Breanna Stewart has been redefining what is possible for a women’s basketball player since arriving at the University of Connecticut. As a freshman, she matter-of-factly stated that she would like to win four championships in four years. That goal is one victory from becoming a reality.
With her college career nearing a close, there are many ways to capture Stewart’s accomplishments and impact. She was named the winner of the 2016 Naismith Trophy on Monday, a day ahead of UConn’s matchup with Syracuse in the national championship game. It was the third time she has earned the honor. She’s already won three straight Most Outstanding Player awards at the Final Four, lest anyone accuse her of riding the coattails of current teammates and fellow future WNBA players Moriah Jefferson and Morgan Tuck.
In addition to the trophy collection validating Stewart’s performances, there’s the unbridled praise of her coach, Geno Auriemma, famous for staying tough on his players, toughest on those who are his best, like Diana Taurasi and Maya Moore. This tendency makes it difficult for him to choose which player is his best ever, and by extension, the best in the history of the game. (The rest of us have a similar problem, thanks to a scarcity of advanced women’s basketball stats in general.)
“I would answer the question by saying that I think, in the three-plus years that Breanna Stewart has been here, she has probably impacted the NCAA Tournament in those three years unlike anybody ever has in the history of the tournament at Connecticut or anywhere else,” Auriemma said during a conference call ahead of UConn’s national semifinal win over Oregon State. “I’m not talking about the rest of the regular season or anywhere else. I’m talking about no one ever has impacted the NCAA Tournament as many times and as well as Breanna Stewart in the history of college basketball and women’s basketball. That’s all I’ll say.”
The most frequent comparison Stewart draws among players is the Chicago Sky’s Elena Delle Donne. Take a moment and consider that: The reigning WNBA Most Valuable Player is the player many of the league’s talent evaluators see as representing Stewart’s floor at the professional level.
Delle Donne had her own history with Auriemma, committing to UConn, spending 48 hours on campus, and making the difficult decision to return home and be closer to her family, starring instead at the University of Delaware. Delle Donne is 6’5, while Stewart is 6’4, both post-sized players in the women’s game, but possessing impressive perimeter shooting and ball handling skills. Their emergence could eventually be viewed as the equivalent of Oscar Robertson and Magic Johnson coming into the men’s game, presaging a more positionless world.
Accordingly, comparing the numbers each put up in college provides a window into just what Stewart has accomplished, within limits. Delle Donne, whose Player Efficiency Rating of 32.7 in 2015 rates as the third-best single-season mark in WNBA history, put up slightly better numbers in three-point and free throw shooting accuracy than Stewart during both players’ senior seasons: Delle Donne shot 45.2 percent from three and 92.1 percent from the line while Stewart checks in at 43 percent from three and 82.7 percent from the line entering the national championship game.
What’s remarkable is that in every other area, Stewart’s senior season, with one game still to play, already tops what Delle Donne accomplished, statistically. Stewart’s finishing around the basket has lifted her overall field goal percentage to 58.6 percent, well ahead of Delle Donne’s 48.7 percent. Stewart has 124 blocked shots, nearly double Delle Donne’s 69. Stewart has collected 141 assists to Delle Donne’s 56. She has outrebounded Delle Donne, 313 to 254, in just 50 more minutes played all season. And Stewart tops Delle Donne in steals, 67-27.
Not only has Breanna Stewart been the nation’s top player in offensive rating this season, she has simultaneously been the top player in defensive rating. The WNBA Draft debate back in 2013, Delle Donne’s senior season, was between her offense and Brittney Griner’s defense. Griner ultimately was selected first overall in that year’s draft, picked by the Phoenix Mercury, and Delle Donne went second, to the Sky.
The reason why people around the league laugh at the idea that the Seattle Storm will take anybody else with the top pick in the 2016 WNBA Draft on April 14 is that Stewart possesses this complete skill set at both ends. Delle Donne is cited as the floor for Stewart’s career, but no one can really ascertain her ceiling.
Or as Stewart herself put it earlier this year, “After the national championship last season, I talked to Coach [Auriemma] about having those wow moments where nobody else has ever done that, and then making sure people come away saying, ‘Wow, I’ve never seen this before in a women’s game.’”
However it goes in the national title game, it’s safe to say Breanna Stewart has already accomplished that.
Howard Megdal is the Editorial Director at Excelle Sports. He is author of The Cardinals Way and other books. His work can also be found at POLITICO New York, USA Today Sports, VICE Sports, and Nylon Calculus. Follow @howardmegdal.