February 23, 2024 

How the New York Liberty retooled their bench during free agency

What new signings Kennedy Burke, Ivana Dojkić and Leonie Fiebich will bring to New York in 2024

The start to 2024 hasn’t been as dramatic for the New York Liberty as these winter months were just a year ago. There haven’t been giant press conferences with new players flexing their best New York styles. The term “superteam” isn’t fresh and new, but rather an expectation for WNBA discussions. 2023 was a bit of an anomaly, and not just for the New York Liberty but for the WNBA itself.

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And just because the Liberty weren’t able to land Nneka Ogwumike doesn’t mean they haven’t accomplished major objectives in the offseason. New York re-signed Jonquel Jones to a multi-year deal, a player who received interest from almost every team in the WNBA. The Liberty also cored Breanna Stewart on the first day that a player could be, though we had been expecting as much ever since general manager Jonathan Kolb broke the news himself during the Liberty’s exit interviews.

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But the most difficult and least clear objective for Kolb, head coach Sandy Brondello, and their staff has been figuring out a path to improving defensively. After all, the Las Vegas Aces backcourt had leaned into the Liberty’s most apparent Achilles heel, perimeter defense, during their 4-game defeat of New York during the 2023 WNBA Finals. But in 2024, Kolb is improving the Liberty’s defense not through the starting lineup, but those coming off the bench.

Jonathan Kolb shakes <a rel=
Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb celebrates with Sabrina Ionescu after the Liberty moved onto the WNBA Finals against the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT on October 1, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

“I think we can look at our bench and I think we can continue to augment there and improve if we can get longer … this year we were very big heavy on the bench,” Kolb said back in October.  “We might shift that. You can add another wing, you can make that a ball handler, what have you, but we have to improve our defensive presence off the bench. And that’ll give us more options in different series.”

In 2023, the Liberty’s bench was a group of players that had been lauded prior to the start of the 2023 season as the most talented and deep bench in the league. The Next‘s Howard Megdal famously called the New York Liberty roster a “Noah’s Ark” simply because the Liberty nearly had two players for each position and role. But as the 2023 regular season and playoffs came and went, it was noticeable that there were potential contributors sitting while the starters continued to work out their chemistry. Brondello mostly trusted Kayla Thornton, Marine Johannès and, when healthy, Stefanie Dolson to relieve the starters when exhausted or in foul trouble.

New York’s bench wasn’t bad, but rather on a very tight leash and without a large margin for error. According to PBP Stats, the Liberty had a net rating of -4.8 when just one starter was on the floor, but with at most two starters on the floor, that net rating jumped up slightly to -4. The group with around one starter played 73 total minutes, while the group with about two played 324.

What does this reveal? Relative to the rest of the league, the Liberty’s bench lineups ranked higher in the net than most, but they played significantly fewer total minutes.

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Last season, the Liberty didn’t have a lot of reliable flexibility in situations where their starters struggled. When the Liberty lacked defensive firepower, Thornton was inserted. Or when Courtney Vandersloot looked like she was out of gas, Johannès was called upon to up tempo, score, handle and move the ball. When Jones got into foul trouble, Dolson appeared. But there was a clear drop off in defensive ability, and athleticism, at the center spot. Also, who could relieve Betnijah Laney or Breanna Stewart? Those answers were quite difficult to come by.

With Johannès’ availability for the 2024 season doubtful, but not impossible — I too can confirm that prioritization won’t impact her this season if the Liberty choose to bring her over after the Olympics — the Liberty made sure they’d be able to offset the loss of her shooting prowess and athleticism with German rookie Leonie Fiebich. With her 6’4 size and long arms, Fiebich can play on the wing at the two and the three, in addition to some at the four depending on the matchup.

When New York headed into free agency, they set out to sign players, in addition to Fiebich, that fit the attributes of three different roles: multi position wing, backup ball handler and a backup big. In one way or another, the Liberty have already fulfilled at least two-thirds of those needs with less than two months until the 2024 draft.

