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Breanna Stewart belongs in the Hall of Fame.
That was my first thought when I saw her ring collection, recently flexed on social media. To say the least, it is one of a hardened veteran, not someone with just three years to her name in the WNBA.
She had a ring for each of her four national championships with UConn. She had rings for some of her eight gold medals at various levels with the USA national team, including a 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics gold. There was also a ring for the time she won a WNBA championship with Seattle’s basketball team.
Syracuse, where Stewart was born, has already inducted her into the Greater Syracuse Sports Hall of Fame in the Class of 2019.
“Hall of fame, hall of fame,” was her caption at the time.
At the same time, maybe it’s too soon. Stewart has just three seasons in the league. True, she was a Rookie of the Year, an All-Star (twice), a regular season and Finals MVP, and a champion, but if she retired today, would she really be an Hall of Famer?
To answer the question, I looked to the Basketball Reference Hall of Fame probability calculator. James Bowman did some work on a calculator for the WNBA back in the day, and I adopted some of his conversions.
The original Basketball Reference model was based on a logistic regression of predictor variables to find what Hall of Fame voters have most valued historically. In order of importance, the algorithm spit out All-Star appearances, number of championships, peak single-season win shares, and sustained effectiveness as measured by appearances on leaderboards. Interestingly enough, a player’s height had a negative statistical impact.
For leaderboards, a player got points for being in the top ten in the league in points, total rebounds, assists, minutes played, steals, and blocks.
In order to equate WNBA data with NBA stats, I added seven inches to a player’s height, which is the difference in average height between the two leagues, with the assumption of equal distributions. I also multiplied peak win shares by 1.9, which was the difference between the means between the leagues last season.
As a sanity check, I first checked the numbers on Sue Bird. 100.00% probability of being in the Hall of Fame. Good, that makes sense. Now, for Stewart: 76 inches, 1 championship, 90 leaderboard points, 7.7 peak win shares, and 2 All-Star appearances.
Drum roll, please: if she retired today, the model says Stewart would have a 16.51% chance of being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
“What? That’s crazy,” some of you might say. “She’s only played three seasons!”
And yet some of you might say the opposite, that in just three seasons, Stewart has already cemented herself as one of the greatest of all time. Some even thought that was true after just her second season.
For reference, Crystal Langhorne also has one championship and two All-Star appearances. Her peak win shares is an impressive 6.5. The model gives the twelve-season, 393-game veteran just a 4.32% chance of entering the Hall of Fame.
An important caveat: according to the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, are not based solely on professional contributions. To be considered, one must meet a minimum of two out of the five criteria — Stewart passes with flying colors.
The first is being an All-American at the community college or collegiate level at least one year. Stewart was a three-time consensus first team All-American at UConn.
The second is to be a Player of the Year recipient. Stewart was thrice named Naismith College Player of the Year, USBWA Women’s National Player of the Year and Associated Press Women’s College Basketball Player of the Year. In her junior and senior seasons, she also won the Wade Trophy and the John R. Wooden Award.
Breanna Stewart wins the ESPY for Best Female Athlete. She went 151-5 in four years at UConn, won 4 titles pic.twitter.com/LYHsnR5cq4— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) July 14, 2016
The third is to be a contributing member of a team that competes in an Olympic or World Championship competition. Stewart averaged 8.1 points and shot 73% from the field as the youngest member of the 2016 gold-winning U.S. Olympics team.
The fourth is to have professional experience with honors and championships. Stewart is a two-time All-Star, a Rookie of the Year, league MVP, and Finals MVP.
The last is to be a significant contributor on more than one national championship team. Check.
Another caveat is that the Basketball Reference model was built for players with more than 400 NBA games, or about 5 seasons. Scaled, that is equivalent to 180 WNBA games. Stewart has played in just 101 regular season games.
So Stewart meets the baseline requirements, no surprise there, but she has barely reached the century mark in games. As far as narratives go, in the unfortunate (and highly unlikely event) that her Achilles injury were to derail Stewart’s career after three of the most promising seasons in WNBA history, you could really go either way.
On the one hand, her impact on the game over seven seasons at the collegiate and professional level and on the national team is undeniable. On the other, no player with a similar number of games has ever warranted consideration. For comparison:
And if I had to vote today?
It’d be a yes. The back and forth is fun, but ultimately Breanna Stewart belongs in the Hall of Fame, even if she never picked up a basketball again.
As a fan of the game, I would love to see her play twenty more years and erase any doubt that she belongs among the greats of the sport, but her accomplishments in college alone likely merit induction. While it is true that her time in the league has been short to this point, the fact that she has done so much with it already is a credit to her case.
Just for fun, here are the odds for every active WNBA player with at least 180 career regular season games (plus Breanna Stewart). Players with more than a 90% chance of inclusion have also been highlighted.
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