Breanna Stewart expects to return to Seattle Storm in free agency 'unless something crazy happens'

Injured Seattle forward Breanna Stewart wishes she could have helped the Storm prevent the end of their season in the WNBA playoffs Sunday. But she indicated she expects to be back in Seattle next season to help the franchise pursue its fifth WNBA title.

Stewart, who has been sidelined with a left foot/leg injury since being hurt in a game against Washington on Sept. 7, is one of three Storm stars -- along with Jewell Loyd and Sue Bird -- who are unrestricted free agents. Seattle players spoke Monday in a video call after the second-round loss to Phoenix.

"Seattle has always been my [WNBA] home," said Stewart, who was drafted No. 1 by the Storm in 2016. "It's where I've grown up, it's where my career has continued to blossom. So I plan on being back unless something crazy happens. We have more things to do here."

Stewart said she was hoping to play again near the end of the WNBA semifinals, which start Tuesday, had the Storm made it that far. But she wasn't sure, because she had to balance the risk/reward of trying to return too soon, which might have forced a longer recovery time. The exact nature of the injury hasn't been specified.

"It is just terrible timing," Stewart said of being injured so close to the end of the regular season. "It's feeling much better, but I haven't played basketball since the Washington game.

"I have to have a mature approach to things. You're not going to win every single year. And as bad as I want to be like, 'Yes, I am!' sometimes there's other things going on, and it's just not going to happen that way."

At 27, Stewart has won two WNBA titles, in 2018 and 2020, and was the 2018 regular-season MVP. But she missed the 2019 season with a right Achilles tear, and the end of the 2021 season with this injury. Both those years, the Storm lost in the second round of the playoffs.

Loyd said, "I wish Stewie was Iron Man, and never got hurt."

Loyd, who turns 28 next week, was the WNBA's No. 1 pick in 2015. She said she and Stewart have talked about wanting to continue to play together, but she plans to take some time making a decision. Stewart averaged 20.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists this season, while Loyd was at 17.8, 4.0 and 3.8. Both played on the gold-medal U.S. Olympic team along with Bird.

"Seattle has been home for me for the last seven years," said Loyd, who doesn't plan to play overseas this winter. "When you understand free agency, you understand you have the choice to stay or go. I'm going to take this time to have a break, talk with my family, talk with Stewie and everyone else. Reevaluate where I'm at in my life and my career and go forward from there."

Bird, who turns 41 in October, said after Sunday's game she wasn't sure if she would return for a 19th season next year. She appreciated all the kind words she got in texts and on social media after the game, but said she needs time to decide if she can gear up mentally for another season. She added she is thankful that she stayed healthy throughout 2021.

"The mental part is just as hard as the physical at times, especially with the long offseason," said Bird, who no longer plays overseas. "The reward is the WNBA season, the games. Once an offseason starts again ... some days I wake up and I'm like, 'Oh, today's gonna suck,' but you find a way to push through [workouts]. You have some high and lows in terms of motivation. That is daunting for me right now from a mental standpoint.

"The way that I play and the position that I play, there is a mental fatigue that can kick in. You have to be able to train yourself in a way to fight that and not give in to it throughout the course of the season. It's hard to keep a competitive edge for a long time. I feel lucky that I've been able to keep it for as long as I have."

That said, Bird said she definitely has not made up her mind about 2022, and that the chance to play in newly refurbished Climate Pledge Arena near her home in downtown Seattle is appealing. The Storm haven't played at the former KeyArena since the 2018 season. Their home games were at two other Seattle-area facilities in 2019 and 2021, and all games were in the WNBA bubble in Bradenton, Florida, in 2020.

"I miss the energy of that building, the home-court advantage the fans give us," Bird said. "That's a big part of my career; all my memories are tied up in that location."

Stewart said she would try to convince Bird to stay around for one more season. Stewart is under contract to play in Russia this winter and plans to do that when she is healthy. She recently married fellow basketball player Marta Xargay Casademont, and they have a newborn daughter.

"The plan is for the entire family to go over," Stewart said. "My timeline of getting to Russia, I don't know. But I'll be open with both sides -- in Russia and Seattle -- about what is going on.

"As far as Sue, I'm going to try to do whatever I can for her to come back one more year. But whatever she decides ... I'm just going to enjoy every memory we've made, and hopefully we'll make more."