May 2, 2024 

2024 WNBA season preview: New York Liberty

Healing the scar of the 2023 WNBA Finals

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When Kayla Thornton saw Nyara Sabally walk over to the New York Liberty end-of-practice huddle on day three of New York’s training camp, Thornton was elated, ran over to Sabally and gave the now second-year pro a tight and meaningful squeeze. 

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Sabally had arrived back in Brooklyn the day before after completing her first overseas season for USK Praha, which included EuroLeague participation and then the Czech League playoffs. Sabally just watched practice that day. When she was introduced and welcomed back to the group by head coach Sandy Brondello, cheers and applause followed. Sabrina Ionescu even chanted jokingly: “speech, speech, speech.”

For Thornton, there was joy in the familiarity. She had missed all of her teammates and her coaches. But alongside Thornton’s joy, she felt something else. “Ah, it felt good but then I also had a little sour taste in my mouth coming back just from how everything ended,” Thornton told The Next. “It was good and it was kind of bad too, but I’m just happy to be back.”

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In the back of Thornton’s mind was what went down over six months ago. Over six months have passed since Game 4 of the 2023 WNBA Finals. New York fell short of their championship dreams that night when their MVP Breanna Stewart shot 3-17 from the field and the team missed 13 shots within 10 feet. 

The Liberty fell 70-69 to the Aces during an evening when New York was up by as many as 12 points. The Liberty lost the game and then the championship to an Aces starting lineup that featured only three of their starters with both Chelsea Gray and Kiah Stokes hobbling around with boots and crutches.

When league commissioner Cathy Engelbert presented the Aces with their trophy in the middle of the court, boos echoed through the acoustics of the Barclays Center. The Liberty watched the Aces celebrate their second championship in a row on New York’s home floor and then parade around their space. Las Vegas took pictures, blasted a boombox and celebrated their victory all within the halls of Liberty territory. In the arena, on the Liberty’s practice courts, and in the media room. 

That evening around 17,000 people within the Barclays Center witnessed the Liberty come the closest they have in over two decades to winning a first championship. It’s a goal that every professional sports franchise has, and that fans of the New York franchise have waited over 27 years for. The Liberty fell one shot short, and a few feet wide right from continuing to fight for what their loyal fan base has never experienced. 

Jason Sudeikis smiles for the camera
Jason Sudeikis smiles for the jumbotron as one of the many fans in the building during WNBA Finals Game 3 against the Las Vegas Aces at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on October 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The franchise comes into a new season six months later with the same goal that they had a year ago: to win this elusive first championship. The starting lineup of Stewart, Jonquel Jones, Courtney Vandersloot, Betnijah Laney-Hamilton and Ionescu, which first began this journey together last spring, returns to try again.

But the 2024 Liberty’s journey to return to the WNBA Finals will be accompanied by some new faces, and some new challenges. But this journey also comes with a refined understanding of what the franchise accomplished and even gained alongside falling short of a title.

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Differences that a year together makes

The feel inside Liberty training camp this season is unlike any since Jonathan Kolb was hired as general manager and Joe and Clara Wu Tsai have owned the franchise. There’s always been an intensity, but this spring there’s a calm and a confidence, a lack of disturbance. There isn’t a lot of anxiety surrounding who’s coming in and out of practice and who can’t practice due to injury. 

Practice sessions have had a flow state and an added comfort, something that New York just hasn’t had in recent memory. “100 percent,” Brondello said on Tuesday when asked about how training camp has felt unworried so far. “Last year was like number one, we didn’t have Stewie here. Slooty was concussed. JJ was coming back from an injury. So we only had two [starters]. It just takes you to another level where you can continue to grow and do what you’ve done.” 

Even before the Liberty’s roster was primed to contend last season, New York has had a star-crossed history keeping its star players healthy going into the start of the season. Laney-Hamilton was out for most of the 2022 season following two different surgeries on both of her knees within a 7-month span. In 2021 Natasha Howard arrived from a season overseas and sprained her MCL just games into her first season with the Liberty. 

But since then, New York’s front office has invested more in player performance and injury risk management. It’s not just the starters that are in their second season together. The Liberty’s robust four person performance team is in its second season together, too. It’s been four years since the WNBA bubble when head athletic trainer Terri Acosta and one of the Liberty’s former assistant coaches in Dustin Gray were the only two who monitored player health and wellness closely. 

In 2024, New York has been judicious so far monitoring player loads, especially for Jones, the only Liberty starter who played a full season overseas including a five-game WCBA finals series just last week. Jones had what Brondello called a “medium day” on Sunday, and then on Tuesday she had an off day to rest. Newcomer Kennedy Burke took Tuesday off also. Burke came from playing for French Club Villeneuve, an underdog that made it to the EuroLeague finals.

