Bright Future Awaits Breanna Stewart
Fast-forward four years and Stewart again was the youngest player invited to a USA Basketball National Team training camp.
However, this time she not only was the youngest of six collegiate athletes to take the court at the 2013 USA National Team mini-camp Oct. 4-6 in Las Vegas, she also was going up against USA Basketball veterans like three-time Olympic gold medalist Tamika Catchings, who played on her first USA Basketball squad when Stewart was just two years old.
Let that sink in a few moments, and you will begin to understand the impressive resume Stewart already has compiled.
Catchings has played in 108 games for the red, white and blue during a storied USA Basketball career that began with the 1996 USA U18 National Team, the youngest team fielded by USA Basketball at the time. She has seen many great players in her career, including Stewart in Las Vegas last month.
“I'm excited about Breanna Stewart and what she'll be able to accomplish in her collegiate career and beyond,” said Catchings. “I think that she's another versatile player who can do so much. With more experience, she should be able to be a dominating force on both the offensive and defensive end.”
Catchings was also impressed with Stewart’s attitude off the court. “I got a chance to present her with the (2012) Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year award and got to spend a little time with her and her family. I love the fact that she remains humble and doesn't let her success change her.”
There were 13 Olympic and/or FIBA World Championship gold medalists and numerous WNBA All-Stars on the talent-stocked mini-camp roster, most of whom compete in Europe or China in the off-season and didn’t really know much about any of the collegians heading into camp. But they know now.
“I’d never seen her play until we got out here,” said Candice Dupree, a 2010 USA World Championship Team gold medalist. “She’s really good, and she’s only a sophomore. She’s got a couple more years left at UConn, but right now, she’s very athletic and can shoot the lights out. She’s a very good player.”
Two of the camp participants, like Catchings and Stewart, started playing for their country at the first opportunity they had. 2008 Olympic gold medalist Cappie Pondexter and three-time Olympic gold medalist Diana Taurasi teamed up on the 2000 USA U18 National Team and have competed in 75 and 99 games, respectively, for USA Basketball. They also know a good player when they see one.
“She was actually my favorite young player to watch,” said Pondexter, who was sidelined with a knee injury and viewed much of the camp from the scorer’s table. “She has a lot of potential and upside. She has a European game. She reminds me a lot of (Elena) Delle Donne in a subtle way, just with her ability and skill level. It’s awesome when you can make USA Basketball teams like that and you’re so dedicated to playing USA Basketball. It’s a good thing for our future.”
Stewart isn’t the only collegiate athlete who has won multiple gold medals in international play, so how did this young kid secure an invite to the training camp to play alongside some of the best in the game?
She wasn’t a returning All-American, like the other five collegians. She had, however, logged more games in a USA Basketball uniform than all but seven on the USA National Team mini-camp roster, which helped put her at ease coming into the camp.
“My past USA Basketball experiences definitely helped me a lot because I kind of knew what the flow of things is,” Stewart said. “Even though it’s different coaches and stuff like that, to say that I played on USA teams before made me more comfortable, because if this was my first USA training camp, I’m sure I’d be extremely nervous.”
Stewart’s 47 games in a USA uniform were earned by her stellar play, but also in part because she benefitted from the then-new FIBA calendar, which launched with the inaugural FIBA Americas U16 Championship in 2009. Prior to that, the youngest USA Basketball team to travel internationally was filled with 17- and 18-year-olds. Before 2009, to start out in USA Basketball at age 14 was unheard of.
Despite being one of the youngest invited to try out for the 2009 USA U16 National Team, the 6-3 forward from North Syracuse, N.Y., was impressive enough to not only earn a slot on the squad, but she started all five games for the USA team that won gold at the inaugural FIBA Americas U16 Championship.
Stewart, who earned the nickname ‘6-10’ in 2009 for her impressive wingspan, went on to capture gold at the 2010 FIBA U17 World Championship, 2011 and 2013 FIBA U19 World Championships and 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championship.
In 2011 she earned all-tournament team honors at the U19 Worlds, was the MVP of the 2012 FIBA Americas U18 Championship and this past summer earned U19 World Championship MVP honors.
Additionally, Stewart was the youngest member and only high school athlete on the 2011 USA Pan American Games Team, becoming just the second high school player to ever compete for USA Basketball at the Pan Am Games. Three months later she became the youngest female to be named USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year.
“I think that every opportunity to play in the USA Basketball family prepares you for the next steps ahead,” said Catchings. “Her experience with playing overseas, college and high school allows her the opportunity to play in different environments. That is the thing that we have all experienced - the overseas element that most high school and college players didn't have a chance to early on.”
While the international community certainly knew of Stewart prior to her exploits at UConn, and she had an impressive freshman season for the Huskies with 13.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.1 blocks a game, the NCAA Final Four was Stewart’s coming out party to the country. Stewart scored a career-high 29 points versus Notre Dame in the national semifinal game en route to earning 2013 NCAA Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors – just the fourth freshman in NCAA history to earn MOP honors – and the NCAA Championship.
While she showed hints of greatness during the past four years, it takes more than talent to play within the international rules, deal with overseas travel and appreciate the differences in coaching styles to which athletes must adjust when playing for various USA Basketball teams, especially if the goal is to make it to the top tier of the USA Basketball pipeline.
“She definitely has a European game,” said Pondexter. “It helps that she’s played so many teams for USA Basketball, especially when you start playing professional basketball, obviously. I think the kid has a lot of skills and a wingspan that reminds me of a DeLisha Milton-Jones wingspan. She’s got those long arms, which really helps change the game.”
With her goal of rising through the USA Basketball ranks, and wearing red again, she’s taken advantage of every opportunity with USA Basketball and made great strides in earning a spot on a future USA National Team.
“It was an honor to be able to wear (the) red (practice gear),” said Stewart. “It’s obviously not for special occasions, but for the USA National Team. I did wear it for the Pan Am Games, but this is actually the national team and to be a part of this training camp and wear red was awesome. I like red better than blue (smiles).”
“The future is very bright for her,” added Catchings. “She will continue to grow her skill set and get better every year, so that will be awesome for her and the fans that love watching her game.”
She knows she still has a lot of work ahead if she wants to one day achieve her dream of playing on an Olympic or USA World Championship Team in one of those coveted red jerseys.
“I want to get bigger, get stronger, so that I can play more of an inside game in the post,” stated Stewart. “And, just be strong with the ball in general.”
Right now, however, Stewart’s focus is on her sophomore season in a Husky uniform and attempting to earn a second NCAA title. With the upcoming season looming ahead of her, Stewart said she knows that the camp was beneficial to her future.
“This camp is going to help me a lot. Just to be able to put this experience on my resume. Playing with these WNBA players, professional players, it’s something I can always take with me mentally and physically on the court.”