January 12, 2024
2024 WNBA free agency preview: New York Liberty
How can the Liberty retain their starting frontcourt while adding to their bench?
To begin 2024, New York Liberty owners Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai released a message to the team’s fan base, reminding people far and wide how much the franchise accomplished in 2023. Wu Tsai reminisced about almost a year ago when now-two-time MVP Breanna Stewart and second all-time assist leader Courtney Vandersloot were presented to the media as members of the Liberty for the first time.
“I remember saying that we were going to make it to the finals, bring a championship to Brooklyn and I remember saying that Barclays Center was going to be rocking,” she said.
In 2023 the Liberty accomplished two-thirds of that three-item list, a set of lofty goals that were necessary to catapulting the franchise to the top of the WNBA, a place the Liberty haven’t properly graced since the early novelty years of the W, which saw Teresa Weatherspoon taking one of the most wild and gutsy shots in basketball history.
While to fans the Tsais spoke about all of the good and what was accomplished in such a critical year, which included reinvigorating New York’s fan base, the most important item on that list has yet to be achieved. The Liberty fell short of bringing a WNBA championship to Brooklyn by two games and were a hair away from forcing a Game 5 in Las Vegas.
On the inside, however, New York’s front office has been chomping at the bit devising new plans and strategies as to how to get even better than a 32-8 regular-season record, a 109.6 offensive rating (second) and a 99.4 defensive rating (third). New York’s basketball operations staff has viewed this offseason pretending they didn’t even make the playoffs in 2023, and for them nothing will be off the table.
Going into this free agency season, the Liberty have a very similar set of goals compared to where they were a year ago: to do whatever it takes to become championship contenders. But now that they are contenders, they are going to have to strike a balance between striving for continuity, something that during Jonathan Kolb’s tenure as general manager has been difficult for New York to retain, and also weighing that against the reasons the Liberty couldn’t win the 2023 WNBA championship.
How can the front office keep a lot of what went right about 2023 alongside fixing what held them back from their ultimate goal? While the Liberty’s 2024 free agency season might not be as bombastic and dramatic as it was last year, expect for New York to be flexing its resources and assets as it looks to build another team going for a championship.
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Filling in the starting frontcourt
When it comes to ensuring New York’s desired roster continuity, that process begins with getting both Stewart and Jonquel Jones under contract for at least the 2024 season. Kolb broke his own news back in October, explaining that the Liberty are going to do whatever it takes to make sure Stewart is in seafoam and black in 2024, and that means coring the reigning MVP and ensuring that the Liberty have exclusive negotiation rights. This will be the first time that Stewart will be cored in her WNBA career, a fact that remains a bit mind-boggling. And as of Thursday, Jan. 11, the Liberty officially extended a Core qualifying offer (QO) to Stewart.
But Stewart didn’t seem to mind hearing that news back in October. She has built a new life in Brooklyn with her wife and now two children. She’s often at Nets games and she spent her end of 2023 helping out in the local community by handing out turkeys during Thanksgiving time and assisting with Bowery Mission’s coat drive. Also, Stewart has been training and working on her game as well, following a less efficient postseason. Sometimes even Ted Lasso — I mean, Jason Sudeikis — joins her for her workouts with renowned trainer Chris Brinkley.
If the Liberty could core two players, they would. But not only can’t they core two, but Jones herself can’t be cored after she was cored twice by her previous team, the Connecticut Sun. But that same urgency to retain Jones was expressed by not only Kolb, but also by other Liberty players that are under contract for 2024 and beyond.
While Jones wasn’t willing to dive into her interest in returning to the Liberty at the time of exit interviews following Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, she spoke to reporters before she met with Kolb and head coach Sandy Brondello to reflect and chat about the future. That was also before Sabrina Ionescu had the chat with Jones that Ionescu said she would before all of the Liberty players dispersed following the end of the season.
But now that those discussions have passed, time has been taken by both sides and Jones continues to put up video game-like numbers in China, a league source told The Next that Jones is “very interested in coming back” to New York. While her first half of the 2023 season began slower due to myriad factors, including a foot injury and adapting to a completely new style of play and teammates, by the Commissioner’s Cup championship in August, Jones was looking like her 2021 MVP self. And by playoff time, she was just as dominant as she was in Connecticut while flashing more of what makes her unique, a modern superstar and irreplaceable.
The balancing act that Kolb will have to strike with the two MVPs is how can they both be given a salary that is respectful of their worth while also wanting to build out the rest of the roster with formidable depth. This is another principle that the Liberty are carrying into 2024: They want a strength of theirs to be depth.
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Building out the bench
The difference in 2024 will be having the right depth. The fact that the Liberty had a hypothetical jumbo lineup where they could put Stewart, Jones, Stefanie Dolson, Han Xu and Nyara Sabally out on the court at the same time didn’t help ameliorate their main weakness in 2023: perimeter defense. While Brondello’s schematic solution to mitigate this issue was in how well Jones, Stewart and Betnijah Laney could defend and hide some of the Liberty’s less-proficient defenders, against the Las Vegas Aces in particular that wasn’t enough. That concept, while practical in theory, gave Stewart, Jones and Laney more responsibilities that tested their bandwidth.
