Retaining Breanna Stewart just got a whole lot more difficult for the Storm.
The general consensus heading into WNBA free agency, which starts in earnest at midnight Saturday, had been it was going to be a two-team race between the Storm and the New York Liberty for the services of the four-time WNBA All-Star, who is the biggest prize on the market.
The field has doubled in size, according to an ESPN report that says Stewart will meet with the Storm, Liberty, Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics in Istanbul, Turkey, where she’s playing for her club team Fenerbahce.
The outspoken Stewart has been silent about her future in the WNBA aside from three cryptic tweets this week filled with seemingly random emojis.
The last time Stewart spoke publicly at length was Sept. 8, 2022, during a 16-minute exit interview the day after the Storm’s season-ending loss to the Las Vegas Aces in the WNBA semifinals.
The 2018 WNBA MVP talked glowingly about her seven-year tenure in Seattle since the Storm picked her No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft.
She thanked Storm owners and the front office for constructing a veteran-laden roster featuring Sue Bird and Jewell Loyd that won WNBA titles in 2018 and 2020 and supporting her off-court advocacy endeavors.
Stewart offered few clues about her 2023 plans and made no promise to return to the Storm.
“As free agency approaches in January and February, we’ll see,” she said. “Obviously, understanding that Seattle has done a lot for me. Just that appreciation and you can’t help but think about the way Sue has been here her entire career, the way the city always has her back and wanting that. It will be a decision that Maarta (Xargay, Stewart’s wife) and I will talk about for probably the next however many months. Hopefully, it will become a lot clearer for me.”
There’s a lot of uncertainly about a 2023 Storm roster that only includes Mercedes Russell, who played just five games last season because of a recurrent headache syndrome, and Loyd, a four-time WNBA All-Star guard.
Last week, the Storm extended qualifying offers to Gabby Williams and Ezi Magbegor, which contractually binds them to the Storm, but doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll be with the team when the season begins.
General manager Talisa Rhea and coach Noelle Quinn have plenty of decisions to make on how they’ll spend the team’s roughly $1 million in salary-cap space to fill out the roster.
WNBA teams must carry at least 11 players and a maximum of 12.
Securing Stewart, a 6-foot-4 versatile forward, is the top priority for the Storm considering the 28-year-old superstar is entering her prime and has a proven track record. She averaged 21.8 points last year, which tied her career high, and has a 131-74 record with the Storm, including a 15-7 playoff mark.
Stewart, who was a free agent last year, admitted her biggest reason for signing a one-year deal with the Storm was to play one last time with Bird, who retired after the 2022 season.
Rhea and Quinn will no doubt pitch Stewart on pairing once more with Loyd to comprise a duo that averaged a league-high 58.8 points. And barring a trade, no other team can pay her as much as the Storm, who will no doubt offer her a supermax salary of $234,936.
“Jewell and I have really grown together and grown up together,” Stewart said. “She’s someone that I really love playing with. Just thinking about where we started at 14-15 to where we are now, it definitely makes you think about how exciting we can continue to be as we are entering our primes. It’s a duo that’s tough to stop.”
The Storm are also looking to replace Bird with four-time WNBA All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot. The former Kentwood High School and Gonzaga standout, who reportedly met with them last year before re-signing with Chicago, is expected to meet again with the Storm along with the Sky, Lynx and Liberty, according to an ESPN report.
New York can make a tempting offer featuring newly signed 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, All-WNBA second-team guard Sabrina Ionescu and possibly Vandersloot to comprise a star-studded team capable of dethroning the defending champion Aces.
The Lynx and Mystics are seemingly dark-horse candidates for Stewart because they lack sufficient compatible stars on par with Jones and Loyd. Both teams are also handcuffed by salary-cap demands that make it difficult to build the kind of super team that the Liberty can create.
Stewart, who won four NCAA titles with the Connecticut Huskies, once said she wants her legacy to be about championships.
“That’s why you play,” she said in 2020 after guiding the Storm to her second WNBA title. “Whether I’m the greatest player of all time or not, who knows? That’s for other people to decide. But you can’t argue titles and winning, and that’s what I want to be remembered for.”
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