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Breanna Stewart on Jonquel Jones, Paige Bueckers and today’s WNBA

(Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images)

Syracuse native Breanna Stewart’s on-court resume is so stacked, it’s hard even for basketball insiders to fully absorb it. The two-time WNBA champion and two-time Finals MVP has won arguably every prestigious championship and MVP honor available in her sport, from four national titles in a row at UConn to a EuroLeague Championship and MVP award in Russia to two Olympic gold medals, not to mention all of her WNBA accolades.

Given all she has accomplished, we can smile and nod when, in a recent interview for Just Women’s Sports, Stewart says, “I’m 27, so I’m getting a little old now.” It’s even more understandable given the fact she has a 4-month-old infant at home with wife and fellow pro baller Marta Xargay.

Despite feeling a bit beyond her years, Stewart has her sights set on more WNBA championships.

“To be able to say that I’ve won twice already in six years, and I didn’t play one season is kind of crazy,” she says. “I believe that I’m going to have more moments to win more rings, but I’m just making sure that I don’t lose sight of what I have done and then continue to want to do more.”

And she is well aware of the amount of work it will continue to take to win more rings.

“I think everybody has to have a little bit of crazy in them when they’re at this level, and a little bit of obsessiveness to want to work out, and want to be in the gym, and want to do things that nobody else would want to do,” Stewart says. “But that’s how you get to where you are.”

While she no doubt has “a little bit of crazy” when it comes to working on her personal game, Stewart has always had a sound, mature perspective of her place in the bigger picture. She cares deeply about the success of the women’s game as a whole and many other social causes.

Upon graduating from UConn, Stewart was awarded the ESPY for Best Female Athlete and used her 60-second acceptance speech, by far the biggest platform she’d ever been given, to call out the media for its lack of attention to the WNBA. There’s no doubt her popularity and unbelievable talent on the court have been significant factors in the growth the W has had in recent years. And she’s happy to acknowledge the improvements she’s seen since winning that ESPY in 2016.

“I think the women’s game is in a really great place right now. I think that we’re continuing to trend upward as far as what we’re doing, how we’re perceived by media, how we’re gaining attention,” she says. “Media outlet companies are getting behind women, it seems like, at a much faster rate than they were probably 5 to 10 years ago.”

She also likes what she sees in the next generation of players, specifically fellow UConn Husky Paige Bueckers, who was off to a strong encore to her historic National Player of the Year freshman season before injuring her knee and having surgery performed last week.

“Her future is super, super bright,” Stewart says of Bueckers. “She has so much potential. She’s already doing great things now, but she’s at the right place to want to continue to be the best because Coach Auriemma is not going to treat her any different than anybody else.”

While she sees much to be optimistic about, Stewart also knows there’s still a long way to go. A recent source of frustration for her has been the low-key fanfare for 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones, who’s clearly one of the best players on the planet but hasn’t been given the media attention that comes with it.

“She won MVP and I still don’t think she got the props or the flowers that she deserves. I think people need to realize that and appreciate her game for being 6-6, 6-7, able to shoot the 3, handle it, play in the post,” Stewart says of her versatile on-court adversary.

The fact that fans still can’t get a pre-printed Jonquel Jones jersey from the WNBA Store is just the latest example of long-standing frustration with the lack of quantity, variety and accessibility of WNBA merchandise, something the league is hoping to remedy with its new partnership with DICK’s Sporting Goods (on whose site Jones’ jersey was stocked and ready to ship at the time of writing).

“The fact that she won MVP, she deserves more than what she’s getting. That’s for sure,” says Stewart.

As a player who knows the value of fan engagement in helping to grow the game, Stewart is often at the forefront of enhancing that connection. She’s got her signature shoe with Puma coming out in 2022. Most recently, she’s teamed up with Brandon Steiner, CEO of CollectibleXchange, as a feature athlete for The Collective Marketplace, an online platform that sells memorabilia and merchandise for athletes exclusively in women’s sports.

In teaming up with The Collective Marketplace, Stewart has opened a whole new pathway for fans to connect with her. She has nearly 200 personally worn and autographed items available for sale on the site taken directly from her own closet.

“I think it’s a great way to engage with the fans,” Stewart says. “I had all of these sneakers and jerseys and practice things … You keep them all because they’re amazing. But now you’re able to have them be reachable and, I guess, accessible to fans. And fans are able to really have a different type of relationship than just a player-fan relationship.”

Sue Bird and Diana Taurasi have also joined The Collective Marketplace. Stewart says of Taurasi, her WNBA rival and USA Basketball teammate, “I’d much rather be on the court with D, playing with her than against her. She’s just a killer, super competitive, obviously can hit the 3 like no other. Her IQ is off the charts.”

Just like Taurasi did for many years, Stewart is contracted to play overseas in Russia this winter with a stacked UMMC Ekaterinburg team. But her participation in the 2021-22 EuroLeague season is up in the air as she’s currently recovering from a minor surgery that repaired and reinforced the left Achilles tendon she injured late in the WNBA season (not the same one she ruptured in 2019). The decision for her to miss the Storm’s final two regular season games and their playoff showdown against Taurasi and the Mercury all but guaranteed Seattle wouldn’t repeat as league champions after winning it all in 2020.

Heading into what’s expected to be a wild 2022 WNBA free agency period, Stewart is one of four former league MVPs who are unrestricted free agents this offseason: Jonquel Jones, Sylvia Fowles and Tina Charles are the other three. With Bird still undecided about returning and Jewell Loyd entering restricted free agency, there is a lot up in the air for Seattle this offseason. But it’s impossible to imagine a scenario where the Storm don’t fight tooth and nail to keep their franchise player, and without making an official announcement, Stewart revealed she’s not envisioning playing anywhere else next year.

“We’re just going to take it one step at a time, see where my leg is at. And if I can play [in Russia], then maybe I’ll play. If not, I’ll make sure I’m ready for the Storm season — or the WNBA season,” she says.

An unplanned WNBA offseason at home in the states could be a blessing for Stewart to fully rehab while venturing into parenthood with her wife and baby daughter. And while her offseason routine and off-court home life may be quite different this year, her laser focus to succeed on the court is as strong as ever.

“I think it’s just coming with the preparation, the understanding of what it takes to win and making sure that when I’m out on the court, I’m not wasting my time or anyone else’s,” Stewart says of sustaining her peak level of performance.

“I feel as a basketball player, your goal should always be winning. When you step on the court, you should always be focused on winning.”

(Editor’s note: The Collective Marketplace on Athlete Direct is a sponsor of Just Women’s Sports)

Tessa Nichols is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports.