The New York Liberty came into this WNBA season with extremely high expectations. As mentioned in our season preview, the Liberty had an extremely successful offseason, signing many high-value free agents. They were ranked in the top tier of WNBA talent, being dubbed a “super team” along with the Las Vegas Aces. So, have they lived up to those expectations?
It’s important to note that New York and Las Vegas were in very different circumstances as the season approached, despite being categorized in the same tier. Las Vegas had very minor roster changes and the chemistry of their championship run was as strong as ever. New York on the other hand had three big changes to their starting lineup PLUS a lot of changes on their bench and players who joined the team late due to overseas commitments. Add onto that some training camp injuries and players recovering from previous injury – the Liberty and the Aces may be in the same tier, but these two teams are realistically still quite different.
Still, hopes were high as New York headed into regular-season play. I’ll cut to the chase – despite a scare when they lost their first game to the Washington Mystics – the New York Liberty seem to be right on track. They currently have a record of 4-1 and have a player who is at the forefront of early MVP predictions and talks. Let’s get into some of the reasons the Liberty have seen success early on:
Maybe you saw her 45-point game against the Indiana Fever in the Liberty’s home opener, but that game isn’t the sole bright spot for Stewie’s season so far. We can all agree Breanna Stewart is one of the most talented and decorated basketball players in the world, but somehow she just keeps GETTING BETTER. She looks especially dominant and confident this season, and it has only led to more success for the former MVP.
One of the greatest parts of Stewie’s game is just how versatile of a player she is. As the Liberty figure out who they are as this new team, Stewart has effortlessly put the burden of the offense and much of the defense on herself. She is currently averaging 25.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, three assists and nearly three steals per game. She can shoot from anywhere on the floor, is incredibly active on the glass, knows how to set her teammates up for success and is gritty on the defensive end – getting a MASSIVE black eye in the process in the game against Connecticut.
Individually, Stewie’s game stats are impressive. In that game against the Connecticut Sun, she had 21 points, six rebounds, five assists, six steals and four blocks. In New York’s game against Seattle – her first since deciding to leave the Storm during the offseason – she scored 25 points, 11 rebounds, one assist, two steals and two blocks. Even in the 45-point game against the Fever, she grabbed 12 rebounds, and added three assists, one steal and one block to her stat line. In Friday night’s game against the Chicago Sky, she masterfully got the game-winning bucket for New York. She is playing incredibly well-rounded basketball, and may be on track to play one of her best seasons ever – already at the top of many people’s MVP talks even just weeks into the season. This comes at the perfect time for the Liberty, who need her to step up while the team figures out their chemistry and everyone’s role on the team.
When in doubt, call Stewie— ESPN (@espn) June 3, 2023
Breanna Stewart with the game winner vs. Chicago pic.twitter.com/zTcLvyLeF2
Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney
The two Liberty starters who are part of both this iteration of Liberty basketball and the previous era, Ionescu and Laney have had to adjust quickly to their roles changing on this team. Last season, these two were the one-two punch of the Liberty’s offense – and don’t count them out just because the team now has a few more All-Stars on the squad.
To start with Ionescu, many pondered whether or not her change of role from primary facilitator to a role that allows her to play more off-ball would help or hinder her. One of Ionescu’s superpowers is being able to take 3-point shots from seemingly impossible distances – and this works great for her when she’s off-ball. With Courtney Vandersloot at the helm, Ionescu has been shooting 45.5 percent from three – a number that is hindered by the team’s bad night in Washington to start the season. She’s shot 60 percent from three in two of the team’s five games so far. Unfortunately, a poor shooting night in their most recent game doesn’t help the already small sample size of season stats, and Coach Sandy Brondello mentioned Ionescu was not feeling 100 percent after the game. Yet, It seems like Ionescu is settling into her new role well, and perhaps the relieving of pressure to be the No. 1 offensive presence for the team (like she had been in years past) is helping her development more.
As for Laney, she’s still a strong presence on this team in many ways. Don’t let her smaller numbers fool you into thinking she is taking a backseat on this team – Laney’s presence only demonstrates the depth this squad has. Friday’s game in Chicago was just proof of that — when Ionescu was having a slower night, Laney was able to step up and drop 17 points, three rebounds, two assists and one block. When you face this Liberty team, you can get through Stewie, JJ. Vandersloot and Ionescu and still have to deal with Laney — it’s a deep team.
One problem teams will have when defending this Liberty team this season is who to cover. In a normal scenario, you’d probably double up on Stewie or JJ – BUT in this case they can just pass it out to Ionescu on the perimeter, or Sloot or Laney for the drive, or literally dozens more scenarios. It’s incredibly hard to defend this team.
Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones
Obviously two of the biggest names to come to New York this season, Vandersloot and Jones have both been hindered by injury to start the season. Part of the slowing of the Liberty’s ramp-up was Vandersloot’s concussion, which she suffered on the first day of training camp. Jones, meanwhile, is coming off of a foot injury. As we get further and further into the season and these players heal, we are seeing more of this team’s potential.
Especially now as Marine Johannès returns to the team from overseas play. She’s another important piece to this team, and evidence that we haven’t even seen them at full strength yet so far this season. Once Johannès is fully integrated into the system, it’ll be a little easier to judge how this team performs. She had some great plays in her first game on Friday night, with some flashy assists and great looks.
Despite losing their first game, the Liberty look good. Stewart is on track to have an MVP-caliber season, Ionescu looks good so far and Vandersloot and Jones are bringing their All-Star power to the squad. The bench players are learning their roles and overall the squad looks tough.
They’ve faced some formidable opponents in Connecticut, Chicago, and Washington, but the true test for this team will be how they fare against the Aces. Still, it’s incredibly enjoyable to watch this team. They are able to get wins in dominant fashion but also close out tight games. The Liberty continue to rise and it seems to be only up from here.