Over the last year, Stefanie Dolson has won at every level.
She was a starter on the gold medal 3x3 Olympic team in the summer of 2021. She followed that up by winning her first WNBA championship as a member of the Chicago Sky, making some pivotal plays in the pick-and-roll down the stretch of the decisive Game 4. After the WNBA season ended, Dolson headed to Hungary and helped lead Sopron Basket to its first-ever EuroLeague title.
Full disclosure: I was swayed by the Year of Dolson, and when Swish Appeal picked its top 30 players of the 2022 season, I was the lone voter to have Dolson on my list, slotting her at 22nd.
For the first month of the season, that decision looked silly. Dolson was ineffective for the New York Liberty during May, her play often outright damaging for her new team. The Liberty were far more successful with Han Xu on the court than with Dolson, despite Han’s relative inexperience — she’s eight years younger than Dolson and is only in her second WNBA season.
New York was outscored by nearly 21 points per 100 possessions when Dolson played in May, per WNBA.com. In the 134 minutes that Howard and Dolson played together, that figure was minus-23.6; but when Howard and Han played together, the Liberty had a plus-6.9 net rating, even as the team struggled to a 1-7 record.
As a player whose offensive win shares have consistently outpaced her defensive win shares, Dolson’s struggles on the offensive end were particularly noteworthy. Her individual scoring numbers were in line with previous seasons, but she was averaging twice as many turnovers as assists. New York’s offensive rating was a putrid 79.2 in her minutes (not that the team’s league-worst 88.1 rating with Dolson off the court was much better).
The Liberty finished May on a seven-game losing streak, and there wasn’t much hope with their bigs failing to mesh, 2021 All-Star Betnijah Laney on the injured list, and Sabrina Ionescu overwhelmed by the playmaking and scoring burden placed upon her. Fortunately for New York — and fans of good basketball — things have taken a dramatic turn since.
The Liberty are 7-3 in June with several good wins in the process, including one in Washington against the Mystics with Elena Delle Donne playing, and a victory over the Sun in Connecticut. The addition of Crystal Dangerfield and arrival of Marine Johannès have helped Ionescu thrive off the ball, and Johannès has added some needed defense and flair in the process. But a crucial factor for New York’s success has been their pace, or lack thereof, and that’s where Dolson fits in.
In 2021, the Liberty had the second-fastest pace in the league, but not to great effect. They had the 10th-best offense and threw the ball all over the gym as the only team in the WNBA to turn the ball over on at least 20 percent of its possessions. Over the last month, they’re dead-last in the league in pace; New York is working the clock, and it’s paying off.
Defenses are partly responsible for slowing the Liberty down — they’re trapping Ionescu on most ball screens, sending multiple defenders to force the ball out of her hands and force New York to reset its offense. Dolson functions an outlet out of these traps to settle down her team. Once she gets the ball, she can shoot from distance or knock down floaters from the short roll. If the shot isn’t there, she can make a kickout pass or get into the next action via a handoff. She’s good at operating in small pockets of spaces, so that the Liberty aren’t flustered when the pressure comes to start a possession.
The team as a whole is relying on more ball and player movement, which is Dolson’s specialty. Head coach Sandy Brondello noted that when the ball pings around, as it did when the New York beat Connecticut, that opens things up for Dolson.
“Stef’s really dependable for us, she’s really reliable,” Sami Whitcomb says. “I know she’s going to make the right decision whether it is shooting it, whether it’s moving the ball for us.... I love seeing all that from her and I think the more we can get Stef involved in stuff, the better we are in my opinion.”
Dolson is a mean screener. As she told Holly Rowe on the ESPN broadcast of Liberty vs. Sun, “When we’re unselfish with the ball we get really good shots. We have amazing shooters. I know they like a good screen, so I’m always available.” New York puts up more 3-pointers than any other squad, and that little bit of extra daylight generated by a Dolson pick matters.
Dolson doesn’t stop screening either, often re-screening during the same possession when an initial action doesn’t yield the desired result. She’s a good case study of how even though the Liberty’s pace has come down, that doesn’t mean the team isn’t moving as much — that motion is not contained to north-south anymore, but also happening east-west, which forces opposing defenses to work more.
There aren’t many modern big skills that Dolson doesn’t possess. She can run the floor in transition, but also set up on the block and post up even the stoutest of defenders. She scored on both Bri Jones and Alyssa Thomas, two All-Star reserves, last week. She can operate as a playmaker on the perimeter, hitting cutters or freeing teammates with screens off of handoffs.
Dolson hangs defensively, mostly by protecting the paint but also using her lateral mobility — that 3x3 training certainly helped — to stay in front of guards on switches. In a league that is trending towards rangier frontcourt players, Her strength is still an asset, though it definitely helps that New York has a mobile big in Natasha Howard when opposing teams get too quick for Dolson.
Even as she is playing her best ball of the season, Dolson really isn’t the type of player to produce volume box-score stats. But she doesn’t have to when playing next to two All-Stars; all she has to do is fill in the gaps. That’s where Dolson excels: reading the floor and figuring out exactly how she can optimize the space she is given.
And after a month of growing pains, the Liberty and Dolson are figuring out how to work together as the team has the best net rating in the league in the month of June. The Year of Stef Dolson continues, one win at a time.