FROM A TO Z, STEWART IS OUT TO ELEVATE GAME

Great Britain’s big difference maker in 2012 might currently be coming off the bench at EuroBasket Women. And no, her name’s not Jo Leedham.

First quarter: GB v Israel. Must-win. Azania Stewart leaps upward, the basket wide open, seemingly within touching distance of a player who towers 1.95 metres tall. The ball goes up. It hits the rim. It pings away. The young centre, her shoulders sagging, sports a face that cannot disguise her personal disgust.

Fast forward around 10 minutes. Ball in the post. Defender in her back. One step across. Quick hands. Spin move. Baby hook. WNBA quality. Score. Faces on GB bench? Smiles.

It has, admits the London-born centre, been a trying summer on international duty. Self-flagellation has become a part-time hobby. There have been more misses that gets. A sense of frustration, she confirms. Now, in Poland, she is having to pit her skills against some of the savviest players on the planet. There is no easing up, not when Tom Maher, either in practice or during games, is not a man who will tolerate second best.

“Previously, in years before, I’ve not found it that bad,” admits Stewart, in a moment of downtime in the build-up to the start of the second phase of the tournament. “The team has helped me transition into it and they play tough in practice. It’s been an easy transition. But I’m not going to lie. This year, I’ve been struggling.”

It might be the style of play. Maybe the competition. Nerves have played a part, she states. It should not be forgotten that Stewart is just 22, not a baby but still finding her feet.

She has plenty of fans among those who saw her emerge through the Haringey Angels system before heading to prep school in Virginia at the age of 16, eventually becoming an All-American. One coach who saw her frequently in the junior ranks speaks of immense raw talent, just waiting to be sculpted.

“The problem was,” he recalls, “that as soon as she got to the U.S., they moved her down a year. It’s so they could get three years out of her. That’s the downside of America. And if you look at her college, I don’t think they’ve really invested enough in improving her there either.”

That would be the University of Florida where Stewart will soon return for her senior season, eager to win even a Conference championship before she departs a school which is synonymous with sporting success. “There’s a mindset,” she says. “It’s the Gator Nation.” Graduating on time with a degree in social sciences is another target, the principal reason why she is passing up on August’s World University Games in China.

To compare Stewart’s role in college and with GB is like trying to compare JLS with the Rolling Stones. Two different worlds. Too different situations. In Gainesville, they call their English recruit a gazelle. On Team Britannia, ‘Zee’ is a dinosaur.

She explains: “Here it’s a different kind of game where you have six-four girls who are play as a guard or a post player. It’s difficult. I’ve been struggling with it. But I guess it’s my transition from college to playing overseas which is what I’ll be doing next year.“

Maher has gone back to basics to move Stewart forward (MAP Photos)

Privately and publically, GB’s coaches and performance staff are holding Stewart up as an example of the flaws in the US system. Maher, and his sidekick Ken Shields, have spent a lot of practice time this summer trying to hammer home the kind of basics that their counterparts often assume as learned.

Maher frequently laments that proper development is often over-looked at the expense of wins and losses. Stewart, the Australian feels, has not had enough opportunity to expand her repertoire.

“She’s got talent but she’s under-done for where she is,” he states. “I think she’s got to really hone into her fundamentals and develop a post game. If you play at a college and your role is to rebound and pass, that’s not finding the whole thing. So if that’s your job in one environment, and your job with Great Britain is to be a scorer and this and that … you’re not preparing yourself the same.”

Through the personal challenges, the young pivot has listened. She knows there is just 12 months until her hometown hosts the biggest stage she will ever know. And 12 months to produce the kind of showreel that might put European clubs on alert.

Hard work is going to be needed to make the leap, Stewart declares. “Because at this level, when you get turnovers, and miss shots, the other team will capitalise. They kill us for it. A small missed lay-up and boom, they’re down the other end and scoring on us. We’re at a level where you can’t miss.”

There is a bright side to this. Stewart gets it, what it takes and what is required.

As this tournament has progressed, she – like many of her GB team-mates – have adjusted on the fly and risen above what they knew before. Only Leedham came in as I-Belong-Here. Everyone else has had to prove themselves.

Little by little, Poland has seen Britain’s young giant learn to like what she can do and forget what she cannot. An extra rebound here. A clever move there. There is abundant potential. Just a PIN code needed to unlock it.

“I think I have so much more to give and I’m just trying to find ways to tap into it,” she affirms.

“I’m still young but I don’t feel it at all. I’m getting quicker and I’m taking forever to warm up. At 22, I’ve got years ahead of me and I’ve got time. But not that much time.

“So this year, going back to America, I have to do more film, do extra workouts and get in better shape. I think I’m in good shape but not great shape. My body is the type that gets tired and I start to shuts down my thinking and I get slower.”

Maybe, I venture, the problem is that she’s thinking too much? That raw natural talent surely still lies within, peering out occasionally from behind the systems and the plays and the coaches’ orders.

Perhaps, she concedes. “It’s about relaxing and letting it come to me. But I’m forcing it and I feel that’s where I’m making my turnovers, I’m rushing my shots. I’m a mess right now but I’m trying to get it together.”

If that happens, we could see something special. Britain’s Z-Factor might yet make the leap onto basketball’s A-List.

Main Photo: FIBA Europe

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