As the Chicago Sky continue their bid for their second straight WNBA title with their semifinal series this week vs. the Connecticut Sun, Azurá Stevens looks back to last winter’s overseas experience as key to her standout 2022 season.
“I think confidence is the biggest thing,” said the 26-year-old Stevens following the Sky’s regular-season finale vs. the Phoenix Mercury. “I think just believing in myself as a player. I mean, I think I’ve been capable of this, but it’s sort of like, people won’t see how you play unless you go out and do it.”
This season, Stevens has posted the best overall numbers in her five-year WNBA career, averaging 10.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and 0.8 assists while playing 21.9 minutes in 35 games.
“I think you just get to play really free overseas,” added Stevens, who competed for Nika in the Russian Premier League and EuroCup for several months during the WNBA offseason before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine led her to return home early. “And it really helped me, just coming back, just to not hold back. You know, there’s nothing to lose.
“It’s really just yourself that sometimes holds you back. So really coming into this year, I didn’t want that to be anything that stopped me from just (doing) all that I can do.”
But it was more than just a successful offseason that put Stevens on the right track for her third full season with the Sky. The fiercely private Stevens recently revealed that it was a concerted effort to tend to her mental health that truly made the difference – on and off the court.
“I came into this year making sure I took care of myself as hard as I could because I don’t want to go back to that place again,” Stevens said in a recent feature for WNBA.com, where she talked about the anger and depression she faced after back-to-back seasons were cut short in 2019 in 2020, first due to a nagging foot injury that required surgery followed by an out-of-left-field knee injury that also required surgery.
“I went through a lot last year, and I got to a place that I didn’t like myself being in,” she added.
Now, Stevens is looking to help other who might be facing similar struggles. She is one of three Sky players – along with Ruthy Hebard and Rebekah Gardner – who are the face of Chicago’s “The Net” initiative, which launched in early August and is designed to help athletes prioritize their mental health and “provide a full-court press of support.”
“It feels good,” Stevens told On Her Turf on Saturday, a day after the WNBA feature was published. “I think I’ve gone back and forth this year on like, how much I wanted to share and what I wanted to say, but just to have an organization that really wanted to back me up was really awesome, as well as Rebecca and Ruthy wanting to be a part of it, too.”
Stevens shared some additional insight into her motivation for participating in the initiative, noting: “For too long players have been seen as one-dimensional superstars whose athletic prowess is celebrated and debated,” she said. “But underneath the trash talk and 3-pointers, many of us struggle with the pressure to be perfect, to perform flawlessly and to do it all with a smile. We get injured and we face the mental challenges of getting better. Sharing these stories makes us human and helps people see how we cope with trauma – and hopefully it helps others dealing with the same issues.”
Born in Rhode Island, Stevens grew up in Cary, N.C., and spent the first two years of her college career at Duke before transferring to UConn. She played one season for the Huskies before entering the 2018 WNBA Draft, where she was a first-round draft pick – sixth overall – by the Dallas Wings, where she spent two seasons. During her first season in the league, Stevens was named to the 2018 WNBA All Rookie Team behind a solid 43-percent shooting (111-of-258) and scored a career-high 26 points in a July matchup against Indiana.
She played just nine games in 2019 and 13 in 2020 while dealing with the aforementioned injuries, and she started the 2021 season on a minutes restriction, which only exacerbated her frustrations. But getting over the hump – physically and mentally – translated to an increased role in the Sky’s 2021 WNBA Title run, where Stevens started all 10 games and averaged 9.8 points and 6.9 rebounds.
The turnaround is evident in Stevens’ social media presence, particularly on Twitter where she posts daily affirmations and positive quotes.
“I love posting those quotes,” she told WNBA.com. “I have an app on my phone that sends me them, and it helps me to keep the right mindset throughout the day. I actually send quotes to some of my closest friends every day. It just helps me to be on the right things.
“Some days, you wake up, and it’s easy to not be feeling it that day as an athlete, or even just people in general, but as an athlete, you don’t really have the freedom for an off day, especially if you’re trying to achieve something.”
As the Sky try to achieve their current goal of back-to-back titles, Stevens said they are taking nothing for granted ahead of their best-of-five series vs. the Sun. Although Chicago swept Connecticut in their season series, 4-0, none of the wins were blowouts, with they Sky winning by single-digit margins in all four.
“At this point, it’s more just who wants it more,” Stevens said. “You know, we can sit here and talk schemes all day, but it’s really just who wants it more and we’ll see what happens on Sunday.”
On Her Turf editor Alex Azzi contributed to this report.
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