UConn hoping for big impact from star recruit Breanna Stewart
UConn freshman Breanna Stewart is Geno Auriemma's most impressive rookie
Stewart excels on offense, but is a skilled shot-blocker and defender as well
With four returning starters, how will Stewart fit into the rotation this season?
The spotlight didn't exactly shine on Breanna Stewart in the middle of a Syracuse, N.Y. parking lot last November. There was no highly touted press conference, no stop-and-stare spectacle for the college basketball world to see. In fact, there was little fanfare at all when Stewart, a high school senior and the nation's top women's basketball recruit, officially pledged her collegiate career to the Connecticut Huskies.
That's because Stewart signed her UConn letter of intent on the hood of her car.
"CD [UConn associate head coach Chris Dailey] told me I needed to fax it in that day," Stewart said. "My dad was at work, so I drove down to his work because he had a fax machine, signed it and faxed it. That was it.
"I didn't need it to be a big deal."
The irony, of course, is that most everything else about Breanna Stewart is a big deal. The lanky 6-foot-4 forward from Cicero-North Syracuse (N.Y.) HS might be the most versatile women's recruit ever to sign with the uber-talented Huskies, a lofty claim for a program whose roster is routinely reloaded with the country's top prep players. In fact, pigeon-holing Stewart as a "forward" does an injustice to Geno Auriemma's most impressive rookie, one of a three-member freshmen class that looks to help the Huskies regain their spot atop the pantheon of women's basketball.
Stewart began her journey to Storrs in 2007, when she averaged just over nine points per game as an eighth-grader in varsity duty at Cicero-North. Stewart quickly became the star of the Northstars, and as a senior this past season, she closed her high school career with the New York Class AA title, averaging 26.4 points, 13.9 boards and 4.2 blocks. Gatorade selected Stewart as its female High School Athlete in the Year this summer -- joining Tina Charles and Maya Moore as the only former UConn players with that honor -- and she took home her fifth gold medal in international competition with USA Basketball.
Stewart cultivated an early kinship with fellow Husky freshmen Morgan Tuck and Moriah Jefferson as the trio traveled and competed together in between USA Basketball and UConn workouts. "I think we only had one week away from each other this summer," Stewart said. As a high-schooler, a familiarity with the northeast helped the former North Carolina Tar Heel fan decide to attend Connecticut, which sits only a five-hour drive from her family in Syracuse -- a short distance when compared with the Tennessees and Stanfords of the country that also competed for her services.
But now, with a stellar prep career in the past, the task for UConn coaches is to find out what their newest freshman phenom can't do on the court. Historically the Huskies have hauled in their share of adaptable hoopsters, from Kerry Bascom, UConn's first All-American who played everything from center to point guard for the Huskies from 1987-91, to the recently exited Maya Moore, who likewise wore many hats as the focal point of Auriemma's offense. But "none of them have been 6-4 and had [Stewart's] kind of athletic ability," says Auriemma. "Potentially, because of Breanna's athletic ability, she can impact the game maybe more than some of them.
"Anytime you can recruit players that play multiple positions, you've done a lot to help your team ... When you do that, it's like recruiting more than one player."
Stewart likens her Swiss-army-knife game to that of the NBA's Tim Duncan -- except with ball-handling skills and a perimeter jumper tossed into the mix. But Stewart's efforts don't drop off on the defensive end: She blocked 13 shots in the New York state title game last season, and her high school teammates nicknamed her "six-ten" for her shot-swatting wingspan, which has since sprouted to 7-1. Auriemma says Stewart's inside-out ability creates spacing advantages by stretching the defense and forcing uncomfortable post defenders out to the wing. Says the coach: "It certainly gives us an element we didn't have last year."
That innate athleticism helped Stewart wow the crowd at the 2012 McDonald's All-American Game in Chicago, where she made an impulse decision to battle the boys in the POWERADE Jam Fest dunk contest. "I wasn't expecting to be in it," said Stewart, who first threw down a dunk as a high school sophomore. "But we had practice before the contest, and someone threw me an alley-oop, and they said, "Do you want to be in the dunk contest?'" Stewart accepted, advancing to the finals with a perfect score thanks to a pair of alley-oops -- both one-handed and two-handed -- before falling to UCLA commit Shabazz Muhammad for the title.
Cementing her name among lady dunkers like Candace Parker and Brittney Griner, fans openly wondered, Is this women's basketball's next big thing? Some say Stewart's skills are on already on par with the game's greats. In June, when Stewart worked out with USA Basketball's U-17 and U-18 teams in Orlando, ESPN analyst and former UConn star Rebecca Lobo was taken aback by Stewart's all-around game, tweeting that the high-schooler should be on a WNBA roster right now.
Auriemma can't ignore his latest talent, but he's quick to pull the reins on anointing Stewart the Chosen One. "Breanna's got to get a lot stronger," he says. "She's got to put on some size. She's got to want to be in the lane a little more than she does right now. This isn't high school. This isn't AAU, U-19 USA basketball. This is college basketball and there's going to be a lot of bodies in the lane."
That development is around the corner, and what remains to be seen is how Stewart fits into the mold for UConn, which returns four starters from a team that fell short of Auriemma's eighth championship in an 83-75 Final Four loss to Notre Dame last April. Stewart, Tuck and Jefferson represent the nation's top freshmen class and the country's only group with three five-star signees, and Stewart's ability as a defender will add to what was the nation's most lock-down defensive team last season, holding opponents to 47 points per game and a smothering 30.3 percent on field goals.
Stewart won't have to wait long to prove her hype. The Huskies open the regular season Nov. 11 against College of Charleston before traveling to College Station to face 2011 national champion Texas A&M on Nov. 18, the season's first big test on a nationally televised stage. But Stewart now knows she's part of something bigger than the individual accolades that defined her prep career. "Obviously the team goal is to win championships at Connecticut," she says. "I hope to keep getting better, but I'm not going to let any of it get to my head. I've still got a long way ahead of me."