February 2, 2023
How the Breanna Stewart decision places both her and the Liberty where they’ve always wanted to be
Jonquel Jones: 'I feel like the city deserves this'
THE BRONX, N.Y. — Newly acquired Liberty forward Jonquel Jones was in the gym, on the Barclays Center practice courts to be specific, when she heard the news that was heard around the women’s basketball world. Her good friend and former teammate at former Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, Breanna Stewart, was now officially going to join her in New York. Stewart’s going to join Jones in what will be a new chapter for not only both WNBA MVPs, but for the WNBA writ large.
“I was working out this morning with our assistant coach Olaf [Lange],” Jones told The Next while at BronxWorks community center for a basketball clinic in celebration of National Girls & Women in Sports Day. [Assistant General Manager] Ohemaa [Nyanin] was there in the bench line. And she said: ‘it’s official.’ I said ‘what?’ She said: ‘Stewie’s coming.’ I just started screaming.”
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Jones’ visceral reaction to Stewart’s social media post that announced the news to the world represented if the internet and in particular Twitter and Instagram could emote in a more organic way than just via emojis. Stewart herself was only communicating through emoticons for a few of weeks, just part of her very specific strategic approach to her second go at WNBA free agency.
Stewart had cooked up a plan to provide the internet with as much high drama as she could. She used motifs (the emojis), she was incredibly cryptic (the emojis once again) and then she used actual words to loudly and clearly state her intentions.
Think of it like the campaign Lady Gaga, Beyoncé or Taylor Swift rolls out to promote a new record, film or tour. It’s calculated, intentioned, incredibly well-executed and exudes a potent public reaction.
The writing had been on the wall that Stewart was going to heavily consider joining the New York Liberty during her first unrestricted free agency experience around a year ago. Once her former team, the Seattle Storm, decided to core Jewell Loyd instead of Stewart, that provided the four-time NCAA national champion with an opportunity to examine what other opportunities were out there. On Jan. 21, 2022, the news got out that Stewart took a meeting with the Liberty’s main stakeholders in Los Angeles. While Stewart ultimately returned to Seattle for Sue Bird’s final season in the WNBA, the seed in both her head and in her wife Marta Xargay’s had been planted. Stewart didn’t forget the fish dinner that included a private power point presentation. And neither did the internet. Since that meeting took place, the women’s basketball space couldn’t help but revel in the possibilities of one of the league’s faces being in the center of the largest media market in the world playing for an original WNBA franchise. The writing had been on the wall, a prophecy germinated following that January meeting.
But a lot changed for Stewart since that first January meeting in Los Angeles. Her signature shoe with Puma launched officially, and she became more outspoken than ever on league wide issues including prioritization and WNBA travel. She famously tweeted close to every single day about Brittney Griner during the time period that she was detained over in Russia. And then on December 12, she officially became a Vice President of the WNBPA’s Executive Committee. In just one year, Stewart has completely transformed into the person and the leader she wants to be, and her calculation to choose New York reflected that transformation.
“I decided to go to New York because I want to continue to be great and I want to go to the place where I can continue to help this league become better to continue to raise the standard,” Stewart told ESPN’s Malika Andrews moments following her massive announcement. “And I feel why not go to the biggest market in all of sports. And I’m really excited to go after their first championship.”
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Joining the New York Liberty isn’t just about the off-court opportunities for Stewart. Sure, Puma’s headquarters and flagship store is in the heart of New York City. The league and WNBPA’s office is located in New York as well. Her family, including her grandparents, is a car ride rather than a flight away. Joining the New York Liberty is just as much about the off court as it is about the on.
With Stewart, this is the most talented team the Liberty have ever assembled. While the Liberty’s rich history includes stints from Teresa Weatherspoon, Rebecca Lobo and Becky Hammon, there hasn’t been a combination of talent quite like what Liberty fans are going to get to see at Barclays Center later this year.
“I think it means that we’re gonna have a team that’s gonna compete at a very high level,” Jones, Stewart’s new partner in the post, said. “I think we have a really, really good group. And that’s all I really know right now, but it’s just a lot of excitement. I feel like the city deserves this, the organization deserves this, the WNBA deserves this.”
Let’s unpack Jones’ comment, shall we? First, “the city deserves this.” The last time a New York professional basketball team won a championship was in 1976. This was before the Liberty and the WNBA even existed. The Liberty organization and its fans have suffered heartbreak, and this doesn’t just mean falling short in the playoffs and Finals. The Liberty franchise was run for years without the care and passion that a WNBA franchise requires to stay afloat. A reminder: Marine Johannès made her New York Liberty debut at the Westchester County Center, a place that couldn’t seat 2,000 people. That was the level of investment that existed before Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai bought the Liberty and then consequently pulled the plug on the Westchester County Center, sending the Liberty to the Barclays Center with, eventually, a new state of the art locker room.
