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Breanna Stewart aims at being even better in second year with Seattle Storm

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart spins a basketball

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart spins a basketball during the team's media day on May 2, 2017. Photo Credit: AP / Ted S. Warren

Breanna Stewart’s rookie season in the WNBA was memorable on many levels, filled with big accomplishments and well-earned accolades.

Stewart was the runaway winner for rookie of the year and was selected to the All-WNBA and All-Defensive second teams. She also played a huge role in helping to get the Seattle Storm back to the playoffs for the first time since 2013.

Now Stewart is tasked with being even better in her second season.

“Obviously, I came in and had a solid start in my first year, but I wanted to improve that even more, whether it was being offensively, defensively,” Stewart said on a conference call Wednesday afternoon. “A lot of people talked about what I did in my rookie year, but I want to be better than that.”

Stewart averaged 18.3 points, 9.3 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals. She ranked sixth in the league in points, second in rebounds and third in blocks.

As Stewart heads into a new season with the Storm, who open the regular season on Saturday against the reigning WNBA champion Sparks in Los Angeles, expectations are clearly high. Stewart should be in the conversation for the league MVP award, and the Storm will look to make a deeper playoff run.

Stewart, a 6-4 forward, never stopped playing after the Storm was eliminated in last season’s playoffs. Her next stop was China to play for Shanghai in the Women’s Chinese Basketball Association. This was after Stewart helped Connecticut win a fourth straight NCAA title, started her WNBA career, took a detour to Rio to help the U.S. women’s national team win gold in the Olympics and then helped the Storm get into the playoffs.

Stewart’s season in China was cut short in January after she sprained the posterior cruciate ligament in her right knee. She returned to the U.S. to rehab and for some much-needed rest.

“I think that both physically and mentally I’m feeling great right now,” said Stewart, who tied for the WNBA high by playing 34.7 minutes per game last season. “And I think that having my overseas season be cut a little short was disappointing, but it was also a blessing in disguise because otherwise I wouldn’t have had that time off to really rest my body, my mind and recover in that way.”

The injury may be a case of a negative becoming a positive.

“I had some time off when I got back from China early because of my knee and as I was rehabbing and getting back on the court I was able to practice things that I otherwise wouldn’t have had time for,” Stewart said.

That practice included working on off-the-dribble moves, creating space between defenders, and her midrange face-up game, as well as tweaking outside shooting and post-up moves.

Stewart will have more help this season. Guard Jewell Loyd, who is emerging as a star, and point guard Sue Bird, who had a resurgent season in 2016, are back. The Storm added veteran Carolyn Swords, a 6-6 center, in a trade with the Liberty and drafted guard Alexis Peterson from Syracuse last month.

Stewart and her Connecticut team faced Peterson and Syracuse in the 2016 national championship game.

“Playing with Lex has been a lot of fun,” Stewart said. “I think that it’s kind of funny that we played against each other in the national championship my senior year. She went to Syracuse, where I’m from, and now we’re on the same team in Seattle.”

Swords will help Stewart by taking some of the rebounding load and solidifying the interior defense.

“For us, personally, getting Carolyn is amazing,” Stewart said. “To be able to have that post who’s able to defend the fives and be more of a banger, someone who’s there to help clean up the rebounds. It’s just going to make our style of play even better and adds a piece that we didn’t have, a piece that we really were missing.”

The Storm finished the 2016 regular season with a 16-18 record, having won seven of their final 10 games to get into the playoffs. Under the new playoff format, the Storm, a Western Conference team seeded seventh, traveled to Atlanta, an Eastern Conference team seeded sixth, and lost an elimination game to Angel McCoughtry and the Dream last season. That short taste of the playoffs has Stewart hungry for more.

“We haven’t forgotten what it felt like to lose in Atlanta, even though we had that great run to make the playoffs,” Stewart said. “We didn’t want to just be there. We wanted to do more than just get to the first game and lose. I think that’s more fuel to the fire, more motivation for what we want to do this year.”

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