August 6, 2023 

Why the New York Liberty can’t wait to have Stefanie Dolson back on the floor

When Stefanie Dolson returns she’ll anchor the Liberty’s talented but less vocal second unit

Before tipoff at Target Center, Stefanie Dolson strutted in behind her teammates. She didn’t jog and wasn’t in uniform like the rest of her teammates. She was strutting in with a Jordan brand red and white tank to accompany her lightly washed distressed jeans. Dolson sprained her ankle in Atlanta six weeks ago and hasn’t played since June 25.

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Moments later, she was dancing like she was at a wedding. She was punching her arms in front of her while getting her team ready for the starting lineups while a remixed version of Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It.”

On the 2023 New York Liberty, Dolson wears a lot of hats. Not only is she the team’s back-up center when she’s healthy, but she’s the team’s resident hype person. On Friday night, she ran through the starters handshakes at lightning speed, as that’s par for the course when a team is on the road. She slapped hands with Courtney Vandersloot, walked onto the floor, screamed out loud when Sabrina Ionescu approached her, jumped into Betnijah Laney before she walked onto the floor, whipped off Breanna Stewart’s shoulders once her name was called and finally did an alternate version of the summer camp hand game slides with Jonquel Jones.

This is a role, the resident hype woman, that doesn’t go unnoticed by New York’s starters. Especially Stewart, who played with Dolson while the two were in college at the University of Connecticut.

“A personality like Stef’s is really important for our team just because, you know, fun loving, makes sure that she knows when moments are serious but also when she can be playful and keep the energy light in the room,” Stewart told the Hartford Courant’s Lila Bromberg back in late June. “Obviously we’re in the biggest sports market in the world, obviously there’s a lot of talk about what we did in free agency and what we’re going to do on the court now, but Stef is helping us kind of stay engaged and stay in the moment.”

But helping the team stay engaged and full of energy isn’t her only responsibility. When she’s healthy, Dolson serves as one of the team’s most vocal on court communicators. Even while sidelined, she still makes sure that she tells the active players what she’s seeing during games. Head coach Sandy Brondello has often spoken about her like she’s a coach. And while Dolson has been recovering, her spot on the bench has been right next to the Liberty’s coaching staff rather than intermixed with her other teammates. As I said, she wears many hats.

But Dolson’s most integral hat is the way in which she role models what it means to sacrifice, a postulate that early on the newly acquired star players of this Liberty team explained would be key to the success of the collective. While she’s only played in 11 games this season, what Dolson contributes and what she will when she returns shouldn’t go unnoticed. What she provides will make the Liberty not only a better team but a more well-rounded one.

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Dolson’s best offense is in creating for others

There are four current Liberty players that have more than 500 career assists. They include Vandersloot, Stewart, Ionescu and Dolson. In each of her ten seasons of WNBA basketball, the 6’5 Dolson has averaged over an assist per game. Last season in her first year with New York, she averaged 1.8, her highest average since her 2019 season with the Chicago Sky, where she finished with 2.2 per game.

And while Dolson has seen the floor in 137 minutes this year, the Liberty move the ball much better when she’s on the floor. According to PBP stats, the Liberty have a much higher stat value in assists per 100 possessions and assist points per 100 possessions when the center is on the floor. 

StatStat value with DolsonStat value without DolsonNet Value
Assists per 100 Possessions32.13029.4772.65
Assist Points per 100 Possessions75.81271.5274.29

But even without Dolson on the floor for the past six weeks, the center has been playing close attention to her team’s success and has noticed what constitutes as the Liberty playing at their best and what are the qualifiers for elite Liberty basketball.

“I think we’re at our best when everyone’s touching the ball and we’re moving it and we have great pace,” Dolson said prior to the Liberty’s July 30 game in LA against the Sparks. “And everyone’s involved. You know, you see the games that we win, we have five to six people in doubles figures because we’re moving that ball.”

