August 14, 2021 

Breanna Stewart, Defensive Player of the Year?

It’s got a nice ring to it

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Breanna Stewart — WNBA MVP, two-time Finals MVP, two-time All-Defensive Team selection — has won every award under the sun. Every award, that is, except Defensive Player of the Year. And 2021 could be the year that changes.

“What Stewie has done a very good job of within the past couple of weeks is just talking more and understanding with her versatility she does have to be solid when she gets on those switches,” Seattle Storm head coach Noelle Quinn said ahead of a game against Los Angeles on July 4.

“Ultimately, she’s an excellent shot-blocker. And so anchoring that defense, you have to be the eyes, you have to talk, you have to communicate. And a lot of the time she’s just cleaning up either those defensive miscues or those hard drags, so it’s good to have her versatility on the defensive end as well.”

Stewart has been one of the best players on earth from the moment she entered the WNBA, a second-team All-WNBA and All-Defensive player and an Olympic gold medalist in her rookie season in 2016. By the end of her third season, she was the consensus best player on earth, winning the 2018 MVP and Finals MVP. Last season, she put aside a lot of the concerns about her ability after a ruptured Achilles, and while there were still plays where she was hampered by reduced explosiveness off her right foot, she’s put any lingering concerns to rest this season.

That’s been key to Seattle’s continued dominance this year, as the Storm sit atop the league standings yet again and are coming off a dominant 79-57 win over the Connecticut Sun in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup. The Sun, owners of the league’s fourth-best offensive rating, scored just 57 points, tied for their fewest in six years. (The other time they were held to 57 in that span came in August 2019 against the Lynx, a game in which current Storm wing Stephanie Talbot scored 14 off the bench for Minnesota.)

This is a Seattle team that lost center Natasha Howard and wing Alysha Clark, who have combined for four All-Defensive nods and a Defensive Player of the Year award, last winter. And while the Storm aren’t running the best non-Houston net rating in WNBA history this year — which they did in the Wubble, by a landslide — they’re running the best schedule-adjusted rating in the league, including the second-best defense, according to Massey Ratings.

Most teams would find it pretty hard to maintain such dominance after losing two of the best defensive players in the league. Seattle, on the other hand, already had the talent to make up (most of) the difference.

Stewart has long been regarded as one of the best defenders in the league, as those All-Defensive nods can attest. And while she’s made the kind of flashy plays shown above for years, she’s now making them more often and against harder competition. There are four blocks on reigning MVP A’ja Wilson in that video; last year, there’d be a lot of Natasha Howard guarding Wilson replacing those examples. There are three blocks on Jonquel Jones, one of this season’s MVP favorites, who was held to 5-15 (0-2 3-pt) shooting with one assist against three turnovers on Thursday, mostly against Stewart. There are two blocks on Chennedy Carter, the best slasher and one of the fastest players in the league.

Stewart’s always been one of the best at disrupting the ball, ranking fourth in stocks per 36 minutes over the past two seasons, per Sports-Reference — that’s what she’ll get from her 7’1 wingspan, which is the average length for an MNBA power forward even though Stewart stands about five inches shorter. She’d gotten those in the past more often while defending the primary action, but with Howard gone, Stewart is tasked with more weakside rim protection and help defense, both at the basket and in space.

“A lot of what defense is is being in the right place at the right time, understanding angles, understanding the player you’re guarding,” said Storm point guard Sue Bird. “Great players, they have multiple preferences. But sometimes players only have one or two. And so if you can limit that in any way, it’s going to help you change the advantage. So it’s definitely what I try to do, and it comes by ways of the one-on-one defense aspect of it, but also when you’re helping, understanding — this isn’t really a great example, but you know — if that player is going to pop or they’re going to roll, does so-and-so like to go left or do they like to go right? And just kind of trying to be there and be in the right place to be a good help defender.”

There may not be any defenders in the league who consistently demonstrate a better understanding of their matchups than Stewart. Take this play from the first video, for example:

Anyone who’s watched basketball before can see this is a ridiculous block by Stewart; she turns an open layup for an All-Star who’s nearly the same height as her into a baseline out-of-bounds (BLOB) with only six seconds left on the play. But there’s a lot more that goes into that: Stewart knows where the ball is and that it’s late in the clock, meaning the play isn’t going to suddenly skip over to her side. And she knows that Seattle wing Katie Lou Samuelson guarding Las Vegas point guard Chelsea Gray is a mismatch in favor of the latter, so Storm center Ezi Magbegor is going to double Gray if presented the opportunity. That means Stewart has to keep an eye on Dearica Hamby, a very smart cutter, and doesn’t have to worry about a non-spacer in Wilson if she retreats too far away from the paint. So when Magbegor heads towards Gray, Stewart moves towards the cutting Hamby while still being able to recover if the ball goes to Wilson. Once the pass goes to Hamby, Stewart fully picks her up but now has to vertically contest immediately after running horizontally, a proposition that almost always results in a defensive foul. But she’s so strong that she’s able to plant her right foot directly behind Hamby’s and convert her lateral momentum entirely upwards.

