One of the most exciting seasons in WNBA history was highlighted by the individual battles between A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart.
A’ja Wilson completed one of the most decorated individual seasons in any basketball league — winning MVP, Defensive Player of the Year, the Commissioner’s Cup, Finals MVP and a championship. But part of the challenge in getting there was beating the Storm and Breanna Stewart, who herself finished second in MVP voting, third in Defensive Player of the Year voting.
As part of our Fandoms of the Year project, we’re taking this week to celebrate some of the best rivalries of 2022. To get more perspective on the Breanna Stewart vs. A’ja Wilson rivalry, and what it felt like to be on either side of it in 2022, we’re turning it over to the experts.
The A’ja Wilson perspective
There’s been a lot of debate online about who the next face of the WNBA is: Seattle’s Breanna Stewart and Vegas’ A’ja Wilson. With many of the league’s long-time stars retiring or nearing retirement, who will take over as the main character of the W?
To me, that question itself is a bit of a misnomer. Both players are great. Both players should be front and center in the marketing of the league. They were co-captains of the All-Star Game. They were first and second in MVP voting, and there were only six votes for either first or second place that didn’t go to one of them.
But if we had to name one of those players as the face of the 2022 season, it has to be Wilson. She won the MVP. She won the DPOY. She won the title. This was A’ja’s year. Sure, she’d already won an MVP award before, but 2022 felt like her coronation. Wilson might have scored a couple points per game less than Stewie, but she was second in the league in rebounds and first in blocks, and she did so while adjusting to an entirely new coaching staff.
In fact, the coaching change really highlights why 2022 was A’ja’s year. The Aces radically shifted from an offense that was stuck in the 1970s to an offense that was built to win the modern game. Wilson, who mainly played the four with Bill Laimbeer as head coach, ended up playing a ton of center this year, and she adjusted to that positional change seamlessly — and that feels a bit like an understatement. Wilson shot 50.1 percent from the floor, the best mark of her career.
I have nothing about Breanna Stewart. She and Wilson are essentially a 1A and 1B in this league. But with all the awards and, most importantly, the championship in 2022, it’s impossible to deny that this was the Year of A’ja. And as much as I try to remain neutral when it comes to the WNBA, I found myself rooting for Wilson at every step. I wanted her to win MVP. I wanted her to be a champion. I wanted her to quiet the doubters and to show that she was the best player in the league.
And she did.
The Breanna Stewart perspective
As Justin said, 2022 was A’ja Wilson’s year. She won the awards and the championship. She knocked Stewart’s Seattle Storm out of the playoffs and won three of their four regular-season matchups.
But in their eight head-to-head matchups across the regular season and playoffs, Stewart certainly showed up — averaging 26.1 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, on a 59.9 true shooting percentage. Wilson got the better of her this year but there’s no reason to assume that’s a permanent state of affairs.
The best rivalries aren’t just wars of attrition, two teams or star players simply wearing each other out until their eras close or their careers end. The best rivalries inspire change, forcing players to improve, to address weaknesses, to find ways to better themselves and their teammates as they strive for the upper hand. As Justin said, the desire to get past Stewart and the Storm already forced evolution on the part of Wilson and her team. The Storm will be back to the drawing board this offseason trying to figure out how to replace Sue Bird, while Stewart works on ways to outdo Wilson.
The best part of the Breanna Stewart vs. A’ja Wilson rivalry isn’t just knowing that there are still (hopefully) many more years of epic matchups ahead, it’s the awareness that those matchups are going to fuel both players to keep chasing newer and getting better.
2022 had a disappointing end for fans of Stewart and the Storm, and we know there will likely be similar disappointments to come. But that disappointment is softened by the knowledge that there will be plenty of victories too and some of them will almost certainly come from spinning this rivalry around and sending A’ja Wilson and the Aces home with unexpected losses.