But it’s not just the assists or ball movement that allow Dolson to create for others. Throughout her decade in the WNBA, she’s been lauded as one of the premiere screeners in the league. She spaces the floor by not just her ability to shoot the long ball—which she’s shot at a career 37.9 percent clip—but via using her body to allow more time for her teammates to create around her. She puts a wall between the opposing defense and her Liberty teammates.

But it doesn’t have to be a wall that’s perpendicular to the ball handler or teammate that comes off the screen. Dolson’s understanding of angles and knowing where to put her feet to interrupt and slow down the path of a defender factors into her exceptional screening.

Imagine how many assists Dolson would have if screening assists counted. She’d have way more than just 511 for her career.

Will Dolson’s return unlock the Liberty’s bench depth?

Especially in the month of July, the Liberty’s bench and its ability to contribute when called upon was in question. One of New York’s most jarring growing pains has been how the starters and the reserves haven’t always meshed as well. Part of the reason was simply due to a lack of reps in practice that the different combinations got, in addition to head coach Sandy Brondello’s philosophy that the starters needed to build the chemistry that they couldn’t in training camp. The Liberty once again had a disruptive April.

But another reason for the bench’s noticeable struggles is because they are without Dolson, a player who adds a voice to a group that’s either new to how the Liberty play, very young, or just not natural communicators. “Marine’s not very talkative, Joce[lyn Willoughby] hasn’t played a lot, K[ayla] T[hornton] she just plays her role, that’s the role we put her in. Nyara [Sabally] is young. So there’s not a lot of assertiveness in that regard.”

Without Dolson, the Liberty’s bench and starters not miss facilitation but the space she creates. While Dolson has been sidelined, Brondello has opted to bench lineups where Kayla Thornton moves to the four and Stewart shifts over to the five. Usually Thornton is accompanied by Marine Johannès are the first two off the bench. Prior to Dolson’s injury, Thornton would primarily come in to relieve Laney rather than starting center Jonquel Jones.

While there’s an intrigue here defensively and in transition where the Liberty can throw out a smaller and more athletic group, in the halfcourt and quarter quart is where this lineup really struggles. Johannès, in particular, has struggled in these situations when there isn’t a true center on the floor. While she can create more off the dribble than Ionescu, who mostly needs pick and roll screening to produce offensively, Johannès is at her most confident and comfortable when she has a traditional big screening and spacing for her.

Against the Minnesota Lynx on Friday night, this was quite noticeable. While the entire roster has been more intentional about getting Johannès involved in the actions as of late, there’s an expectation for her to create without ample time off the screening. When Stewart would screen for Johannès, the Liberty’s big wing would scramble immediately instead of pausing a little to cause some resistance for the defenders in opposition.

While the narrative around Johannès has been that she needs to be more aggressive, more confident and not so intimidated by the superstars she’s playing with, the players around her need to help her too. Johannès has been intentional about finding Stewart in spots on the floor when she can pop, but that sacrifice goes both ways. The dip in Johannès field goal percentage from June into July is explained by the amount of newness she and her teammates had to adjust to, but without Dolson, she couldn’t play as freely and in as much space. 

Marine Johannès’ statistical splits this season month by month. Statistics via WNBA Stats.

Marine Johannès statistical splits this season month by month—statistics via WNBA Stats.

“We miss her intelligence out there,” Courtney Vandersloot said to a group of reporters on July 8.”We can really kind of play free with her because she’s such a good playmaker for the post position, the high post.”

And Dolson knows this. She understands that Johannès, Thornton and the rest of the bench view her skillset as connective tissue. She explained pregame prior to the Liberty’s second game in a row against the Sparks that when she returns, her role is to “anchor the second unit.”

“I know when the starters come out and our second unit goes in that we have to keep the energy high,” she said. “We have to keep the pace high, the moving the ball.”

Dolson’s value as the Liberty’s fifth coach 

While Dolson will be expected to anchor the bench unit, her value isn’t only in managing the reserves. The starters value the way in which Dolson organizes all the players on the floor, constantly communicating with her voice and non-verbally to make sure each player knows what the Liberty are in and how they want to execute.