Back in October, Kolb even hinted that the bench could carry more guards and wings rather than bigs. If the Liberty successfully bring back Jones, don’t expect Dolson to return to New York. Her asking price is one that the Liberty don’t have, and New York was able to win games while she was out for extended time with a sprained ankle. Han Xu most likely won’t sign a WNBA contract this year due to the time commitment required for the Chinese national team leading into the Olympics in Paris. Since she ended the 2023 season with a suspended contract that expired, the Liberty will retain Han’s rights and there’s no qualifying offer necessary to be able to maintain them.
That leaves Nyara Sabally, who will be given more opportunities and responsibilities as a backup big in 2024. There was a belief within the Liberty’s front office that Sabally should have been given more opportunities in the second half of the season, but as a rookie who struggled carrying out switches within Brondello’s defensive schemes, Dolson was inserted when healthy and often Kayla Thornton would be shifted to the four. New York has been impressed with Sabally’s performances overseas for USK Praha this offseason in both EuroLeague and domestic competition. She’s averaging 15 points, 6.7 rebounds and an assist in EuroLeague play while averaging a 13.2-10.2 double-double along with 2.7 assists in Czech Republic domestic play.
When it comes to the guards and wings who will join Thornton on the bench, the Liberty will be looking to add to their 2023 roster in and out of house. With Marine Johannès most likely not available for the WNBA season due to French national team commitments before the Olympics, The Next can report that New York expects German wing Leonie Fiebich to make her WNBA debut this spring. (One note on Johannès: the Liberty also extended her a QO on Thursday to ensure that the New York retains her rights and she doesn’t become an unrestricted free agent on Jan. 20.)
Before acquiring Fiebich in a four-way trade with the Mercury, Sky and Wings last winter, New York had its eye on her. They love that at 6’4 she’s a three-way scoring wing whose size allows her to be a productive perimeter defender. For her Spanish club, Zaragoza, this season, she’s averaging 11.6 points while shooting 54.1% from two and 42.9% from three along with 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 assists in domestic play. In EuroLeague competition she’s averaged 12.5 points — 54.8% shooting from two, 42% shooting from three — 7.5 rebounds and 2.6 assists. She recently helped her team defeat Johannès’ team Lyon by putting up a 12-12 double double along with three assists to boot. Fiebich will sign her rookie scale contract at $67,249.
And then there’s Jocelyn Willoughby, who the Liberty still highly respect and regard for her willingness to adapt to any role they gave her and her ability work hard while doing it. The Liberty haven’t viewed Willoughby’s worth via the stats she did or did not accumulate. They have viewed her as a developmental project since she was drafted and, while injury had gotten in her way during a time when there were less stakes for the franchise, they believe she’s made considerable steps amid her circumstances.
Playing for the Adelaide Lightning in Australia this offseason, she has established herself as a productive scorer who can drive to the rim and finish, and she’s often tasked with guarding the opponent’s most potent perimeter threat. She’s a restricted free agent, and New York can offer her a QO at $83,675 since she completed her rookie-scale contract, but they have until Jan. 20 to do so. Once a QO is extended, the Liberty can negotiate that number with Willoughby as well. But if they don’t extend her a QO, she becomes an unrestricted free agent.
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Out of house, as noted above, the Liberty aren’t afraid to take big swings. They have the resources and infrastructure to do so. They have a vision of winning to pitch to free agents as well. Their needs are on the perimeter and players they target ought to be able to score and defend and competently handle the ball. New York could target two of the Sparks’ many point guards in Jordin Canada and Jasmine Thomas. Canada has proved she’s a two-way force and can score at all three levels. But would she be willing to take on a smaller role than she had in L.A.? Thomas created a career by defending, leading an offense and shooting the three. She is a player who would fit right into the Liberty’s team-first, HEART-driven culture.
But New York’s cap crunch is going to be tight once again, and potentially spring training camp will be just as competitive if not more than it was last April. Without Willoughby on the books but including Fiebich, the Liberty have around $636,554 left in cap space to spend on Stewart, Jones and most likely three other players including possibly Willoughby if they so choose.
Can the Liberty persuade free agents like Canada or Thomas to sign for lower than what they’re worth? Or will someone like Stewart sign a team-friendly deal once again, but one even lower than her 2023 contract, to insure that the Liberty can afford another impact talent?
How many younger players does New York welcome to training camp to audition for year two of the Liberty’s super team? Could like familiar face like DiDi Richards, 2023 third-round pick Okako Adika, the Liberty’s 2024 first round draft pick or unrestricted free agent Emily Engstler — someone the Liberty would have taken in the 2022 draft if she were available — make the team out of camp?
And then there’s Allie Quigley, who could have a spot on this roster if she wants to. A league source told The Next that it is “unlikely” she will play during the 2024 WNBA season. This comes months after Vandersloot admitted in October that she and her wife have discussed the potential of playing alongside each other in the W once again.
The Liberty’s journey to retain continuity while refining their weaknesses begins has already begun. As qualifying offers continue to trickle out, negotiations will begin in just nine days. Expect New York to make headlines once again. There might be less of them, but the stakes are higher than they’ve ever been.
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.