Jonquel Jones knows that heartbreak, the constant losing in moments when it really mattered along with a level of investment that was sub-professional. All of that hasn’t been a part of Stewart’s world and a factor during her illustrious career. But there’s a unifying quality between Stewart and the organization that she joins. There’s a mutual desire to make the WNBA a league that is well-respected and known around the world. There’s a desire to make the league better than its ever been and elevate the standard and the ways in which women and non-binary athletes are invested in. As an original franchise, the Liberty have always wanted to lead in the WNBA, and now they can alongside one of the league’s most well known faces who wants to do the same. That’s what unites Stewart and the Liberty in this new era of not only Liberty basketball but WNBA basketball.
While the Liberty and Stewart are on board, this union reveals a tier system and divide in philosophy amongst the WNBA’s board of governors, a topic of discussion that was brought to light when our Howard Megdal wrote about the league’s largest scandal: unilateral charter travel. During ESPN’s WNBA Free Agency special on Tuesday night, Holly Rowe explained how the Liberty were able to seal the deal with Stewart.
“Breanna Stewart laid out a road map for Seattle and New York to sign her,” Rowe said. “New York got it done, they… went out and got the pieces done and did what she had asked to get Breanna Stewart to sign in the big city.”
Remaining questions for the Liberty
What does this mean exactly? Did Stewart express that she wanted to play with Jonquel Jones and the Liberty were that team to get that done? Did the Liberty pledge to call another vote at the board of governors to try to install charter flights during some of the toughest moments of the WNBA schedule (i.e. coast to coast trips and back-to-backs)? Were these all items that the Seattle Storm just couldn’t provide and make happen for their homegrown talent?
Also, what about Courtney Vandersloot? She was reportedly a consideration in Stewart’s decision of where to take her career in 2023. While Vandersloot is still making her decision between the Storm, the Lynx and the Liberty, do the Liberty really *need* Vandersloot’s services if that might mean giving up a talent in Betnijah Laney that gives a team a lot on both ends of the floor and is still under 30 years old? There is a belief within the Liberty’s front office that the league is moving further away from true point guards like Vandersloot and more toward backcourts run by combo guards. They also don’t believe there are many who can create offense while guarding positions 1-4 like Laney can.
But is there a situation where the Liberty might be able to keep Laney while also adding Vandersloot? As wild as that sounds, there’s actually a path. If the Liberty have to engage in a sign and trade with the Storm to get Stewart the supermax salary, sending Michaela Onyenwere along with an unsigned draftee or two (Nyara Sabally and Sika Koné) and a future first round pick to Seattle could be an option. That leaves New York with around $142,700 left of cap space to sign Vandersloot. (This is all made with the assumption that the Liberty will sign Han and Johannès to league minimums.) Also, based on what center Stefanie Dolson has been posted on social media, it looks like she feels confident in the probability that she won’t be shipped elsewhere and she’ll be a vital cog in this New York Liberty championship chase. Stewart and Dolson are also known to be quite close in their own right, and that closeness from Dolson also extends to Vandersloot.
Even if Vandersloot doesn’t sign with the Liberty, New York is a super team and the team to challenge the Las Vegas Aces for the 2023 WNBA championship. While Stewart’s move to New York has been deemed the most impactful free agency signing we’ve seen not only this year but in the league’s history, newly signed Aces center Candace Parker thinks about it a bit differently.
“I think the most impactful free agency signing is rivalry,” she said on ESPN’s free agency special. “Because that’s that’s what every league and every successful league needs. I think that it was pretty special when the Minnesota Lynx, and the LA Sparks were going at it. I think it’s pretty special when you saw the Comets going at it with the LA Sparks earlier… in the WNBA. I think for me, the biggest impact it’s just teams that are really building to be that rivalry, and develop that rivalry. And with New York being one of the first franchises…so I think anytime we’re able to build around franchises and build teams that are going to be successful and compete for a championship, that’s going to get attention, that’s going to get fans in seats. That’s going to get coverage.”
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After years of Commissioner Cathy Engelbert trying to force teams toward rivalries that didn’t have much staying power, one in Las Vegas and New York has the potential to emerge organically and stay. When Jones was asked about the potential legacy of an Aces and Liberty rivalry while she was showing the next generation of female athletes how she puts the ball on the floor and drives to the hoop, she was a bit skeptical to go that far.
“I mean I guess if it’s something that they’re talking about 15 years and I mean I guess that means we’ve done our jobs and we played high-level basketball, but I feel like you can’t really talk about a rivalry until you’ve actually played a team,” she said. “Until then, I think I’ll stay away from calling anything a rivalry but yeah, they’re talking about the league and talking about the competition and us playing at a high level then that’s good for the league.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.