“So we just build it up,” Brondello told The Next about managing the bandwidth and loads of her players. “We don’t go crazy. We track numbers in that. So we just got to be smart with it with all of our players and it really it’s they’re professionals so we communicate to them.”

For the Liberty’s returning players (the starters, Thornton and Sabally) there’s less of a worry about overwhelm. Brondello has preached to the returners that this season is about them taking ownership of this team and being leaders who show and tell the newcomers and rookies what is expected and required to wear the seafoam and black. This has already begun.

Betnijah Laney hi-fives Jonquel Jones
Betnijah Laney (44) hi-fives Jonquel Jones (35) during WNBA Finals Game 3 against the Las Vegas Aces at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, NY on October 15, 2023. (Photo credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

Following practice on Tuesday, a staff member asked 2023 draft pick Okako Adika how she thought camp went that day. The young wing spoke about how hard learning the Liberty’s defensive principles has been. Liberty defensive stalwart Laney-Hamilton was sitting near this conversation taking a breather before going in for treatment. She decided to impart some advice to Adika about how she handles timing switches with teammates. Laney-Hamilton explained that communicating with teammates beforehand about how they like to handle switches and pick and roll coverages on the floor is what leads to fewer mistakes during practices and games. 

Laney-Hamilton reminisced about how she and Vandersloot routinely would discuss this, and after a year of communicating and working on those switches, they’ve become so much more comfortable. That’s the difference that a full season makes. Ionescu agrees. It’s refreshing to not have to start from scratch for the first time in Ionescu’s pro career. 

“This time last year I was meeting Courtney [Vandersloot]  as a teammate for the first time,” Ionescu said on Sunday. “JJ, Stewie [too]. And it was, we didn’t know each other and so now being able to just have one year under our belt, training camp in itself feels different. Having a returning starting five and core group helps so much from now as we’re building off of where we were last year instead of starting from scratch. “So you can feel that, you can feel that energy and that chemistry continuing to build and it’s just really fun to see. I mean, we had such an intense training camp day one, because we’re able to pick up where we left off.” 

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Changes and Adjustments to monitor in 2024

When Kolb spoke to reporters following the Liberty’s Game 4 loss last October, he stressed that his mission during the offseason was going to be reconstructing the Liberty’s bench in an effort to improve their defensive ability and versatility, something that was inconsistent against teams with slashing guards including Las Vegas. He explained that an idea could be to add length and athleticism to the perimeter and thin out the front court in favor of more multi-positional wings. While the Liberty swung at Nneka Ogwumike, their response to that miss was to add to the roster exactly that. 

In year two of title contention, the Liberty’s projected bench will feature more players that can play multiple positions on the wing. In 2023 the Liberty had as many as five players who played center, and in 2024 they’ll most likely only have three in Jones, Sabally and Stewart. The Liberty will be expecting more out of Sabally in her sophomore season as she’s been promoted to be the first big coming off the bench, or the “third post,” a role previously held by Stefanie Dolson prior to her ankle sprain last season.  “The third post gets more minutes,” Assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next. “She had a great offseason. She played very well in Prague. I think she’s ready for this role, and I think she’ll help us.” 

Nyara Sabally smiles while sitting on the bench.
New York Liberty forward Nyara Sabally (8) before the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on June 27, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Thornton agrees but also wants to see Sabally get more vocal in year two. She knows how instinctual Sabally is, and would like to see the sophomore use her voice in leadership a bit more. “More aggressive, you know what I’m saying,” Thornton said. “Talking more, being vocal, I think she has got a lot to say, but I think she just felt a little intimidated. But she was a rookie.”

With Thornton and Sabally serving as the first wing and post to check in off the bench respectively, who else will join them? With prioritization in full swing this year, the only players who haven’t arrived in Brooklyn are rookie multi-positional wing Leonie Fiebich and second year ball handler Ivana Dojkić, two other vital bench cogs that will be vital to New York’s success and preserving the bandwidth of the Liberty’s starters.

Both Dojkić and Fiebich’s estimated time of arrival in Brooklyn depends upon how their overseas clubs finish out their domestic postseasons. Fiebich’s Spanish team Zaragoza plays in the Spanish league semifinals against Valencia on May 2 and May 5. If Zaragoza doesn’t advance, Fiebich will come right over. But if Zaragoza advances to the finals, Fiebich will remain in Spain for another week. Dojkić should be in New York sooner rather than later. On Wednesday her Italian Club Bologna fell to Passalacqua Ragusa, 74-57, in game three of the Italian league quarterfinals.  Her team lost two out of three games, and Wednesday’s loss ends Dojkić’s overseas season.

With Fiebich and Dojkić’s arrival times still being determined, that leaves open opportunities for the Liberty’s 2024 11th overall draft pick Marquesha Davis to get more reps. That trio is expected to make the final roster of 11 players.

