Dear Sabrina — Breanna Stewart’s advice on life as the No. 1 WNBA draft pick

Hey Sabrina,

I have an idea what you’re thinking now as the WNBA draft nears. It’s all becoming real. You’re expected to be the No. 1 pick by the New York Liberty. That was me just four years ago.

After the national championship game, I had nine days to pick an agent, hit the award circuit, decide on a shoe deal, figure out what you’re going to wear and do lot of media leading up to the draft. It was a whirlwind. Probably something like how it felt to have 72 hours to decide whether to declare early or return to Oregon last year. You’re in a different situation now, because we’re now forced to embrace the unknown as we all navigate the pandemic.

It’s hard to look at any positives when it feels like so much has been taken away. Losing a mentor in Kobe, then the tournament and your shot at the title you returned to clinch. It’s hard to even imagine the heartbreak. You’ve handled it with grace.

Fresh off of winning an unprecedented four consecutive NCAA women’s basketball titles, UConn’s Breanna Stewart was the No. 1 WNBA draft pick in 2016. Brian Babineau/NBA/Getty Images

We all realize there are bigger things going on than sports, but for what it’s worth, I’m really glad the draft is still happening. And despite how odd it may feel to do it virtually, I’m happy you get to experience that feeling. There’s a difference between thinking about being picked No. 1 and then actually hearing your name called. For me, it was a strange and exhilarating sense of relief, satisfaction and excitement about what’s next all at once. Geographically, it will be a big move for you. You’ve spent your life on the West Coast and come from a tight-knit family and team, and you will be moving cross-country. I grew up in New York, saw my first WNBA game at the Garden, went to school in Connecticut, and I had never been to Seattle, so we’re crossing paths in a way.

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My advice on a big move? Let the city welcome you. You don’t have to figure it all out on your own. People will want to show you around, tell you the best non-tourist spots and restaurants. It’s some of the opposite in basketball. As a rookie you come to understand very quickly that you’re playing with and against people that are bigger, faster, stronger. It’s the best league in the world and only has 144 spots. In training camp first, then once you hit the court against seasoned pros, you realize people are playing for their livelihoods.

Yet, within that competitive atmosphere, you get to learn from the best. I’m always looking to Sue Bird, even now, seeing what she’s doing. I know you’ll have a lot of responsibility as a point guard, and Sue is a master at that: Even when things are really tense in the game, she’s able to calm the team down and doesn’t get rattled. You already know her basketball IQ is off the charts and when she speaks, people listen.

But being a leader isn’t just the vocal part with Sue, it’s also the way that she does things like take care of her body. For me, I see Sue’s always busting her ass, and I need to do that, too, even more. She’s already made a name for herself, but she’s diligent about excellence. It has sustained her.

That’s ultimately what it’s about. You’re a rookie, so you have to strike that right balance between confidence and sponge, but know that, ultimately, it’s about doing the work. Show up and work hard and you earn respect.

The Storm’s Stewart knows what it’s like to move cross-country to start a WNBA career. “Let the city welcome you,” says Stewart, who helped Seattle win its third WNBA title in 2018. Joshua Huston/NBAE via Getty Images

As I get older and the more experience I have under my belt, I’ve come to understand how to love basketball while also not being entirely defined by it. That sunk in even more after tearing my Achilles tendon forced me to miss last WNBA season. Having basketball taken away makes you think about your place in the world.

So how can I help people? How can I make an impact? How do I want to be remembered? Part of that is finding your voice. Not everybody is going to love you — as a basketball player or a person — but you’ve always been clear about who you are, and in uncertain world, that’s going to take you places. Remember, it can take so many others, too. Since I know how much you love basketball, I know it’s pretty likely that you’ve thought about the idea of being drafted since you were a kid. Friday, you will join an exclusive club in the sports world as a No. 1 pick. When you look at all the other people who have been No. 1 picks, you want to live up to those standards.

“Show up and work hard and you earn respect,” Stewart tells Sabrina Ionescu, pictured. AP Photo/John Locher

With all that’s going on in the world now, it might be hard to focus on enjoying the moment. But you should. You only get drafted once, and you’ve earned it. This week, your dream is going to come true, and seeing it happen might just be what inspires a little girl to go out and try to break your records.

She would honor all of us by doing it.

Good luck!

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