Brondello often calls upon Dolson during film sessions, asking her to tell the group what she sees. Imagine that student in class that a teacher can always call on and rely upon to help the class move along. That’s Dolson.

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“I tell them to talk about what they see, and Stef sees it perfectly,” Brondello told The Next. “She’s like a coach.”

And she communicates like one as well. Rookie Nyara Sabally has spoken about moments that even while Dolson has been on the sidelines, the veteran center takes the time to get in Sabally’s ear each time the rookie leaves the floor. Dolson always makes sure that Sabally “knows where to go” and that she isn’t “falling behind” on New York’s scheming.

Assistant coach Olaf Lange explained that what makes Dolson such an effective communicator isn’t just that she’s vocal but rather how she’s vocal and the quality of what she’s saying rather than the quantity.

“She also understands what to say,” he said. “As coaches, we say, talking is, everybody can talk and while this is true, it’s also not true because if you talk in basketball, there has to be an IQ behind it. You can’t just ‘bla bla.’ You can’t just [say] ‘ball, ball, ball.’” There isn’t IQ behind it.

“Talk has to facilitate certain defensive schemes and actions and rotations or non rotations. You have to know what to say and when to say it and you have to have an awareness of what’s going on… the talk on defense, there’s a lot of basketball IQ.”

And that’s exactly how Dolson helps the Liberty most defensively. While she isn’t the most skilled one-on-one defender or rim protector like Laney, Stewart, or Jonquel Jones, Dolson’s strength is how she knows where to be at the right times. She knows when to rotate. She knows when to switch.

According to Brondello, defense is: “30 percent athleticism, 60 percent heart and 10 percent skill, knowing the system, where do we want positioning.” Dolson has 70 percent of that.

But now, what does that communication look like on the offensive end? In one offensive set against the Atlanta Dream on June 13, Dolson directed Betnijah Laney to space and move to the left wing rather than the left pocket. While Laney missed the shot moments later, she was wide open. Dolson’s communication helped her get there and gave the Liberty an opportunity for a high percentage shot.

And then almost another whole quarter later, Dolson not only screened three separate times for different teammates, but she directed Laney again to move the ball horizontally instead of immediately into Stewart.

“Stef is very vocal,” Laney said prior to the Liberty’s game Friday night against the Lynx. “So her coming back you know we’ll have that extra communication bit that you know she brings even when she’s not out there with us. You know, she’s poised and experienced on both ends of the floor. And so, you know, we’ll look to her when she comes back. So we’re just excited that she’s almost there and can’t wait to have her back.”

The Liberty can’t wait to have Dolson back for all that she creates and communicates on the floor, but they also value her dedication to those around her and her innate ability to make anyone feel comfortable. She creates winning environments.

When the Liberty signed Dolson to a two-year deal in February of 2022, they weren’t the only team that was interested in what she provides to any team she’s on. Annie Costabile of the Chicago Sun-Times reported extensively on Dolson’s free agency journey, and over 40 percent of the W, exactly five different teams, were interested.

It ranged from the 2022 title chasing Seattle Storm, Chicago Sky and Las Vegas Aces to the rebuilding Atlanta Dream. What’s the common thread here: all of those teams wanted to win and wanted to do so with a healthy team culture.

“She’s been in a lot of positions, she’s won championships,” Ionescu said. “She knows what it takes. And when teams go on runs, you can rely on Stef.”

And when she returns, which Brondello hasn’t put a timetable on, not wanting to rush her veteran center back, New York will get more ball movement, better spacing, better communication and a teammate who knows how to win. Or, as Johannès says, she’ll help in every aspect of the game.

“She puts a lot of energy on the court,” Johannès said. “She’ll always be the one that’s positive also. She’s moving without the ball and I think that can help us on the offensive part. And yeah, she’s just a great teammate, like she will help a little bit on every part of the game.”

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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