September 6, 2023 

2023 WNBA MVP race: The case for the New York Liberty’s Breanna Stewart

'She’s always gonna say the hard things'

With less than 50 seconds left in regulation and a tie game at 94 apiece on Tuesday night against the Dallas Wings, Breanna Stewart knew the Liberty needed her. It wasn’t necessarily that New York needed her to put points on the board, but they needed her to catch the Wings off guard.

Continue reading with a subscription to The Next

Get unlimited access to women’s basketball coverage and help support our hardworking staff of writers, editors, and photographers by subscribing today. Join today

Mere moments later, that’s exactly what she did. Wings guard Crystal Dangerfield was playing exceptional point of attack defense on Courtney Vandersloot, and Vandersloot felt the pressure. But before Stewart bailed her out with a handoff, Stewart set a flare screen for Betnijah Laney, allowing Laney the space to slip away from Dallas’ Arike Ogunbowale. Now with the ball in her hands and her teammates’ defenders in the rearview mirror, Stewart was one-on-one with Satou Sabally, Dallas’ most valuable player.

Stewart dribbled at the top of the key, trying to shake Sabally. With the clock winding down, she drove to her right and jump-stopped, turning her body to the left just as Sabally rushed forward to contest the inevitable: Stewart’s signature fadeaway jumpshot. Stewart leapt back from Sabally, hauling the ball toward the basket. The whistle blew.

While Wings head coach Latricia Trammell was initially quite confident that challenging that foul call was the right decision, the replay showed that perhaps the Wings ought to have saved their final timeout. As Wings color analyst Raegan Pebley watched the replay, it became clear the Wings weren’t winning the challenge: “What you see here is Stewie stabbing at Satou with her footwork,” Pebley said. “That causes Satou to step back and because Stewie can hit that pull-up with length, Satou had to climb back in.”

The call stood.

Stewart’s case for league’s most valuable player (MVP) in 2023 isn’t just about the winning free throw she made to lead the Liberty to their seventh win in a row or even the 40 points that she scored that evening, but rather it was how she went about accomplishing all four: the foul, the free throw, the 40th point and the win. In 2023, Stewart has put together a season that not just closely mirrors her 2018 MVP season and first championship with the Seattle Storm, but it also explains how in just five years, Stewart has matured and improved, despite increased responsibility and much higher expectations on her shoulders.

Breanna Stewart gets introduced during the starting lineups by teammate and longtime friend Stefanie Dolson at the Entertainment & Sports Arena on July 21,2023. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

Current teammate Stefanie Dolson, who has observed Stewart play throughout her illustrious career dating back to both of their days in Storrs at UConn, noted that since that 2018 season, Stewart has mastered how she can take advantage of physicality. It’s something that with a lanky 6’4 frame and a 7’1 wingspan was a work in progress earlier on in her pro career. But in 2023 during this historic season in New York, she is firmly in control of how she can out-chess her opponents.

“I feel like people, often, the only way they think they can guard her is to kind of beat her up to try to be like her, “ Dolson told The Next. “But I think she’s gotten so much better in that aspect of just playing off of the physicality, playing against these people who are just trying to beat her up and she’s just kind of outsmarts them and finds a way to score.”

And on Tuesday night, that’s exactly what she did. She recognized how she and her team could get an advantage and she exploited it to a tee. But in 2023, five years following Stewart’s first MVP honor, she sits in a race alongside two other players that like her are having historic seasons of their own.

Las Vegas’ A’ja Wilson’s 54.6 field goal percentage, amid all of the attention she receives from the opponent’s defense, is in a league of its own. Alyssa Thomas has put up six triple-doubles this season, and has provided the most value to the Conneticut Sun. Without Thomas on the floor for 131 minutes this season, the Sun have a -22.06 net rating. That bonkers number alone illustrates the fact that the Sun most likely wouldn’t be in the top three of the standings without her.

This three person race begs the question of how exactly is MVP defined and what really does it mean to be a league MVP? Merriam-Webster defined MVP as “the player who contributes the most to his or her team’s success.” explained that MVP is “the man or woman judged to be the outstanding player in a sport during a particular season or championship.”

But how do people who have played the game rather than dictionaries define the award? Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello finds that MVP ought to be defined by who has the greatest impact on their team and “plays in the right way to have great success.” Dolson, however, provided a definition that stands out from the dictionaries and her head coach.

“Someone who will make it easier for everyone on their team,” Dolson said. “Someone who can facilitate, score, rebound, play defense, a little bit of everything. And yeah, I think the best definition is they are making the game easier for the people around her.”

