June 11, 2024 

Versatility, willingness to experiment and team culture propel Liberty

New York Liberty won five games in eight days to clinch homecourt advantage in Commissioner's Cup

If the clock was turned back a year’s time to 2023, the New York Liberty wouldn’t have been able to play five games in eight days and win them all. If the New York Liberty of a year’s past hopped in a time machine and landed in the future and had to endure the schedule of 2024, one with limited practice time and a grueling Commissioner’s Cup schedule, this wouldn’t be a team sporting a 11-2 record. 

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Imagine if 2023’s team had to endure extended time without Courtney Vandersloot, the team’s point guard who is nicknamed “the general” because of her ability to plan, execute and lead the Liberty’s offensive sets. 

In 2024 so far, the Liberty have been dealt a tough hand. They are tied with the Indiana Fever for most games played so far with 13, had to play five Commissioner’s Cup games within eight days, and Vandersloot has missed the team’s last three games which included two battles against top-five defenses in the Atlanta Dream and the Connecticut Sun. But amid a deck that was stacked against New York in the early going, the Liberty have found a way back the Commissioner’s Cup championship after winning out and will be hosting this time around.

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According to guard Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty had every excuse in the book to drop one of their Commissioner’s Cup games during a challenging stretch. Their game in Connecticut on Saturday clinched a second-straight appearance in the Commissioner’s Cup, and one that they won 82-75 in a game largely junked up by the Sun’s top defense.

“We came in here regardless of how ugly the game was looking, how kind of sloppy it was at times,” Ionescu said. “We just stay poised and played our style of basketball and I think it’s a testament to us. It shows that no matter what adversity we’re facing, how we’re feeling, we can come out and compete with the best team in the league. And so I think it’s growth for us. I don’t know if we would have done this last year. I think this would have potentially been a game we might have lost here.” 

And then a day later back at home, New York beat the Washington Mystics 93-88 without sufficient rest. After the Liberty’s victory on Sunday that clinched a Commissioner’s Cup championship at home, Jonquel Jones explained that there was a whole lot of professionalism that the team displayed during this stretch. On the bus from Connecticut back to Brooklyn players were in their Normatec recovery sleeves trying to take care of their bodies as much as they could before playing less than 24 hours later.

“I would say it’s just such a difference from last year to this year — like it’s night and day in terms of just how we’re winning games,” Ionescu said following the win against the Mystics. “Especially now like we beat Connecticut and we weren’t playing our best. We won this game. We weren’t playing our best.  We had zero offensive rebounds last game against Connecticut and we still won. So I think it’s just understanding like, we’re really figuring out how to win games when things aren’t going well and last year that wasn’t the case.”

How exactly have they done this? And how have they maintained the most assists per game, the top assist-to-turnover ratio and second best assist percentage in games since Vandersloot has been away from the team dealing with a personal situation?

Head coach Sandy Brondello has attributed the recent success to the experiences the returners had with one another a year ago. It’s not just that. It’s the willingness to experiment with the team’s versatility, Jones playing at an MVP level and many more opportunities to plug and play the Liberty’s bench unit and mix and match them with different starters. 

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New York Liberty center Jonquel Jones (35) shoots over Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones (42) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 08, 2024. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

Fixing the spacing

When the Liberty squeaked out a tight 81-78 win over the Phoenix Mercury on May 29, Vandersloot was asked after the game why the offense still didn’t have the proper flow. While the Liberty won the game, the floor spacing still looked funky dating back to New York’s two straight losses to the Sky and the Lynx earlier that month. The team, and in particular the starters, still looked uncertain moving off the ball even after a whole year playing together.

“Sometimes we’re moving too much,” she said. “We’re cutting when we shouldn’t cut, and we just need to space sometimes.”

The Liberty made an adjustment a few games ago to address this issue of moving too much and, according to rookie Leonie Fiebich, initially there weren’t clear rules and conditionals. What must happen for Ionescu and Betnijah Laney-Hamilton to get downhill? When are the moments when players need to be patient and let actions develop?

“It was just a bit clunky because we had so many people who can do so many things,” Laney-Hamilton explained after defeating the Sun on Saturday. “But understanding that space is our best friend … allows for us to penetrate and cut and find the cutter.”

Now New York operates with more patience and less jitters. If a player isn’t in the action, it’s their role to space out on the perimeter on the weak side. If that player isn’t guarded and the ball swings to them, she has the green light to shoot that open shot.  

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New York Liberty guard-forward Betnijah Laney-Hamilton (44) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 08, 2024. (Photo Credit: Chris Poss)

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Reviving some wrinkles from 2021

In Vandersloot’s absence, the Liberty have been playing Ionescu at the one, moving Kayla Thornton into the starting lineup at the three and then Laney-Hamilton shifting to the two or the secondary ball handler position. Laney-Hamilton and Ionescu have worked together in tandem as combo guards leading the offense with some help from Breanna Stewart who functions as a point forward. 

Laney-Hamilton put up close to triple-double numbers on Saturday against Connecticut making an impact in more ways than are usually required of her. She scored 10 points on 4-of-8 shooting, had seven rebounds, six assists and three steals. It was reminiscent of her All-Star season in 2021 when she was the focal point of the Liberty’s offense while Ionescu was still nursing a broken ankle. 

But in the here and now three years later, both players are healthy and more comfortable playing off each other. Ionescu has looked increasingly more comfortable playing the one in 2024 due to her offseason work and multiple USA basketball camps where she had to do so. Laney-Hamilton is finally able to play in a system that allows her to be a two-way player without worrying about her bandwidth on either side of the ball. 

On Saturday Laney-Hamilton found Ionescu often cutting at the opportune time. This was something Mystics head coach Eric Thibault noticed prior to taking on the Liberty a day later. 

