Rookie Breanna Stewart embraces pressure to elevate Storm

Another WNBA season begins in Seattle with a No. 1 draft pick in the fold but with a very different sense of possibility.

Because when Breanna Stewart arrives, possibilities change.

"She's definitely a game-changer," Storm coach Jenny Boucek said. "She impacts the game in a lot of ways. There are some players who have the potential to impact or enhance a team in multiple ways. And she is one of those players."

As WNBA exhibition games open Friday, the Storm head into KeyArena against Phoenix still putting together the pieces. But they include perhaps the best collection of young talent in the league, from Stewart, this month's No. 1 draft pick, to Jewell Loyd, last year's top pick and 2015 WNBA Rookie of the Year.

"The vibe is unbelievable here right now," Boucek said.

Stewart was in Seattle all of a couple of days before she had to hop on a plane again and head to New York, where she was named to her first U.S. Olympic team. Then she flew cross-country back to the Emerald City.

"The first time I got here last week was my first time ever in Seattle," Stewart said. "It's a little weird, not being familiar with anything else here. But each day, getting into a routine with practice, living in my apartment, I'm figuring out what's around me. I'll figure things out."

But while it might be new geography for the two-time consensus national player of the year, it is not new territory. Much will be expected of Stewart, as it has since she was a teenager. And she said she's prepared to deal with it.

"This is what you play the game for; it's not all supposed to be easy," Stewart said. "I know people have expectations for what I can do. But I have those for myself, too."

Sue Bird, this team's venerable point guard, is taking it all in, watching Stewart and the rest of the Storm's young players navigate the early days of their career.

"I think Sue is rejuvenated by all of these young players," Boucek said. "She's focused in, and everybody is following her lead."

"This is what you play the game for; it's not all supposed to be easy. I know people have expectations for what I can do. But I have those for myself, too." Storm rookie Breanna Stewart

Bird agreed that all of the young talent has put a bounce in her step.

"It's good to have youth around you," said the 13-year WNBA veteran. "And it just brings a different level of energy and excitement. They are sponges. And they are a really good group to be around."

The Storm struggled last season to a 10-24 finish, including a 2-15 record on the road, and missed the playoffs for the second straight season after 10 consecutive postseason berths.

Stewart, the most decorated college player ever, gives Seattle realistic playoff possibilities. She is pro ready, her inclusion on the Olympic team evidence that she is prepared to play at the WNBA's highest level. Boucek called Stewart's length "golden."

Stewart said she is watching film, learning the offense, trying to keep pace with everyone else.

"I need to make sure I'm picking things up as quickly as other people," she said.

Still, Boucek said she is working with Stewart to mitigate any pressure she might feel in her first professional season.

"There is a lot of extra pressure that comes with being a No. 1 pick, but I just want to help her stay focused on the things they can control," Boucek said. "I don't want her to worry about other opinions. I just want her focused on getting acclimated to our system and getting her feedback from us."

Stewart said she is also going to tap into Loyd's experience.

"The fact is, she's gone through everything I'm about to go through as a rookie," Stewart said.

Bird said she believes the Storm are already further along, after just a few days of practice, than they were at the same time last year.

"We have a decent amount of returners," Bird said. "We have a good mix of people that have been here, and we have a year under our belt under Jenny. Already, within a couple of days, you can see improvements from the start."

Bird said last year's team, which included two of the top three draft picks in Loyd and No. 3 pick Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, faced a steep learning curve under Boucek in her first season as the head coach.

"We were adding in young players, a lot of new pieces, and playing under Jenny for the first time for all of us," Bird said. "There was a lot of newness, offense and defense and a good chunk of our players. This year doesn't feel like that at all."

"She's definitely a game-changer. She impacts the game in a lot of ways." Storm coach Jenny Boucek on Breanna Stewart

Loyd has come back for a second season as a more seasoned player, too.

"There are already a lot of things I can see she has improved upon," Bird said.

Loyd started 23 games last season, averaging 10.7 points and 4.9 rebounds.

Boucek said that Loyd has become a better passer and can better assess what is available to her.

"The sky is the limit for her talent," Boucek said. "She has made a big jump. I watched her at the U.S. trials. Her game is maturing. Before last season, she hadn't had too many experiences where she wasn't the best player on the floor or been able to do what she wanted. But she's learning how to read defenses, how to be a playmaker. She's already evolving."

Bird said it is important that the Storm get off to a quick start to be able to compete immediately with the top teams in the WNBA. Seattle opens on the road against Los Angeles and Phoenix before hosting Minnesota in its home opener on May 22.

"We need to be able to pick things up quickly, and we have to have that mindset, hearing something once and getting it done and not having it take more than a day or two to do things," Bird said. "If we can do that, we will be better off in the long run. We are building on what we had already put in place.

"We just need to make sure we play with a lot of grit. In this league, you can't go into any game soft."