Kennedy Burke could fill a critical role 

Kennedy Burke points her finger out to give credit
Kennedy Burke (25) points her finger out to give credit during the WNBA game between the Atlanta Dream and the Washington Mystics at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington DC, USA on May 24, 2022. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

When the Liberty drafted Jocelyn Willoughby, they didn’t expect her to begin her WNBA career with back-to-back serious injuries that kept her out of 2021 entirely, and most of 2022. New York envisioned a role for Willoughby where she could play the four, three and two, could slash to the basket using her strength, defend the point of attack physically and then shoot and make open threes. 

But the injuries kept her from reaching that high ceiling, and Brondello’s trust that Willoughby could produce on both ends reliably wanned. Eventually, New York decided to find someone with more professional experience that had all of those attributes and more. That’s what they will get with Kennedy Burke, the UCLA alumna who hopped around in the league as a hardship player after spending her rookie and sophomore seasons with the Indiana Fever.

Burke has caught eyes while playing for French league and EuroLeague team Villeneuve d’Ascq. She’s proven that she can score reliably and comfortably at all three levels, and defends with aggressiveness and physicality. She currently leads the EuroLeague in steals averaging 3.1 in 15 EuroLeague games. New York’s front office is excited to see how she might pair with Thornton on the defensive end — once again, two of everything.

Since Burke will be heading into her fifth year of WNBA service, how did New York sign Burke without triggering prioritization rules? There was a reason Sabrina Ionescu didn’t sign a protected contract extension last spring.

A league source told The Next that New York offered Burke a guaranteed roster spot and guaranteed money in exchange for leaving her overseas team early during the French league playoffs. As they have in the past, New York used their amenities in conjunction with championship aspirations as selling points to counter and work around prioritization. It’s also what helped Johannès prioritize the Liberty in 2023.

Multi position wing, check.

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Giving Dojkić another shot 

Ivana Dojkić dribbles while being defended
Seattle Storm guard Ivana Dojkić (18) dribbles while being defended by Natasha Cloud (9) during the WNBA game between the Seattle Storm and the Washington Mystics at Entertainment and Sports Arena, Washington DC, USA on July 07, 2023. Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra

Earlier this month, ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported that the Liberty were signing former Seattle Storm point guard Ivana Dojkić to a training camp contract. While this may have come as a shock to fans, it represented more of an “at last” moment for New York’s front office.

They’ve followed the Croatian guard’s overseas career for the past few years and were disappointed that Seattle beat them to the chase when the Storm signed and brought her over last spring. Dojkić made an impression last June when she averaged 14.7 points on 45.2% from the field and 37.5% from three and 4.7 assists in a week of play while leading Seattle’s starting unit. 

The Nexts Em Adler was impressed by Dojkić’s ability to adjust quickly and how she played with relatively high usage. “She played combo guard as a starter and was asked both to move well without the ball and lead PnRs against set defenses, creating her own shot at least as often as she was attacking tilted defenses,” Adler wrote. “Defensively, she’s been tasked with guarding the opponent’s best wing, as well as securing the backside of Seattle’s aggressive traps.”

On the Liberty, she’ll be asked to employ all of those skills at once for shorter spurts of time. That’s in part why New York is excited about Dojkić: she can lead their second units in practice, but also is able to play off the ball alongside Ionescu. It’s also notable that, while playing for the Storm last season, Dojkić played a majority of her minutes against 1st units, and shot over 40 percent from three. In New York, she’ll be primarily going up against other benches.

When Dojkić left Seattle mid-season in a contract divorce due to her decreased role as the season went on, some lauded her as being deserving of an All-Rookie selection.

Backup ball handler, check.

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Why was Nneka Ogwumike even on the table?

Shattered Glass: A WNBPA Story premiered right before free agent signing day on January 31. The documentary, which was helmed by Ogwumike, also heavily featured Jones and Stewart, and followed the Liberty’s 2023 championship run for part of its runtime. Ogwumike was shown talking to her parents about her last deep playoff run, which was over six years ago in 2017 when she led the Sparks back to the WNBA finals, but lost to the Lynx. Against a New York backdrop, and airing at the height of WNBA free agency rumors, it wasn’t hard to picture Ogwumike alongside Jones and Stewart, helping the pair bring an elusive first WNBA championship to New York.