“I think they really max out their shooting, not only to punish you by shooting the ball, but by getting some cuts where it’s hard to help where you don’t feel like you’re in good positions to help,” he said.  “I think they saw it … whether it was Sabrina cutting off and getting layups or using cutters to soften up defense on their shooters.” 

Laney-Hamilton learned these facilitation and ball handling skills for her mother Yolanda who was a point guard back when she played. 

“She always wanted to make sure that I could handle the ball and everything,” Laney-Hamilton told Howard Megdal on the Locked On Women’s Basketball podcast. “But she did teach me being a bigger guard, different post moves and everything. She was a point guard that could post if she needed to take advantage of situations.” 

Does that sound familiar? It should. That’s one of the many wrinkles in Laney-Hamilton’s game that makes her invaluable on the Liberty and is incredibly valuable in the modern WNBA. 

Jonquel Jones playing at an MVP level 

In the Liberty’s five Commissioner’s Cup games Jones has averaged 16.8 points, 9.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 2.2 blocks per game while shooting 60.7% from the field and 41.7% from three. 

ESPN calculated that on Saturday the Connecticut Sun only made one field goal on 16 shots contested by Jones. 

When Jones was asked what has allowed her to play at a much higher level in her second season in New York, she stated the obvious. She’s in better shape from not being injured and there’s less new learning that she has to deal with everyday. 

There was some concern earlier in the season, however, with Jones’ ability to navigate defensive congestion well. Teams put doubles on her and she was a bit flustered passing out of them. She dealt with some foul trouble against Minnesota and then again during both matchups against the Sky this season. But since that stretch, Jones has settled in.

When it comes to Jones’ touches, Brondello has found ways to flex more parts of what makes Jones special rather than what had been shown in the past. While Brondello encourages New York’s ball handlers to look for Jones early in the post, part of the idea of starting Jones out on the perimeter is that the Liberty really like her in pick-and-roll situations. Jones moves quickly through the lane, and that wasn’t always a fully-fleshed part of her game during her years in Connecticut.

She has had more discipline where she can read the situation and not get too frustrated,” Brondello said about Jones.  “We always talk about, I talk about all the time and you hear them saying it — don’t get too high, don’t get too low, control the controllables.” 

And Brondello is right. It was quite noticeable when Jones herself after the battle with the Sun on Saturday uttered that classic Brondello-ism during the postgame presser. 

Using and trusting the bench 

Brondello made it very clear in training camp that she would be making much more meaningful use of her bench this season. 

While in the first week of the season it appeared she was failing on that promise, the bench has gotten considerably more comfortable especially in the Commissioner’s Cup run. While Vandersloot and Nyara Sabally, who’s been battling a back injury for the past week, have both been out, Brondello gave players who are new to the system more time to figure out how they can impact this team.

That begins with the German rookie Fiebich who was trying to learn the physicality of this league while adjusting to how her teammates like to be passed to. In the first month of the WNBA season she’s learned that Jones doesn’t want bounce passes, although Jones certainly can distribute them and behind the back no less.  

And while Fiebich’s shots are starting to fall with more reps and more understanding of how the Liberty want to play, New York is using her defensively to pose more issues for opposing guards. With a 6’4 height and wingspan, Fiebich is quick enough to stay in front of guards while using her length to cloud their field of view on shots or on slashes to the basket. 

With Fiebich, Kennedy Burke at 6’1 with a 6’3 wingspan and Ivana Dojkić at 5’11 with a 6’ wingspan the Liberty are longer and much more switchable. It’s something that Sun head coach Stephanie White has noticed. 

“You know, offensively for us, it changes a little bit about how we look to attack because they have length and size at nearly every position because it allows them to switch multiple actions in ways that they might not have done before,” White said about New York’s bench.  

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When Brondello noticed that Laney-Hamilton was getting exhausted on Sunday against the Mystics, she brought Dojkić off the bench to handle the ball. Also, Brondello made a similar decision to rest Thornton who has been playing more minutes with Vanderloot out. Fiebich played 24 minutes on Sunday, the most in her young WNBA career. Burke played 11 minutes on Sunday and scored nine points while Jones also took a breather.

“[Fiebich] has really taken big steps up,” Brondello said. “Kennedy’s made the most of the minutes when she’s there. I thought Ivana had really good minutes for us as well. Because I thought that we needed another handler out there and at any given time the schedule as we move forward is still compact as well.”

Staying together during tough times

While Laney-Hamilton accredited the Liberty’s depth to how they’ve been able to win games without Vandersloot, she made it very clear that the team has been winning these games with their point guard on their mind at all times. 

“Before the game, we said we are doing this for Sloot, she can’t be with us,” Laney-Hamilton told reporters in Connecticut. “She has more important things to handle right now.” 

Burke added on Sunday: “No matter what, we love her. She has to take her time because we know she’s going through a tough time right now. So we love her, we’re here for her always.”

While it’s not clear what Vandersloot is going through, it appears to be serious and emotional. While the Liberty are focused and business-like on the court during games and in practices and shootarounds, they’ve appeared looser and more comfortable with one another. They aren’t afraid to be goofballs when they arrive at a hotel on the road at 3 a.m.

They have a new team inside joke spurned by Thornton’s love of Papa John’s pizza rather than the far superior pizza that hails from New York or Chicago deep dish. When the team did a film session before their matchup against the Mystics, the coaching staff called Thornton by the nickname “Papa Johns.” 

While the Liberty get some rest before they face the Las Vegas Aces for the first time since Game 4 of the 2023 WNBA Finals, this is a team that is prepared for whatever adversity they’ll face now and in the playoffs.

“We’re hungry for a win,” Burke said. “Just to keep on winning games. That’s our motivation. Just always be hungry. Be ready, play with heart.”

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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