January 17, 2023
Trading for Jonquel Jones solidifies the New York Liberty’s championship aspirations
New York adds Thornton and payroll flexibility, too
On April 15, 2020, just two days before the WNBA draft that would allow the New York Liberty to select Sabrina Ionescu, General Manager Jonathan Kolb traded away an MVP and a native New Yorker in Tina Charles. The move was representative of the franchise’s intent: with new ownership came a rebuild and complete retooling. Charles’ goals and intent weren’t aligned with the Liberty’s.
But over 1,000 days later, the tides have changed. Three more losing seasons and two first-round playoff appearances later, Kolb was now on the other side. On Sunday afternoon he was involved in orchestrating a trade that would bring an MVP back to New York, and not the one that most of the women’s basketball community expected to be the first one to wear seafoam since Charles. Jonquel Jones, the 2021 MVP that has come up short for a championship twice (in both 2019 and now most recently in 2022) will be on the Liberty this spring.
When Winsidr’s Rachel Galligan first reported the trade and our Howard Megdal reported its details, the news made the Liberty an immediate championship contender. The Liberty are a team not just knocking on the upper echelon of the league’s pecking order, but one that has barged right in. When our Em Adler and I discussed how free agency could impact the league’s status quo on Locked on Women’s Basketball, she noted that for the Liberty to move up the league’s proverbial totem pole, they were “praying” on the decision of Breanna Stewart to go their way.
But by trading for Jones now, their intent doesn’t have to rest on the decision of one superstar. In trading for Jones now and by clearing around $44,000 of cap space, New York doesn’t only leave the door open for more talent to come join Jones, Ionescu and Betnijah Laney during the negotiation period of free agency, but it also sets the franchise up for more salary cap flexibility when homegrown talent Sabrina Ionescu finishes out the final season of her rookie scale contract following the 2023 season.
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How New York enticed Jonquel Jones
When the Liberty learned of the Sun’s intent to give the core designation to MIP and 6POTY Brionna Jones, the writing was on the wall that Jonquel Jones’ time in Connecticut would end at six seasons. Two players can’t be cored at once and the franchise had made their decision to build the post-Curt Miller era around Alyssa Thomas and Brionna, a pair of Maryland alums. According to a league source, the Sun agreed to allow the 2021 MVP to speak to a short list of teams that she might want to play for. When it was the Liberty’s turn to meet with Jonquel, New York communicated to her how much the Liberty would value her presence but also how much the franchise could give her. Their pitch succeeded.
“To say I’m excited would be a huge understatement!,” Jones said in a team release following the announcement of the trade. “To the fans, future teammates and everyone that has welcomed me to New York thank you! I can’t wait to get this season going and show out in the Big Apple!!”
So what could New York give her that made Jonquel beyond excited?
The Liberty’s key stakeholders reminded Jonquel of the caliber of guards that make up the Liberty’s young core. They pointed to the assist rates in 2022 of both Ionescu (36.7% and in the 98th percentile) and French sensation Marine Johannès (22.0% and in the 80th percentile), comparing those numbers to what she had previously. She was pitched the idea of playing with guards that knew not only how to find her, but when. She was enticed by a coaching duo in Sandy Brondello and Olaf Lange that has served on championship rosters, developed future hall of farmers in Diana Taurasi and Brittney Griner and helped turn 2021 Finals MVP Kahleah Copper into the player that the Chicago Sky built its style of play around.
And lastly, Jonquel has been vocal about how while she’s considered one of the best players in the world, she hasn’t received the type of visibility, endorsement deals and marketing dollars that her peers have. In 2023, she’ll be playing for and in the largest media market in the league.
Her former head coach Curt Miller has praised Jones for her selflessness and desire to win. That’s the same type of energy and values shared by Ionescu, who is consulted on any big moves the team makes. Jones’ decision to play for New York reveals a desire to continue to give to her teammates while also wanting more for herself, and that includes another shot at a WNBA championship, something that both parties in the Liberty and Jones don’t have but are craving.
The trio and a pick that leaves Brooklyn
Once Jones had indicated that the Liberty were the team of her choice, New York had to determine who they were comfortable with trading away. In exchange for Jones and Kayla Thornton, New York dealt away Natasha Howard, Rebecca Allen, Crystal Dangerfield and their 2023 sixth overall pick.
When Howard signed her four-year supermax contract back in 2021, the Liberty’s former head coach Walt Hopkins had sold what he thought her ceiling was to New York’s front office. Hopkins believed that Howard had the potential to play the type of role that A’ja Wilson ended up assuming in the Aces’ 2022 championship season. While Howard’s first season in New York was mostly a wash due to a knee injury out of her control, her second season with the Liberty revealed a miscalculation that the front office had made back in 2021.
