The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, January 29, 2020

Breanna Stewart's return — Maya Moore interview — Must-click women's basketball links

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Breanna Stewart’s return

It’s been a rough few days for anyone associated with basketball.

The mood was somber at the XL Center on Monday night, where I reported on USA Basketball’s exhibition win over UConn, a reunion that turned into a wake.

The complicated relationship between Kobe Bryant and women’s basketball produced far more people willing to accept and embrace his help than those who preferred to keep it at arm’s length, given his 2003 sexual assault case. But it was always fraught.

What is clear, though, is that however you felt about it, Kobe Bryant was all-in on women’s basketball. One example of this was that Breanna Stewart, after injuring her Achilles playing overseas, had heard from Bryant by the time she returned to the United States.

That reflects Stewart’s stature in the game, too, and so let us not go forward this week without marking a critical moment in time for 2020, and the return of Breanna Stewart to competitive basketball.

Seeing her taking shots on Sunday, at USA Basketball’s practice at University of Hartford, was both a salve to the period of time the game has been without her, and a reminder of all the things that make Stewart such a transcendent figure — the ludicrous wingspan, the easy flowing jumper, the range.

Stewart got the start on Monday night, playing roughly nine months after having her Achilles surgery, or on the early side of the 9-12 month window for return. She hit her first shot, an open three on a drive-and-kick, but missed the other six over 17 minutes.

“Exactly what you would think and that she looks good physically,” Lynx head coach, general manager and USA Basketball assistant coach Cheryl Reeve said of Stewart following Monday night’s game. “She moved well and kind of played the game well. Obviously, there’s a level of conditioning that you sort of are just trying to survive a little bit, but that was true for a lot of other players that didn’t come off injury.”

One WNBA talent evaluator put her at around 70% of capacity. The extra bursts of athleticism aren’t there yet, which is nothing to panic over, of course — this is simply part of the recovery process. Getting out there and playing real minutes is what mattered. Her gait, a bit cautious, needs time to re-adjust. Her strength will need to come back, too, though her physical gifts in length and reach will help her compensate in the meantime.

“I’m so happy she played, she looked pretty good,” Stewart’s former coach, Geno Auriemma, said of her performance. “I mean, not the same Stewie yet, but she will be, she got in the lanes, made her first three and she makes everything look so easy. But you can tell there’s a little bit of gingerness about her, she didn’t have that come out of nowhere and do things that make you go wow. But, she’s been looking forward to this for a long time, she got a chance to actually play.”

Let’s not lose sight of how large a footprint Stewart has already put down upon the game, even at the age of just 25 (and without playing after turning 24). She’s at 18.8 career win shares in the WNBA, which is good for 82nd in league history (with just three seasons!). To put that in perspective, she’s played 101 games, and no one has collected that many win shares in so few games.

The resume, somehow, is Hall of Fame-worthy already: a WNBA MVP, a WNBA Finals MVP, two all star games, Rookie of the Year, a WNBA title, an Olympic gold medal, four national championships and four MOP of the Final Four at UConn.

She could retire tomorrow, her legacy secure. But much to the benefit of the Seattle Storm and basketball as a whole, Breanna Stewart is not retiring.

“I feel good,” Stewart said Sunday. “In my mind I feel better than I’m supposed to feel at the timeline that I’m at right now, and nothing is limiting or inhibiting me to do what I want. I’m happy to be here and I’m happy to be playing and I’m looking forward to tomorrow and trying to go out and do what I do.”

So within all the other conversation about Kobe Bryant, let’s not lose sight of something gleaming within the events of the week. Something wonderful happened on Monday night. Breanna Stewart is back.

And if the macro lesson of Kobe Bryant’s death is to take advantage of the opportunities within this fleeting life of ours, well, make sure you don’t miss the opportunity to enjoy Breanna Stewart.

Being away from the game certainly had that effect on Stewart.

“You just have a different perspective, outside perspective,” she said of her time away. “It made me miss it a lot. I love basketball and I like being around my teammates. It was tough when I had to be at rehab and not be with them. But I think the biggest thing I touched on before was just taking advantage of all the opportunities I have. Obviously, I want to be the best and doing what I can to get back to that point and then being better than what I was before I got injured.”

Even better. Now that’s something to make us all excited for 2020.

This week in women’s basketball

Madeline Kenney caught up with Cheyenne Parker.

Great deep dive from Lindsay Gibbs on the history of UConn-Tennessee. (HOW was that game only six days ago?????)

Same subject, the great Harvey Araton, who covered them both.

Kurtis Zimmerman looks at the biggest jumps into the Top 25, in light of Arizona State’s recent leap.

A really inspiring story of Muslim women in high school basketball.

