WNBA 2020 season: Why Breanna Stewart and the Seattle Storm are the preseason favorites

Storm players' spikeball game gets extremely competitive (0:30)

Seattle Storm players take to the court to show off their competitive skills in spikeball. (0:30)

The finite nature of college made Breanna Stewart's championship forecast at UConn easy, if incredibly ambitious. She arrived saying that her goal was to win four NCAA championships -- and she left with four.

It's harder to be so definitive in the WNBA. Stewart, who helped the Seattle Storm to the title in 2018 as league MVP, would like to win every championship for the rest of her career. That isn't realistic -- even for Stewie -- so she says she has no number in mind.

But if this WNBA season -- which began Saturday with Seattle topping the New York Liberty 87-71 -- goes as most expect it to, Stewart will have her second WNBA title in October, when she'll be just 26.

Nothing is certain in a year in which the WNBA is attempting to have its season in a bubble in Bradenton, Florida, because of the coronavirus pandemic. But if anything looks even close to being a sure thing, it's Seattle being the favorite to win the 2020 championship. The Storm have the star power, the chemistry, the depth and the experience.

That's the situation they thought they would be in last year, before Stewart tore her Achilles tendon in April while playing overseas. With that and with point guard Sue Bird missing the season because of knee surgery, the Storm dropped from "likely to repeat juggernaut" to "pretty good team," which still got them to the second round of the playoffs.

Now the Storm players keep reminding everyone that this won't be easy. Even with so much about the roster being nearly the same as in 2018, that was nearly two years ago. To some degree, these players are picking up where they left off. But time changes everything a little.

"It is weird," Stewart said. "We're big on routines. We're in our circle, our huddle. And the first day [of practice in the bubble], I was like, 'I don't remember my spot, where I used to stand.'"

The familiarity soon began to flood through her and the Storm. They're reminded of that electric feeling of knowing that you have all the pieces to win a title.

"We all understood we didn't have a lot of time," Bird said of their preparation for the season once inside the bubble. "Right from the beginning, there was this anxious energy."

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To some extent, the Storm are able to hit a rewind button and revisit the mindset they had while sweeping the Washington Mystics in the WNBA Finals two years ago.

"How we clicked in 2018 was just like ... magic," Seattle forward Natasha Howard said. "I don't know how to explain it. Just magic."

So much of the personnel are the same, though coach Dan Hughes couldn't come to the bubble because he was deemed higher risk for severe illness if he contracted the coronavirus. Assistant Gary Kloppenburg will take over on the bench, and Hughes will be watching video and consulting with the team from afar.

But there's Stewart, the young superstar. There's Howard, who blossomed offensively and defensively when she came to Seattle. There's Jewell Loyd, always a weapon at shooting guard. There's Alysha Clark, who remade herself from a college scoring whiz to a pro defensive stopper who can guard a variety of opponents. And there's Bird, running the show as she has been since she entered the league as the top pick in 2002.

That starting five led the way in 2018, and they remain together. Other holdovers from that championship team are guards Jordin Canada and Sami Whitcomb, forward Crystal Langhorne and center Mercedes Russell.

Three players are new to the Storm this year: veteran guard Epiphanny Prince, Stewart's former UConn teammate Morgan Tuck at forward and Australian center Ezi Magbegor, who was drafted in 2019 but is making her WNBA debut this year.

Magbegor is 20 years old, and Bird is 39, giving the Storm both the youngest and oldest players in the league this summer. That provides a bookend for Bird's illustrious career. As a rookie with the Storm, she was paired with another Australian center, Lauren Jackson, who was the No. 1 pick the year before Bird. They led the way to Seattle's titles in 2004 and 2010.

Jackson's last year in the WNBA was 2012. But Bird -- whose devout commitment to fitness has extended her career -- continues, and now she has the chance to work with a next-generation player in Magbegor.

On Saturday in the Storm's opener, Bird went against this year's No. 1 pick, Oregon's Sabrina Ionescu, who is just 22 and might aspire to follow a career path such as Bird's.

"The things she has [that] are innate: her ability to see the floor, to make plays. She doesn't shy away from big moments," Bird said of Ionescu, though she could have been talking about herself. "As the No. 1 pick, that last part is probably most important. When you're the No. 1 pick, everybody comes at you."

The Storm can relate to that because they've had seasons in which they played so well that they thought they were every other team's primary target. Both 2010 and 2018 were like that. That has never bothered Bird, and she can feel very confident that the depth on this team makes these Storm even more formidable.

"We literally have a starting five on the bench, players who have proven themselves in those roles," Bird said. "When we've all come back together because we have a goal in mind -- which is to win the whole thing -- everybody just knows they have a role. When they come into the game, they can be such change-makers.

"What we've been doing in practice is mixing up the lineups quite a bit, and it gives us a lot to go to in the course of the game. It can be what helps us the most, our depth."

Bird doesn't see this as her last season; her hope is to play at least through 2021 and have a chance to make another Olympic team, which would be her fifth. But she's keenly aware that you need to seize the moment if you have a team that has the right stuff for a title.

"We do finally have what was a championship team back together," Bird said. "We're very lucky. Nobody opted out, and we haven't had any [injuries]. And we added players. So with that, do I think we're right out the gate in the top part of the league? Yeah, but that's just on paper. ... It means nothing.

"It would be a major trap for us, believing, 'Oh, in 2018 we did it. We're the favorite.' This is a new year, and I've learned the hard way the last couple of times that I've won, trying to recreate the championship year. ... You can't. It happened, it was great, and now you have to form this new identity."

In that case, maybe last year's injury disappointments will benefit the Storm. The good vibes of 2018 can be in the backs of their minds without them feeling like they have to try to replicate them. There's enough separation to make pursuing this title its own quest. Plus, considering the circumstances of the 2020 season, it would be memorable in a way like no other.

"This year for us, it's going to be finding that balance of the growth that we had last year and now bringing Sue and Stewie back into that and finding out how it all can mesh that together," Clark said. "We're not the same team as 2018. We've grown since then."