October 21, 2023
What we learned from the New York Liberty’s exit interviews
Breanna Stewart will be cored, Liberty players respond to Kelsey Plum and more
The Liberty players, head coach Sandy Brondello and general manager Jonathan Kolb made clear that the expectation for 2024 will be that the team has another chance at a first-ever championship. But there was also a willingness to acknowledge what is uncertain moving forward.
Here’s what we learned from the Liberty’s exit interviews on Friday morning and what’s left to figure out.
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Breanna Stewart is almost certain to return
Kolb made it known that 2023 WNBA MVP Breanna Stewart won’t be an unrestricted free agent in 2024, even though her one-year contract is up. “Stewie will 100% be cored,” he said.
The core designation is a process where a team can get exclusive negotiating rights with a would-be free agent by offering a one-year supermax contract. (The player can still negotiate a different contract with that team if desired.) Teams can only have one cored player at a time, and players can only ever be cored for two seasons in their careers.
Stewart wasn’t surprised by Kolb’s statement. She has never been cored before; in 2022, her former team, the Seattle Storm, chose to core star guard Jewell Loyd rather than her.
Though living and working in New York City and interacting with a much larger media contingent was something she had to get used to, she believes that the good (a 32-8 regular season, a Commissioner’s Cup championship and record-setting attendance) outweighed the uncomfortable and the disappointing this season. She remains bullish about the Liberty’s future.
“It’s been amazing to be a part of,” Stewart said about her first season in New York. “And I’m looking forward to doing it for many years.”
Coring Stewart is part of a long-term plan by the Liberty front office to try to keep as many pieces of this roster together as possible without players entering free agency. That decision was made several weeks before the Sept. 10 deadline for would-be free agents to sign contract extensions during the season. Before that deadline, the Liberty re-signed Kayla Thornton and Betnijah Laney to two-year extensions. But forward Jonquel Jones, who New York also wanted to extend, will enter the offseason as an unrestricted free agent.
Will Jonquel Jones be back?
Kolb said Jones is someone who the Liberty “definitely want to retain.” But when Jones addressed reporters on Friday, she hadn’t met with Kolb and Brondello yet to talk about the season and her future. While she did say that she was “trending toward coming back,” she ultimately remained noncommittal on re-signing with the Liberty.
When asked what she believes the Liberty need to win a championship, Jones used the word “if” in her response: “I think we do have enough here and we have the ability … if I did stay that we’d be able to grow and be able to become successful.”
“We know exactly how important and crucial JJ is to this,” Laney said on Friday. “ I know that we’re going to do everything that we can to retain her and have her come back and continue the success of this team and reach the goal that we all have.”
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Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty player who was on the Zoom calls that helped convince Jones to pick New York last year, explained that she too will do whatever it takes to make sure Jones returns. Ionescu said that she told Jones that she couldn’t leave for the current offseason without talking to her first. While Ionescu will give Jones space to process the season, she wants Jones to understand how much she and the entire franchise value her.
“I want to be able to tell her and continue to, obviously, allow her to do what it is she wants to do and what she’s searching for,” Ionescu said. “Just have her understand how thankful I am for what she was able to do this year, how she was able to buy in and commit herself.
“And obviously I feel for her. She’s been in this position many times of being just short of her goal, but I know we’re going to be able to win [a title] with her, and I know she’s going to understand that. And [I’m] just going to do everything I can to make sure she comes back next year and as is as happy as she can be.”
Ionescu played with an injury in the playoffs
Ionescu revealed that, in addition to puking in a garbage can during Game 4 of the WNBA Finals, she wasn’t fully healthy during the semifinals and finals. While she noted many times that she didn’t want to make any excuses, she said that she suffered a hip injury during Game 4 of the semifinals against the Connecticut Sun, the game that clinched the Liberty’s first finals berth in over 20 years.
After that, Ionescu needed to get an injection to be able to play in the first two games of the finals against the Las Vegas Aces. At times, she wasn’t able to walk.
In those two games, Ionescu averaged 8.5 points per game on 24.3% shooting and made three total 3-pointers. Asked what percentage she was playing at, it was hard for her to answer. “I don’t know because I don’t want to use it as an excuse,” she said. “Not a high percentage.”
The Liberty took Kelsey Plum’s comments personally
All season, the Liberty spoke about their team culture and how their principles weren’t just about basketball, but also about how they treated each other every day. The team established those principles in training camp and came up with the acronym H.E.A.R.T., which stands for habits, effort, accountability, respect and toughness.
Aces guard Kelsey Plum attacked that culture after the Aces won the series, telling Yahoo Sports that the Liberty are “really good individual players” but didn’t “care about each other” like her team did in some of the toughest moments. “They revert back to individual basketball,” she said.
On Friday, Kolb first gave his respects to Plum and the player she has become in this league. And while he acknowledged that the Liberty haven’t been through the same battles as the Aces have while building their franchise into a contender, he took her comments about a team he built personally. He referred to the 2023 New York Liberty as “a team personified.”
Brondello didn’t want to respond to Plum’s comments at first because she knew she’d get angry. But she did anyway. She began simply by saying that Plum’s comments weren’t true.
“They were very selfless in their approach,” Brondello said of her team. “It was always about the team. They were competitors. They were great teammates … Kelsey saying, ‘We’re not a team,’ that’s — it’s BS.”