So what does Stewart’s case for MVP look like while using Dolson’s theorem? Let’s begin with the numbers. Stewart leads Wilson and Thomas in scoring averages with 23.3, she’s in third place to Wilson and Thomas with 9.4 rebounds per game to Wilson’s 9.6 and Thomas’ 9.9. Stewart averages the second most assists out of the trio with 3.8 to Thomas’ 8. Stewart’s assists are as a secondary and sometimes tertiary ball handler. Stewart leads both Wilson and Thomas in win shares, which isn’t a perfect stat, but is a notable one. It’s the closest numerical representation of how an individual impacts their team and helps their team win.

Yearppgmpgfgmfgafg%3pt fg%Rebounds pgassists pgTo pgsteals pgblocks pg
Breanna Stewart has outperformed herself from her 2018 MVP season in almost every major statistical category. Stats via Her Hoop Stats.

But aside from the comparisons to her competition, Stewart has found ways in a new system under a new head coach and in a new city with much more attention and pressure to mostly outplay herself from five years ago. What jumps off the page is how she has averaged 1.4 turnovers and almost four assists, two key metrics that determine how she is helping the New York Liberty win at such a high level. When Courtney Vandersloot needs a rest, there are moments where Brondello is confident enough to have Stewart set up the offense.

Playerppgfgafg%Rebounds pg Assists pgTurnovers pg Steals pg Blocks pgOffensive Win SharesDefensive Win sharesTotal Win shares Record against the other two
A’ja Wilson22.314.954.6%
Breana Stewart23.31746.8%
Alyssa Thomas15.913.247.5%
How Breanna Stewart compares to her main competition for the MVP award. Stats via Her Hoop Stats

Following the Liberty’s 89-58 blowout of the Sun at home on September 1, Betnijah Laney explained the way in which Stewart’s fingerprints are left on a game even if she doesn’t reach a twenty, thirty or forty piece. On a night when Stewart was on triple-double watch where she finished with 14 points, 10 rebound and 7 assists, to Laney this wasn’t anything new. It wasn’t anything novel about that evening.

“I don’t think it’s just been tonight. It’s been all season long and I’m not just saying that because she’s my teammate,” Laney said. “I’m not biased. Just everything that Stewie’s been able to do. You know she hits every mark on the stat sheet and so you know for her to be able to do that and lead us to this moment where we’re right now, I think she’s already made a strong case for herself and it wasn’t just tonight.”

So how exactly does Stewart lead the Liberty to this moment where they are the second best team in the league by overall record but have been the hottest team in the league since the All-Star break? Stewart’s leadership and her style of leadership is what most on the outside cannot see. Her game is effortless but her leadership is not. It’s not as obvious as Sabrina Ionescu being in Marine Johannès’ ear or Stefanie Dolson constantly communicating in the quarter court telling her teammates how to space. It’s more in those intimate moments and, critically, at the right moments.

Brondello described it as her will to win that spreads to the rest of the team. Dolson noted that Stewart never stops moving on the court even when she isn’t having her best game.

“Stewie is one of those people that it doesn’t matter if she’s playing well, she’s having a tough game,” Dolson said. “It doesn’t matter to her. She’s always gonna speak up. She’s always gonna say the hard things.”

Breanna Stewart (30) helps up Jonquel Jones (35) alongside Betnijah Laney (44) at the Entertainment & Sports Arena on July 21,2023. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

Rookie Nyara Sabally views Stewart as the type of leader who puts her money where her mouth is. And when she speaks, everyone in that locker room listens.

“You can always have people say something and then they don’t,” she said. “Actions speak louder than words and she is always on the court, always. [There is] no doubt in her mind that we’re going to win the game and she trusts the whole team and we trust her.”

Ionescu feels a sense of pride to be in a locker room with Stewart. That respect comes from the fact that Stewart has won everything in basketball that there is to win.

“I would say she’s just also just a humble leader,” Ionescu said. “She doesn’t, she’s not talking about MVP. That’s not any topic of conversation in our locker room.”

The Next and The Equalizer are teaming up

The Next is partnering with The Equalizer to bring more women’s sports stories to your inbox. Subscribers to The Next now receive 50% off their subscription to The Equalizer for 24/7 coverage of women’s soccer.

But what is a topic of conversation for Stewart is her care and appreciation for those around her. Following the Liberty’s blowout of Connecticut at home, she was asked what was a moment where she herself was having the most fun playing in front of over 8,000 people in Brooklyn.

Stewart was put on the spot, but she pivoted to something far from herself. “I like the ‘we want Han [Xu chants]’,” she said. I was involved with that too. I like that.”

Stewart herself was involved in chanting for her much younger and inexperienced teammate to be able to get some minutes to play. For players like Han, that’s what she needs. She needs confidence and reassurance that she can play well when she gets an opportunity.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a dire situation in the fourth quarter on the road, or a low pressure moment when a teammate needs some love and support. Stewart finds a way to give. That’s her way. And in Dolson’s words: “she’s always there when we need her.”

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.