Breanna Stewart, Seattle Storm turn sights toward offseason after elimination from WNBA playoffs

SEATTLE -- A day after the Seattle Storm's 2022 season ended with a 97-92 loss to the Las Vegas Aces in Game 4 of their WNBA semifinals matchup, the team conducted exit interviews amid uncertainty about who will be back in the building for training camp next spring.

That starts with WNBA MVP runner-up Breanna Stewart, who will be an unrestricted free agent for the second consecutive year. Because the Storm signed fellow All-Star Jewell Loyd to a two-year contract as their core player last offseason, the designation is no longer available for use with Stewart.

Before Stewart decides whether she wants to continue her career in Seattle after winning championships in 2018 and '20 with the Storm, who drafted her No. 1 overall out of UConn in 2016, she must first determine whether the WNBA's incoming prioritization rule will allow her to play in the league at all next season.

"To be honest, I don't know," Stewart said Wednesday. "That's really it. I just don't know. I know that sooner than later I'm going to go to Australia [to play for U.S. women's national team in the FIBA Women's World Cup]. I'm going to play for Fener [Turkish club Fenerbahce] in January. We'll see what happens with the prioritization, which is a whole other ballgame."

In the first year of the prioritization rule, players with more than two years of experience are required to report to their WNBA teams by opening night. Aside from a handful of exceptions regarding national team play and personal emergencies, any player not back from overseas play by that date will be ineligible to play in the entire 2023 season.

That's a concern for Stewart, one of the WNBA's most prominent players who typically plays for international clubs during the league's offseason. The Women's Basketball Super League in Turkey hasn't yet announced a schedule, but last season's finals (won by Fenerbahce) wrapped up May 15 -- nine days after the start of the WNBA regular season.

It's possible an overlap can be avoided, particularly because WNBA opening night may fall later in 2023 without a major international competition like the World Cup on the schedule. However, the league announced early this year that the 2023 regular season will expand to a record 40 games, four more than teams played this year.

Prioritization is also an issue for Storm forward Gabby Williams, who has signed to play with French club Asvel in 2022-23 and is also a WNBA free agent. The French LFB finals won't end until May 20 at the earliest, which will likely come after the start of the 2023 WNBA regular season.

"My schedule is not definitive right now," Williams said. "It all, of course, depends on playoffs. I would love to return to the WNBA, but what's best for my career, what the WNBA decided to do with players like me, it's complicated."

If Stewart is able to play in the WNBA in 2023, she'll have her pick of teams. Although she always considered her return to the Storm last offseason a foregone conclusion to be part of teammate Sue Bird's final WNBA campaign, Yahoo! Sports reported she took a meeting with New York Liberty owners Joe and Clara Tsai.

"It really reminded me of being recruited in college," Stewart said of experiencing free agency. "Just being able to get insight, see how other franchises and organizations do things. Obviously with Sue coming back, it was very sure that I was coming back to Seattle, but still able to test the waters and I will do that again."

Watching the appreciation Bird received as she completed a two-decade career spent entirely with the Storm will be a factor in Stewart's decision-making in free agency.

"You can't help but think about the way that Sue has been here her entire career," she said, "the way this city always has her back and wanting that. It will be a decision that really Marta [Xargay, Stewart's wife] and I will talk about for probably the next however many months and hopefully it will become a lot clearer for me."

Stewart and Williams are the most prominent of seven free agents from Seattle's 2022 roster. Just two players, Loyd and center Mercedes Russell, are under contract. Russell was limited to five games in 2022 due to a non-basketball injury that caused a recurrent, atypical headache syndrome, though treatment has resolved it and allowed her to resume working back toward basketball conditioning.

In addition to Bird, backup point guard Briann January also announced her retirement at season's end, leaving the Storm's depth chart empty at the position. Seattle did select Australian guard Jade Melbourne in the third round of the 2022 draft and retains her rights, but Storm coach Noelle Quinn made it clear the team would add experience at the point this offseason via trade or free agency.

"The point guard is an important piece, the first piece really to building your team," Quinn said. "You think about having an amazing leader in that position, a franchise point guard to lead Stewie, to lead Jewell, to lead us to where we need to go. The backup position is just as important."

Bird, who has started more than three-quarters of the games in Seattle franchise history (580 of 764), cautioned against the idea of a new point guard trying to fill the same role she did with the Storm.

"I understand why the narrative is the filling of the shoes," Bird said, "but I think whoever does become the next point guard of this team, they just have to make it their own and that's all they can focus on. It's not about comparison."

As Bird noted, the optimistic view of Seattle having so few players under contract means the Storm have money to spend in free agency. Loyd, who becomes the Storm's longest-tenured player with Bird's retirement, is confident that free agents will be interested in joining her.

"I think I'm at a place now where I think people want to play with me, play with Stewie, play here. Have a taste of what we've had," Loyd said. "Obviously you do have to recruit a little bit the players you want.

"At the same time, I'm going to let things happen organically and naturally. I'm not a college recruiter. If people want to play with me, we'll talk about it, have a conversation about it and if it makes sense, then OK. If it doesn't make sense, all right."

No player will be more important to recruit than Stewart.

On Tuesday, she and Loyd broke their own record for combined scoring in a playoff game with 71 points. Stewart's 42 tied Angel McCoughtry for the most ever in the WNBA postseason, and Loyd's 29 were her playoff career high.

"She's someone that I really love playing with," Stewart said. "Just thinking about where we started when we were 14, 15 to where we are now, it definitely makes you think about how exciting we can continue to be as we are entering our primes, in our prime. It's a duo that's tough to stop."