Rashad Milligan catches up with Ameshya Williams, former Mississippi State player now at Jackson State.

Michelle Smith on Bobi Buckets.

Tremendous Steve Gress piece from The Civil War.

WNBA free agency is here! Your full cap picture and tracker, bookmark it.

Here’s Madeline Kenney on the Sky’s scenarios.

Dorothy Gentry with a good look at Skylar Diggins-Smith’s Wings scenarios.

Christine Hopkins was there for Megan Gustafson’s moment at Iowa.

Really good details from Ava Wallace on the Kristi Toliver Rule.

I wrote how the WNBA CBA deal got done.

Kayla Padilla is on a star track for Penn.

More on Padilla from Jenn Hatfield here.

More vital info from Across The Timeline.

Tweet of the Week

Five at The IX: Maya Moore

(It’s been a crazy week, you know that by now? Yes. ALSO Maya Moore gave her first press conference in a long, long time. Here are the vital parts of it.)

MAYA MOORE: Okay, yeah. It’s been definitely a surprising time for me to come back and just watch the USA team play. The first time I’ve watched them play without being on the team since I was in college so, it’s definitely just hard watching. At the same time I’m grateful to be in this season of life right now where I’m at and just continually. Like when Renee and I got a chance to talk to the girls a little bit, the Huskies and just to modify or continue to let them see us in the legacy that they’re carrying on so, definitely just again, a strange feeling being back, but also grateful. Grateful to be back.

QUESTION: Basketball at this point, how do you incorporate it into your day to day life? I mean something that obviously was such a significant part of what you were doing. I’m just wondering whether it’s watching, whether it’s playing, I’m just wondering how you tend to incorporate it.

MAYA MOORE: When I made my announcement from last year, I was kind of worried that I’m not going to be a professional for a year. And I really just let myself and not carry the things that I normally would carry in a pro basketball sense, which was a little hard but also very easy because just the rest that came with that. I haven’t necessarily put any kind of ideals about what I need to be doing. That’s why I’ve just been kind of letting myself live and put other priorities in place, but I’ll for sure turn on a game every now and again and still just enjoy watching. I’m not at all training basketball wise. [pause] You know I’m staying fit and trying not to have to eat every cupcake I see.

QUESTION: Maya, specifically to this UConn legacy that’s now lasted, going on really 30 years coming up next year from the first final four. It’s something that you don’t often see with women’s sports yet. Women’s sports and so often being so much younger, have you thought about the way in which UConn has come to represent something, not just of excellence but also for such a long term?

MAYA MOORE: Yeah, just the consistent investment in something bigger than yourself I think is so inspiring. I would go back to Coach [Auriemma], CD [Chris Dailey]. They are it, they’ve been here. The assistant coaches that have come and the ones that are here now. We were talking about this earlier about the type of players that come here and what we carry in the target that’s constantly on our back. Whether you’re the most talented that that year or not, you just carry that. That sends ownership of I want to do, do this program, right. I want to do my teammates right and it’s something that doesn’t just happen, you see the ups and downs. If you have this fresh team right now who’s experiencing and learning what it takes to carry on everything that’s come through to your soul. We’re hopeful that this generation can get it and figure it out themselves.

QUESTION: Maya, basketball being away from basketball is relatively new to you, but social justice isn’t new to you. This is a different striking of a balance in your life. You’ve seen and what you’ve expressed is almost a relief of being able to focus your time this much on changing the world in this way. Is that what it feels like day to day for you as well? Does it feel like a sense of relief to be able to chase after something that’s always mattered to you?

MAYA MOORE: Well, I mean it’s a long journey starting when I was 18 as far as Jonathan Irons’ specific story of injustice, then I just was growing in being a friend to him through my family members who were really like his rock, as the years went by and then about three years ago, I think I started to get the courage to want to speak and use my platform for his specific case and educating myself over the years so that I could speak more appropriately towards the whole cause and understanding how many people this is happening to and how many people don’t have a voice because they’re poor. The heartbeat of my life with following Jesus and, and wanting that to flow out of everything that I do and knowing how much God has a heart for the poor and the oppressed, it was a natural response for me to want to do more.

Mondays: Soccer
By: Annie Peterson, @AnnieMPeterson AP Women’s Soccer
Tuesdays: Tennis
By Joey Dillon, @JoeyDillon  Freelance Tennis Writer
Wednesdays: Basketball
By: Howard Megdal, @HowardMegdal High Post Hoops
Thursdays: Golf
By Carly Grenfell, @Carlygren
Fridays: Hockey
By: Erica Ayala, @ELindsay08 NWHL Broadcaster

Written by Howard Megdal

Howard is the founder of The Next and editor-in-chief.