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While Howard had a solid second season with New York where she was an All-Star, had an obvious pick and roll chemistry with Ionescu and was lauded by head coach Sandy Brondello for anchoring the defense, with more responsibility came less efficiency. According to Synergy Sports, Howard averaged 0.871 points per possession on 612 total possessions in 2022. The MVP New York traded for in Jonquel Jones had averaged 1.014 points per possession on a total of 662 total possessions. And those were numbers from what was considered Jones’ down year. That is just one example of many that prove that Jones is a massive upgrade in the post for New York.
Dallas also received Crystal Dangerfield, who just had signed a qualifying offer with New York. A league source with knowledge of the trade told The Next that the deal in its final form might not have been completed if it wasn’t for Dangerfield. Dallas values her ability to direct an offense without scoring the ball and will pair well alongside ball-dominant guard Arike Ogunbowale. For New York in 2022, she proved to be a very quick learner of defensive schemes and had a mastery of understanding player tendencies.
In Allen, New York had to part ways with a player who before the trade was the only rostered player that was under contract when Charles was dealt back in April 2020. The only rostered player who had played for four different Liberty coaches in seven seasons. There were many reasons why Rebecca Allen had stayed in New York for as long as she did.
Her variable skillset which allowed New York to emerge as a team with better spacing and the example she set in the locker room. Allen’s approach to the game was a blueprint for the culture that New York wanted to be known for at Barclays Center.
Allen’s journey from a Bill Laimbeer benchwarmer to an impact player represented the type of standards New York wants all of its players to understand and embrace. Allen wasn’t always the most vocal leader, but her role in getting New York from constant dysfunction to a stage of exponential growth mattered. Allen almost wasn’t going to be a part of the deal, according to a league source. Initially there was some concern about the injury she sustained during the 2022 World Cup, but Connecticut ultimately valued her shooting ability, a skill that the new Sun brain trust of head coach Stephanie White and general manager Darius Taylor desperately need.
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Kayla Thornton’s fit with New York
To address New York’s holes following Allen’s departure, the Liberty got defensive stalwart Kayla Thornton in return. According to WNBA Advanced stats, the Wings maintained a 101.4 defensive rating while without her, that rating dropped all the way down to 115.9.
The point is: Thorton’s an impact player and isn’t just a throw-in. And as of now, she’s expected to be part of the Liberty’s long term vision for 2023. While the 6’1 forward isn’t the shooting savant that Allen is, since 2020 she’s made over 30 percent of her threes. Although she doesn’t have the length of Allen, Thornton definitely has the strength and screening ability that the more slender Allen does not.
Also, Thornton’s calling card has often been her toughness, an intangible that Brondello harped on at length during New York’s exit interviews back in August. She noted that it was Betnijah Laney that possessed the most toughness on the roster in 2022 and due to her injuries last season, New York didn’t have enough of that energy to get through the grind of some games. Thornton doesn’t need a lot of touches to make an impact and regardless of how many points she scores, she’ll present an unwavering effort.
In addition to the toughness and grit Thornton provides when she steps on the court, there’s a passion, thoughtfulness and care in how she conducts herself. She and Allen share the same level of work ethic and both began humbly in the WNBA. (Thornton was undrafted.) While Allen will be missed across the Liberty organization, Thornton’s skillset and personality profile fill most of the void she’ll leave.
Don’t expect the Liberty to be done
A reminder: free agency technically hasn’t truly begun yet. The negotiation period when teams can talk to free agents commences this coming Saturday, January 21. So while the Liberty’s seismic moves made a lot of headlines, the true fun hasn’t even begun.
Some thought the acquisition of Jones meant New York would be out of the Breanna Stewart sweepstakes. Think again. As of now, the Liberty have $426,799 total cap space, which is enough space for one supermax player ($234,936) and that leaves $191,863 left to re-sign Han Xu, Johannès and potentially another player for around $67,293. That could be one of the Liberty’s unsigned draftees (Raquel Carrera, Marine Fauthoux or Sika Koné) or a player signed to the veteran minimum who has less than three years of league experience.
If Stewart decides to stay in Seattle or go to another franchise, New York can resort to improving their backcourt by finding a free agent who can distribute, create their own shot and be reliable defensively alongside Ionescu. With Jones on the books for 2023, the Liberty’s trajectory toward the upper echelon of the WNBA doesn’t rest on the decision of one player.
New York can pursue a championship with at least one MVP — and possibly two.
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 and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.