year, but the Stewart era is well under way. "This team has won like we have not seen, period," says Stringer. "Our challenge [in] women's basketball is to get better. Better as players, better as coaches and to represent better competition."
Ideally, prototypes beget more of the same. Imagine three or four Stewarts in the college game next year -- and in the WNBA a few years down the road -- and you can imagine the sport changing on a fundamental level. (To begin: Someone in the country would be able to stop Stewart.) Auriemma believes that players overseas are a step ahead in this regard. "In Europe they don't just throw you in the post," he says. "They work really hard at making you a basketball player instead of just a low post player. Stewie can take that to another level, where, yeah, I'm 6' 4", but I play like a guard." Stateside, he just doesn't see enough players taking it to the same extreme -- doing the daily mile-long dribbling routine, for example: "Do enough people do that around the country? I don't think so."
But Stewart wanted to, and that represents a shift, albeit a small one. If players such as Delle Donne and Jackson laid the foundation for Stewart's game, she is now taking it to a new extreme. Dailey has already seen a change in the high school ranks: "From a -recruiting standpoint there are no big kids who want to be in the lane. Everybody thinks they want to shoot threes. In the future it's probably gonna be more remarkable that somebody like Stefanie can dominate inside the way she does."
The advent of the swing signals a new approach to coaching and to a player's instinct, where body type doesn't always have to dictate function, and where a player's interest in expanding her game might be seen as a virtue.
When asked what she wants to accomplish in her college career, Stewart jumps right into the company catchphrase, and it's clear she means it: "I envision leaving Connecticut with four national championships. I couldn't expect anything else." With one down, she'll get a chance this week to chase her second. It's Stewart's more abstract legacy -- the one in which the unicorn becomes less a myth and more a role model -- that will take much longer to play out.