Point guard Shooting guardSmall forwardPower forwardCenter
Courtney VanderslootSabrina IonescuBetnijah Laney-Hamilton Breanna StewartJonquel Jones
Sabrina IonescuIvana DojkićKayla Thornton Nyara SaballyNyara Sabally
Ivana DojkićLeonie FiebichLeonie FiebichKennedy Burke Breanna Stewart
Breanna Stewart Betnijah Laney-HamiltonKennedy Burke Kayla Thornton
Betnijah Laney-HamiltonMarquesha DavisMarquesha DavisBetnijah Laney-Hamilton
Breanna Stewart
A projected New York Liberty depth chart going into the 2024 season.

But the delay for Fiebich and Dojkić could leave an opportunity for the Liberty’s participants in training camp including Adika, 2024 draft picks Esmery Martinez and Jessika Carter, undrafted Jaylyn Sherrod, Brianna Fraser, Rita Igbokwe and Japanese player Stephanie Mawuli

Mawuli is in her second year at Liberty camp, and she alongside all the aforementioned above are going to be the bucket of players that New York chooses from if or when they need hardship players. 

While the Liberty will have 11 players to start the season prior to the Olympic break, they will look to add a 12th if they can stay healthy. Who might that person be? It might be someone who was in camp, or WNBA players who are prioritizing the Olympics. Marine Johannès returning to the Liberty after the Olympics currently isn’t off the table. It will just depend on what the Liberty’s health situation looks like and how much cap space they have heading into August.

But with restructuring the bench comes with a commitment to integrating them and solidifying which combinations lead to success. And from Brondello this appears to be a priority after multiple questions from reporters last season about how the bench could have been used more than it was. 

“It’s a long, compact season,” Brondello said on the day training camp  opened. “We start with five [games] in 10 days so, our starters probably all want to play a lot but we’ve got to be-– I’ve got to be smarter this year, not to kill them too early.”

And the Liberty can’t afford to “kill” the starters this year especially with Breanna Stewart and most likely Sabrina Ionescu playing in Paris for USA Basketball. While Stewart is quite used to this grind — this will be her third time doing this — the Liberty saw what happens to Stewart when she’s overextended. Her performance on the court plummets.

When Brondello and Lange reflected upon the 2023 season following the new year, they brainstormed, alongside other assistants Zack O’Brien and Roneeka Hodges, about ways they could attack this bench integration project. 

They realized as a staff that they could practice differently, and have begun in training camp by splitting the starters and Thornton, splitting the top six players into three groups alongside the role players and younger players at camp. For Thornton, starting this process at the beginning rather than the end, and in the postseason,  is going to help tremendously. 

“That allows me to also play with Stewie, that allows me to play with Sloot, that allows me to play with Sabrina and kind of get intertwined with how we play,” Thornton said.  “And it’s not just okay, the starting five and then it’s like us mixing together. So when we are in a lineup that is mixed together, there’s nothing brand new about it.”  

Sandy Brondello claps her hands.
New York Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello claps her hands during WNBA semifinals game 3 between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, CT, on September 29, 2023. (Photo Credit: Domenic Allegra | The Next)

The scar the New York Liberty now have

Since October 18, 2023 the Liberty have grieved that Game 4 loss. They’ve all thought about what could have been. The pain of that loss felt so intense because everyone on that 2023 roster and on New York’s basketball staff wanted to win so badly.

“I think our players wanted to win it more than anything for our fans as well and for the city because the energy in the building, the support we had, was unreal,” Lange said. “I think besides winning it for us and for this organization, for the city and the fans, I think one of the biggest drivers. And then to fall short was very painful.”

When Vandersloot was asked about this grief that she and the team carry over a month ago while at the Hospital for Special Surgery, she explained how while it’s going to be something that lingers, the thought of how last year ended can’t become all encompassing. “We have a lot of things, a lot of steps that we need to take before we’re even talking about that,” she said.

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Brondello has already created an extended metaphor to help herself, her staff and her team understand how to remember what happened, but not let it distract from all of the other tasks at hand. Essentially falling in Game 4 gave the Liberty a scar. It’s a feeling and a moment that they’ll be reminded of, but it shouldn’t feel like an open wound does. “It’s not like a scar, that’s gonna keep me down. It’s a scar where scars heal,” Brondello said. 

Lange added that not only was he impressed with his wife’s metaphor — apparently he’s the one more into figurative speech and symbolism — but he believes that this allegory is apropos. 

“I love the metaphor because we all know a scar is harder than the tissue before,” he said. “The scar usually does not break again at least in that spot. So that means when the scar heals, you are stronger for it.”

That’s what the Liberty want to be in 2024: stronger.

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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