June 5, 2024 

Kayla Thornton shows the Liberty how to stay ready

Kennedy Burke: ‘She just has this light and glow about her’

NEW YORK — In the first Commissioner’s Cup game of the 2024 season, the Liberty were up just one point on the winless Washington Mystics. As Mystics guard Ariel Atkins dribbled the ball up the court with over eight minutes remaining within that final frame on Friday night, Kayla Thornton’s parents heard her daughter’s voice. “Brooklyn, make some noise,” Thornton’s pre-recorded voice bellowed to the Barclays Center crowd.

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But then moments later, Thornton’s parents went from hearing their daughter’s voice in the arena to seeing the impact of their daughter’s voice and presence on the New York Liberty. 

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Thornton followed Atkins’ eyes and the ball in her hands when the Liberty forward leapt into the passing lane, and intercepted a ball meant for 21 year-old Jade Melbourne. Thornton tipped it ahead for herself as she outran Melbourne going the other way. With an open lane to the basket, she only needed three dribbles until she vaulted over into the restricted area and scored the fastbreak layup off the glass. Once she saw the ball go in the net, she flexed both of her arms and brought her fists down to her thighs. The Liberty were now up by three and Mystics head coach Eric Thibault called a timeout. 

Thornton’s mother, who was sitting in the lower bowl across the way from the Liberty’s bench, was feeling euphoric watching her daughter do her thing. From the stands, she pointed to her daughter and then proceeded to stand up and dance along with Ellie the Elephant and the Liberty’s in-game entertainers. 

Thornton called it a blessing to be able to have her parents in attendance on Friday night during a game when she scored 20 points, had 5 steals, 4 assists and 3 rebounds in the Liberty’s 90-79 win over the Mystics. Thornton’s parents, who showed up to Barclays Center in matching white Thornton jerseys, were members of the clergy. But now they are retired and get the pleasure of traveling around the country watching their daughter live out her dream. “So to be able to give back to them after all that they have done for me,” she said, “Words can’t even explain it. So to see them, I do it for them.” 

Thornton also does this not only for her family, love of the game but for the people around her on this journey each day, teammates, coaches and staffers included. In the first quarter of the 2024 WNBA season, Thornton has proven to everyone around the Liberty that she’s more than just a valuable 3-and-D option that can guard multiple positions and that provides a spark off the bench whenever that is needed. Thornton has other skills on the court and off that she’s ready to show and has. 

Prior to the postseason last fall, the Liberty signed Thornton to a two-year extension, reflecting her incredibly productive year one with New York. The Liberty’s trade for Jonquel Jones in January of 2023 could go down as one of the most pivotal transactions in franchise history. That is not just because New York acquired a former MVP in Jones which then led to another MVP in Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot signing in succession. In that trade New York also acquired Thornton, someone whose game on the floor fits what they needed after giving up Rebecca Allen and Natasha Howard in the transaction to get Jones. 

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Thornton’s simple stats didn’t leap off the page. She averaged 4.5 points, 3.5 rebounds in 17.3 minutes in 2023. But her value wasn’t in the box score but rather in advanced metrics such as defensive rating, opponent shooting and team three point shooting. And don’t forget about the moment by moment value she also provided the Liberty a season ago. She made two clutch threes coming off the bench in the Liberty’s Commissioner’s Cup Championship win last August. 

“She’s a 3-and-D [player] and does all the little grunty things [that] sometimes go unnoticed in the stat sheet but not unnoticed to us,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said on Aug. 26, 2023. “And how effective she [has been] has helped us to have a really good season.”

Kayla Thornton chats with <a rel=
New York Liberty forward Kayla Thornton (5) speaks with New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu (20) during the WNBA preseason game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 09, 2024. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

After a season of living up to expectations which included getting more comfortable playing the small forward position and guarding on the perimeter, Thornton returned to New York in 2024 with more confidence, comfort and a bad taste in her mouth from the end of WNBA Finals Game 4. Brondello repeatedly praised the training camp Thornton had. It’s clear that the eight year WNBA veteran continued to add wrinkles to her game while she was overseas during the offseason. 

This season Thornton looks more comfortable attacking closeouts from the wing, driving on smaller defenders, dribbling the ball up to begin an action and pushing the pace in transition. On Sunday against the Indiana Fever, she made an 11-foot turnaround jump shot over the outstretched arms of Grace Berger after Berger ran Thornton off the three point line. 

Thornton appears even more at ease closing out on guards on the perimeter, guarding the point of attack and stopping their drives. Brondello trusts her to do so, and noted that Thornton will be in the mix to help Betnijah Laney-Hamilton with the most potent perimeter players, as she did blocking Caitlin Clark‘s shot on a drive to the basket this past Sunday evening. 

