Of the three marquee free agents who signed with the New York Liberty during the 2023 offseason, two—Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot—brought championships with them to Brooklyn, with Stewart winning two titles with the Seattle Storm in 2018 and 2020 and Vandersloot triumphing in 2021 with the Chicago Sky.
Jonquel Jones twice has come up short in the WNBA Finals, losing the Washington Mystics in 2019 and the Las Vegas Aces last season as a member of the Connecticut Sun.
Yet, if the Liberty are to defeat the Aces and win the franchise’s first championship, Jones, not Stewart or Vandersloot, must lead. From the moment Game 1 of the WNBA Finals tips off at 3 p.m. ET on Sunday afternoon in Las Vegas, Jones needs to be in Bahamian Beast-mode, playing with assertiveness and aggression on both ends of the floor.
Jones swung the Liberty-Aces season series
There already is evidence that Jones is the x-factor in the Liberty’s matchup with the Aces.
In late June, when Jones still had not settled into the season due the lingering effects of an offseason foot injury and the subsequent unfamiliarity with her new team context, the Liberty struggled against the Aces, dropping the first game between the two teams, 98-81. Jones had an efficient 13 points, but grabbed only six rebounds.
When the teams met again in early August, the Liberty flipped the script, blowing out the Aces, 99-61. Jones’ scoring output again was modest with 12 points, but she swallowed a game-high 14 rebounds. A similar scene played out in the Commissioner’s Cup Championship, as the Liberty were victorious behind Jones’ 16-point and 15-rebound MVP-winning double-double. Two days later, the Aces avenged the loss, in large part because Jones was beset by foul trouble. While all other members of the Liberty finished with a negative plus-minus, Jones was a plus-7 in her 24 minutes.
In the final contest between the two teams, foul trouble again limited Jones. Yet in her 17 minutes, she corralled 10 rebounds, helping the Liberty dominate the boards on their way to an authoritative 94-85 win.
In short, when Jones played with force, good things happened for New York.
Jones can swing the WNBA Finals
Jones must bring that force to the Finals stage.
In her previous Finals appearances, Jones has been inconsistent, tending to follow up MVP-caliber performances with more muted efforts. Unlike her Sun teams of 2019 and 2022, this Liberty squad does not need a scoring explosion from Jones. The fine-tuned finesse with which the 6-foot-6 Jones can play makes her aesthetically-pleasing athletic marvel. Yet, it is grittier, grimier Jones who must set the tone for the Liberty in Game 1 and throughout the series, using her size, strength and length to own the interior.
She showed this version of herself in closing out her former team in Game 4 of the semifinals, swiping a critical steal in the game’s waning moments after securing several crucial rebounds to eliminate the Sun and send the Liberty to the Finals.
Thus far in the playoffs, Jones has dominated the boards; her 12.8 rebounds per game exceeds the best regular-season rebounding effort of her career. After averaging 1.3 blocks per game in the 2023 regular season, she has swatted 2.2 shots per game in the playoffs. In another sign of Jones’ elevated activity, she’s also getting to the line for almost six free throws per game compared to just two during the regular season.
Like the Sun, the Aces, especially A’ja Wilson, willingly play with physicality. Jones must not only absorb Wilson’s blows but also unleash her own. As evinced by Wilson’s offensive struggles against the Liberty, Jones’ length can bother the 2022 MVP and Finals MVP, forcing her into an inefficient afternoon. On the other end, Jones has to play in a way that requires Wilson to guard her, establishing herself early in the post and cleaning the glass for second-chance points. If the back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year has to direct all her energy to Jones, Stewart likely will face a mismatch against which she can feast.
With her decision first to join then Liberty and then accept a reduced offensive role, Jones has proven with her actions that she is willing to sacrifice to win the ultimate prize. In Game 1, she must step up in her sacrificial role, dominating through the dirty work. If Jones and the Liberty win the rebounding battle and score more points in the paint, they should be in prime position to steal Game 1.
No. 2 seed New York Liberty (0-0) vs. No. 1 seed Las Vegas Aces (0-0)
When: Sunday, Oct. 8 at 3 p.m. ET
Where: Michelob ULTRA Arena in Las Vegas, NV
How to watch: ABC
Liberty injury report: Han Xu (out; not with team)