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The Casual Superiority of Breanna Stewart

The Seattle Storm star and MVP front-runner sports a signature style of play—one that will be front and center at this weekend’s WNBA All-Star Game

Breanna Stewart Alycea Tinoyan

There’s an obvious brilliance to the way that Breanna Stewart holds a basketball, dribbles a basketball, passes a basketball, and shoots a basketball. It’s intriguing. And captivating. And part of that, yes, comes from the allure that’s just naturally attached to knowing you’re watching someone do a thing better than nearly everyone else on the planet. (It’s why movie scenes when Denzel Washington flexes are so mesmerizing, or why a plate of food that a master chef has prepared is so hypnotizing, etc.) But the other part of that is how her brand of basketball genius looks so disconnected from everything else.

What I mean is: Have you seen the movie Upgrade? It’s a sci-fi movie set in the near future that came out earlier this year. In it, a guy named Grey Trace who’s been paralyzed from the neck down gets a computer chip inserted into his spine during an unsanctioned surgery at a tech billionaire’s house. The chip reestablishes the connection between his brain and his limbs, so as soon as it’s activated he can move again and walk again and run again. And it seems normal, and Trace thinks everything is normal (or at least as normal as receiving an illegal techno-surgery in a very rich person’s living room can be). However, the chip turns out to be far more advanced than he’d anticipated, and so, while in a life-threatening fist fight one afternoon, the chip (which can talk to Trace, and which controls Trace’s arms and legs, but can do so only with permission) asks to be put in charge so it can take over in the fight. Trace agrees, and since the chip is a computer chip that can access terabytes upon terabytes upon terabytes of information, it instantly turns Trace into an unstoppable, unbeatable, unhittable fighting master.

While this is going on, Trace, who had no idea what was going to happen when he gave control over to the chip, is just watching everything happen, totally in shock and entirely confused and terrified. One moment he’s on the ground getting the life strangled out of him, and the next he’s watching his arms and legs and body fight his opponent with a level of precision reserved for only the most highly trained martial arts experts. He doesn’t have any control of anything at all except his reactions to what he’s seeing his body do. His arm decides to punch and he’s surprised. His legs move him two inches to the left to avoid an attack, and he’s surprised. So on and so on. His body is moving very fluidly and with a great level of computerized grace, and the whole time his face is totally panicked, and also filled with awe.

That’s what Breanna Stewart looks like playing basketball, except but the opposite. Her body—long, lean, angular—moves in this very kinetic and very frenetic way, but her face, stuck somewhere between looking uninterested and unimpressed, does nothing at all to belie the effort going into what it is she’s doing. It’s not anti-emotion like we’ve seen from other players. It’s this new thing, this new level: a casual superiority of skill that is fascinating to watch on a professional level.

Here’s a perfect example of what I’m talking about. This six-second GIF is from the end of the first half of a game earlier this week between the Seattle Storm, which has the best record in the league right now and is angling toward making a serious run at a title behind the MVP campaign that Breanna has put together, and the Indiana Fever, which has the worst record in the league right now and is angling toward the exit door of an airplane mid-flight:

Watch it. Then watch it again. Then watch it one last time. Then watch it one more time, in pieces, and pay attention to these three things:

Watch Breanna running up the court to get in position. Her steps look choppy and heavy, but also somehow fluid and light. There are players on a basketball court who float around from spot to spot like an air hockey puck not quite touching the table (Maya Moore is probably the best example). And there are players on a basketball court who thunder around with steps that feel less like steps and more like boulders falling off the back of an 18-wheeler (Liz Cambage is probably the best example). Breanna, who will be an All-Star for the second time this year, somehow manages to mix both of those styles, which is why watching her play basketball is so compelling. (I watched her bazooka-blast my beloved Las Vegas Aces this way early on in the season when she scored 21 points in just 23 minutes in a blowout win for the Storm. It was infuriating.)

Watch Breanna wedge herself into the position she knows she has to be in so she can spin toward her right shoulder for a fadeaway. Prior to receiving the ball in her hands, her legs flail about and her arms flail about and her feet tap around looking for the court beneath them. And let me say three things here, the last of which is slightly off topic but is something I haven’t stopped thinking about since I read it last week:

  1. The New York Times had a video up on its site in 2014 about some new spider that had been discovered in a desert. The paper was interested in the spider because, as a way to escape predators, the spider would tumble itself down sand dunes. (A spider rolling itself down a hill looks exactly like it sounds like it looks.) It would just flip and flip and flip, all eight of its legs going wild at once. And it looked a lot like the spider was not in control of its body, or like what it was doing was completely unreasonable. But it turned out it was very much the opposite of that. The spider was perfectly in control, and the flipping thing was an evolutionary advancement that not only helped it survive, but also thrive. That was the first thing I thought of when I watched Breanna position herself to get that last-second jumper off.
  2. There’s a video on YouTube from a couple of years ago when Breanna was in her senior year at UConn. In it, her coach (Geno Auriemma) talks about Breanna’s growth as a player, and mentions specifically how deceiving her build is. “You look at her today and her body type hasn’t changed much from freshman year,” he says, as a clip of her running up the court in slow motion is played, each of her limbs looking several weeks long. “But she’s much stronger, and better able to deal with whatever’s being thrown at her,” he finishes, as a clip of her banging in the post is played. And that’s what you see in the GIF above. Her body is sort of everywhere, crashing into her defender over and over again. But what she’s doing is purposeful, which is why she ends up exactly where she wants to end up (just inside the right elbow of the free throw line), despite the defender knowing all too well that if she lets Breanna get there, then it’s going to be nothing but bad news.
  3. At UConn, Breanna possessed what I assume has to be considered the most impressive college basketball stat of all time: During her four years she not only won four national championships in a row (lol at “not only”), but she also won four consecutive Most Outstanding Player awards in the NCAA tournament. Literally nobody else on earth has ever done that. That’s nuts.

Watch how everything seems to change as soon as Breanna has the ball in her hands. This is my favorite part of the whole clip, and really the whole point of this article. Prior to catching the ball, all of her movements feel, as mentioned, very spider-down-the-hill-ish. Once she catches the ball, though, it’s like a fucking magic pill. She’s smooth and measured, and there’s an economy of motion there that is masterful. She catches the ball, instantly spins away from the defender’s better-positioned side (this is why she was banging into her; she was figuring out this information), pulls up as she’s floating just far enough back so that the defender can’t bother her, then flings the ball at the rim like an archer shooting at a target from horseback. By the time the ball splashes in, Stewart has already backpedaled her way out to the 3-point line, because she knows there’s not going to be a rebound, because she’s Breanna Stewart so of course the shot is going in.

I’m certain there are more exciting Breanna moments to watch.

(The best video is the one from her rookie year in the WNBA when she scored 38 points on 12 of 16 shots, because she was a goddamn menace that night.)

(She also added six rebounds, three assists, and three steals.)

(She also hit what would be the game-winning and-1 in the final minute of the game.)

(Also it was only her 15th game in the league.)

But the most appropriate moment is that tiny one in the GIF.