But as New York’s true needs became more apparent, and the Liberty were looking to replace Dolson with a big that’s more athletic and has two-way talent, it became clear the Liberty didn’t push for a meeting with Ogwumike because they weren’t sure about Jonquel Jones’ plans. Ogwumike’s talent on both ends of the floor could complement Jones and Stewart, and could give them both sufficient rest. Kolb’s vision of having the best bench in the league could come straight to fruition.

Their idea for Ogwumike was that she would add reliable, two-way, All-Star caliber play coming off the Liberty’s bench. She would also help the Liberty address some of their defensive woes, and in some lineups she would allow Stewart to defend the perimeter while Ogwumike and Jones could potentially defend the post. Laney could then shift to the backcourt, leaving only Ionescu or Vandersloot on the floor with four All-Defensive players.

The Liberty pitched to Ogwumike what the Liberty had put in Stewart’s head just two years ago: Where was a place where Ogwumike could win now? New York. Where were player amenities and resources better than most WNBA teams? New York. Where was a place where Ogwumike could continue to push the WNBA forward alongside the largest media market in the world? New York.

When Ogwumike promoted her new documentary alongside Jones and Stewart in late January, that was a glimpse of what life could have been if the 8x All-Star chose New York. But she didn’t.

A league source told The Next there was confusion over the role Ogwumike wanted. Ultimately, she decided she didn’t want to come off the bench. While the situation in Seattle didn’t give her the best shot at winning now and expanding her portfolio and brand, it gave her a starting role, one she wasn’t ready to give up just yet.

Nneka Ogwumike stands in profile view with her hair in a bun and a white headband as she looks up into the distance.
Los Angeles Sparks forward Nneka Ogwumike (30) before the WNBA game between the Los Angeles Sparks and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on August 27, 2023. (Photo credit: Chris Poss | The Next)

Just like with Stewart, the initial pitch didn’t yield immediate success. But it did plant a seed, and while Ogwumike spoke about finishing her career “really strong” when she was introduced as a member of the Storm this past week, she didn’t tie herself to that end happening in Seattle. She did sign for just one year, after all.

Backup big, still working on it.

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Will the bench reach its potential in 2024?

2024 is shaping up to be the most jam packed summer for pro-women’s basketball in years, with an updated commissioner’s cup, full All-Star activities, an Olympics, and 40 WNBA regular season games to boot. It may take another long playoff run to return to the WNBA Finals, and the Liberty want to be able to insert more players with the experience and two-way skill to just plug and play.

In reimagining their bench, the Liberty valued players who would improve their athleticism and length, which they believe translates into better and more defensive activity, especially for highly tactical playoff matchups when Brondello will need more positional flexibility.

The challenge that remains for the Liberty will be the growing pains that come when you add new pieces to the puzzle. In 2023, there were a lot of those, which was in part why the Liberty’s bench didn’t get a lot of run. Brondello didn’t have the time in training camp to build that chemistry. Jones had to recover from injury, Laney had to adjust and find her niche, and Ionescu embraced a new role.

And while Burke is expected to arrive in New York in time for training camp, Dojkić and Fiebich will be reporting following their play in the Italian and Spanish leagues. They’ll most likely be late, which is allowed because they each have less than 3 years of WNBA service.

For Brondello it will be a new season, with new challenges. But back in October, she expressed that if only she had more time with the bench, maybe she could have integrated them better and in more situations. She’ll have the chance in 2024, and this time she won’t have to juggle working on chemistry within the starting lineup, barring any unforeseen injuries.

“That’s what excites me as we move forward to have more time together to grow individuals but this team collectively,” Brondello said in October. “And what we need to do so we’re not here today and not playing in Vegas and hopefully winning that first championship for New York.”

Em Adler contributed reporting to this piece.

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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