Several players in the WNBA can do each of those things. There are maybe a couple others who can do all of them, and it’s usually quite tricky to notice when they do.

Look at one of the blocks on Carter, the Atlanta Dream point guard:

Stewart’s role here is what’s called 2.9-ing (pronounced “two-nine-ing”). Named for the maximum amount of seconds an off-ball defender can spend with any part of their body in the paint, the job is to sag off of an off-ball offensive player and put themselves in position to step into the lane if the ball-handler drives or recover to their assignment if the ball rotates.

Atlanta runs a simple pick-and-roll (PnR), and center Elizabeth Williams’ screen on Jewell Loyd forces her and Storm center Mercedes Russell to switch the action. As soon as Stewart sees this, she knows she has to step in and commit to helping on Carter in a way she wouldn’t have had to in 2020 — Russell is quite a good defensive center and manages different assignments very well, but she’s not prepared to handle Carter the way Howard would be.

Now, Stewart’s actually got three things to worry about:

  1. Carter flipping the ball back to Elizabeth Williams, who’s got a five-inch, 52-pound advantage over Loyd. Stewart covers the possible pass by angling her path to cut off Williams’ roll a bit.

  2. Carter throwing a wraparound pass to Monique Billings, Stewart’s original assignment, once Carter gets Stewart jumping. If Carter had been thinking of that, Stewart giving her jump momentum towards the baseline and angling her torso so as to come between Carter and Billings takes that away.

  3. Carter herself scoring or drawing a foul. Stewart takes care of that by not only swatting the ball back into Carter’s own hand, but also jumping away from the basket and towards the baseline so she wouldn’t bang into Carter.

This play technically never happened because they called a foul on Russell before the shot, but Carter and Stewart didn’t seem to notice until afterwards.

It’s much of the same story from those two plays that got Stewart this unbelievable block on Jones on Thursday — knowing her teammate’s going to double, so Stewart’s going to have to be able to switch to help, and once she does, making plays with incredible strength and timing.

“I take a lot of pride in being the weakside defender, being the help-side,” said Stewart. “I think that defense is an area that I can constantly improve in. But being aware and being able to be versatile in who I’m defending and what’s going on on the court is something that’s super important. And defense is what’s gonna get us to where we want to be.”

It can become a bit of a chicken-and-egg game with whether the Storm defend like this so well because Stewart is such a remarkable off-ball defender or whether Stewart is that level of defender because the Storm have designed such a good defense. But it seems clear enough from her individual skill that it’s very much the former. The Storm just couldn’t “randomly” hedge ball screens the way they do without Stewart:

The first clip results in an open shot because the since-bought-out Candice Dupree erroneously helps on Wilson, which is why on-court leadership is so important in playing like this.

“A lot of what you see on defense is chemistry-based, not that different from offense,” said Bird. “It’s a lot of chemistry, it’s a lot of going through things in practice and kind of being comfortable with knowing that, if we’re in Klop’s SOS defense and we’re scrambling around, all that is at that point is just communication, and really just one person being decisive. Once one player is decisive, everybody can play off of that.”

Stewart’s not quite Bird in that respect, but she’s a heck of a communicator in her own right:

“The evolution of my game is to continue to kind of pick it up and continue to be better defensively,” said Stewart. “I think that we’re a team where we’re smart enough to have multiple reads and multiple situations and know what we want to do and how we want to play people differently. And as a person who’s usually in the back line, it’s most important for me to really communicate and echo what’s going on out there.”

The need for that communication raises an interesting question about player value. Because when teammates don’t rotate properly, the scheme’s busted, and you would’ve been better off not asking players to do anything complicated in the first place. The defense would be worse, and you’d be underutilizing an elite talent, but you wouldn’t risk everything blowing up spectacularly.

As such, the schematic foil to Stewart is Lynx center Sylvia Fowles. A possible frontrunner for 2021 Defensive Player of the Year and arguably the greatest defensive player in league history, the already-three-time Defensive Player of the Year cannot feasibly be misused or placed into a mismatched system, save for a switch-everything scheme. She’s the most imposing rim protector ever, and her range more than extends into the midrange. That might be all she can do, but it’s the most valuable thing anyone can do.

Stewart can protect the rim, of course, and she can do it against the best in the W.

But Stewart can’t do it the whole time she’s on the court; as we’ve seen over the years, a “Stewie at the 5” lineup requires certain other weakside rim protection and containing dribble penetration. What she can do is rim protection, both primary and secondary, in concert with hedging, switching, defending in isolation 1-through-5, 2.9-ing, nailing and quite literally everything else.

Few players in WNBA history have had an impact on their defense that is as comprehensive and as beneficial as Stewart’s. Fowles has been as valuable many times, and until recently, it wasn’t a question of Fowles’ primary skill being leaps ahead of any of Stewart’s.

Right now, the conversation might need to tilt in the opposite direction.

Written by Em Adler

Em Adler (she/they) covers the WNBA at large and college basketball for The Next, with a focus on player development and the game behind the game.

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