Ionescu said that she’s “never been on a team that’s been more committed to one another” than the 2023 Liberty. But she also acknowledged Plum’s other comments about how much more the Aces had been through together.
“Vegas lost many [times] before they were able to win,” Ionescu said. “And so I think it’s not losing sight of that. That’s part of the struggle. That’s part of figuring out what it takes to get on top is having to lose.”
Jones was visibly irritated by Plum’s comments, exclaiming that the Aces guard wasn’t even in the Liberty locker room and has no idea what they discuss in huddles or more intimate moments.
“I think it’s easy to kick people when they’re down and you’re up,” Jones said. “And honestly and truly, to me, it felt kind of classless. You already won the championship and you get to celebrate with your teammates. You get to talk about the things that your team did to be successful when you choose to essentially just shit on somebody else and their team and what they’ve built all year.”
Stewart didn’t reply with as much passion and fire as Jones, but her point was similar. “I think my thoughts are congratulations to Vegas,” Stewart said. “They’ve been phenomenal from the start of the season to the end, and win or lose, we’re gonna just continue to carry ourselves with grace and keep that going forward.”
Plum has since apologized on X (formerly known as Twitter) and explained that “throwing shade” wasn’t her intention.
What’s next for Marine Johannès?
The consensus from the players and Brondello was that not much needs changing in 2024 for the Liberty to win a title. Brondello noted that, while 2024 will be an Olympic year, the team won’t get the “makeover” that it did prior to the 2023 season.
The fact that it’s an Olympic year is important because of French guard Marine Johannès, who upset the French Federation this spring by wanting to play in the WNBA instead of reporting to a national team training camp. (The camp was for a EuroBasket qualifier that France, the host country for the Olympics, didn’t need for qualification.)
Johannès has spoken to both Kolb and assistant general manager Ohemaa Nyanin about how complicated 2024 will be for her with the Olympics. Johannès will be in her fourth year of service in the WNBA in 2024 and will have to adhere to prioritization rules.
As of now, her commitments are to her national team. “If I have the possibility to come, I will try to come,” she said.
But prioritization makes that a challenge. Before the rule was implemented, players were able to come to the WNBA following the Olympic break. According to Kolb, it is unclear how prioritization factors in when players have national team commitments prior to the Olympics.
“We also need clarification on what this really is and what this looks like from not only those teams and club and national, but the league as well,” Kolb said. He hopes to get clarification during next month’s league meetings.
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What will the Liberty prioritize in free agency?
Kolb and Brondello hadn’t had an end-of-year meeting yet when they spoke with reporters, but a point of inconsistency emerged when they were separately asked about how to improve the backcourt defense and the bench.
Kolb isn’t sure that improving the backcourt defense needs to come in the starting lineup. He’s leaning toward improving the bench and adding length on the perimeter. The Liberty’s roster was very frontcourt heavy this season.
“We might shift that,” he said. “You can add another wing; you can make that a ball-handler and what have you. But we have to improve our defensive presence off the bench. And that’ll give us more options in different series. I think we saw this year, Washington, Connecticut to an extent, what they can do defensively, and we just need to have some more tools.”
While Brondello agreed that her team needs to improve defensively, she thought her bench was reliable, although it was inconsistent in the postseason. Brondello even took some accountability for the comfort her bench had throughout the season. “I thought as we got along, we kind of worked out what works best,” she said. “I wish we had more time because maybe the bench, [we could have figured out] how to work them even better, too, in certain situations.”
Presumably without Johannès, the Liberty could use an excellent shooter coming off the bench. Vandersloot has one living in her Brooklyn apartment: her wife, Allie Quigley, who sat out the 2023 season. Vandersloot was bashful when asked about the possibility of Quigley being rostered next season. At first, Vandersloot asked if Laney’s niece JJ could answer that one.
“Allie and I are constantly having those conversations,” Vandersloot said. “Of course, it’s really, really fresh and still undecided, but that is definitely a conversation that’s happening.”
Beyond Quigley, free-agents-to-be Stefanie Dolson (unrestricted) and Jocelyn Willoughby (restricted) would both like to return to the Liberty. They grew up nearby, have appreciated the franchise’s resources and have enjoyed having family at games. But their futures as of now are unclear.
Willoughby will play in Australia during the offseason and will focus on what she can control: how she develops and improves. “The cards will fall where they are made, but I would love to be with the Liberty,” she said. “But we’ll see what God has planned.”
While Dolson noted that she is “hoping to stay” in New York until the end of her career, an ankle sprain in the regular season had derailed her ability to show the front office why she should return. Even when she was healthy, she wasn’t in the best shape after sitting out for almost two months.
“Coming into this year’s training camp, [assistant coach] Olaf [Lange] told me I looked the best that I’ve looked, so just to do that again,” Dolson said of her offseason goals. “I mean, get back in shape, obviously. Again, the injury kind of [messed] me up.”
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The more experience the Liberty have playing together, the better they will be when they try to avenge their WNBA Finals loss. For now, they’ll move into the offseason proud of what they accomplished but not satisfied.
“You’re going through fire — that’s how you grow, isn’t it?” Brondello said. “We’ll remember this, how it feels.”
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.