While the shots haven’t always gone in — shooting 41.2 percent from two so far this season — Thornton has been given the green to try out newer elements of her game instead of being put into a box. Sure she has the elements of a productive 3-and-D player, but why can’t she strive to be more, too?

Kayla Thornton shoots
Kayla Thornton (5) shoots the ball over Kristy Wallace (3) in New York Liberty win over the Washington Mystics 90-79 at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on June 2nd, 2024. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd | New York Liberty).

On May 31, she had to be. She had no choice. Vandersloot was out due to a stiff back and Brondello called upon Thornton to replace the point guard in the starting lineup, her first Liberty start. She was the starting small forward while Laney-Hamilton hopped over to the shooting guard spot and Sabrina Ionescu played the point. 

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When Thornton, Ionescu and Brondello walked in for their postgame press conference on Friday night, both Brondello and Ionescu made sure media members knew who the superstar was. “Put the star in the middle,” Brondello chirped, referring to Thornton. 

But Thornton thought Brondello was referring to her teammate in Ionescu — it took Ionescu pushing her onto the riser to go sit in the middle to get the point across. Ionescu served as Thornton’s Anna Bates, guiding her around the press conference room and helping her up onto the riser since her knees were sore from 33 minutes of intense play. And when the players and their coach were done with the press conference, Ionescu kept the joke going, shielding Thornton from the fake paparazzi who wanted to take her picture coming off her 20-point performance. 

Ionescu and Thornton noted two days later that theatrics during that press conference stemmed from a greater inside joke. Ionescu explained that her teammates always prop her up as “big time,” and she felt like it was time to do the same for Thornton. 

“I’m so appreciative of being able to see how ready she was in terms of coming in and she helped win us that game,” Ionescu said. “Without her being able to do what she did, who knows how that game would have gone. I think a part of our group is always just how funny and kind of easy going we all are.” 

On Friday night and then again on Sunday against the Fever, the Liberty’s bench played a huge role in earning two straight wins. Against Indiana, New York’s bench scored 28 points, the most by the group this season. According to guard Ivana Dojkić, it’s been Thornton’s example that the new bench group of Dojkić, Burke, Leonie Fiebich and Marquesha Davis have followed in their approach to this season. 

A season ago, Brondello explained how it was Stefanie Dolson who was the vocal leader on the bench who kept the reserves engaged. But this year, that’s Thornton’s job. 

“She’s our captain on the bench,”  Dojkić said. “We always take her in a serious way but she always tries to really affect us in a positive way to give us the confidence. So how she showed today on the court, that’s how she’s showing to us on the bench. When she’s on the bench or before starting the game, she always does the right things — says the right words and just prepares us for being ready when the moment comes.”

Thornton often says what Burke has referred to as the bench motto: just stay ready. Players coming off the bench often say it. But what does it really mean? It means working hard in practice, communicating while on the floor and off. When Thornton’s teammates describe her they can’t help but calling her either “a dog” or someone with “a dog mentality.” 

When Brondello congratulated Thornton on her 20-point game on Friday night in the Liberty locker room Friday night, Jonquel Jones was barking in the background.

Vandersloot defined dog mentality as “it’s toughness, it’s no excuses. It’s just being able to do the right thing at the right time. It’s being a pro. It’s the dirty work sometimes. For [Thornton] it looks a lot different. That’s what makes her special is that you know she can do many different things, but just her toughness and her competitive spirit.”

Brondello often refers to Thornton as the ultimate professional, but her toughness and competitive nature isn’t who she is all the time. If she was, she wouldn’t have the utmost respect and love from her teammates. One moment Thornton is going hard in practice and then after practice is over, she’ll be rolling on the floor and laughing with her teammates. Or she’ll be lecturing the Liberty’s social media coordinator Charlie DeSadier about why pizza from her native Texas is actually much better than a New York slice or Chicago deep dish. 

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Thornton’s magic as a teammate is her ability to connect with everyone. She gets Ionescu joking around. Thornton teases Laney-Hamilton about how she’s only wearing Texas-inspired cowboy boots because of Beyoncè.

That’s who Thornton is and is part of the reason why Burke has felt as welcomed to the Liberty as fast as she has. 

“KT, she’s a character,” Burke said. “I feel like KT, she’s the glue of this team, honestly. She just brings that energy consistently. And just being able to be myself around her, it means a lot. She just has this light and glow about her. That’s just so contagious.” 

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.

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