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The IX: Basketball Wednesday with Howard Megdal, May 10, 2023
BROOKLYN — Happy Basketball Wednesday! The New York Liberty face an enviable problem heading into the 2023 season. The acquisitions of Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot — a trio headed for the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame already — without losing vital core players like Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, Stefanie Dolson and yes, Han Xu have turned this Liberty team into an absolute monster, one that looms as dangerous for more reasons than just a collection of talent listed on paper.
We’ll get into, below, why Jones and Stewart are not just massive additions, but a pairing that should be easy to integrate into Sandy Brondello‘s offensive scheme. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Ionescu, an all star, top overall pick in 2020 with a demonstrated ability to play at an elite level, didn’t think twice about taking what amounts to a co-starring role on her own team. In fact, Ionescu pointed out, that’s always been the plan.
“Well, that’s been the goal, since I got drafted here,” Ionescu told me on Liberty Media Day Monday. “The understanding of having the backing of front office and an organization that wants to bring a championship to New York City. And that, like Stewie said, doesn’t happen overnight. We started at the bottom, and we’ve now worked our way into being this desirable team that two MVPs want to come be a part of, and be a big part of, and winning a championship.”
The thing that stands out for me with this Liberty team isn’t just star power, although certainly the top-line production from Jones and Stewart will be a big reason why New York should succeed this season. It is the depth of options, the varied array of ways the Liberty can beat you.
It does start at the top, of course. It is one thing to employ a 6’6 and a 6’4 player, each an MVP, in your frontcourt. It is another to be certain they can both find their spaces on the floor to maximize the pairing. Las Vegas tried to do something similar with Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson a few years ago, and despite the, let’s say, varied reasons that didn’t work out too well, a part of it was that they operate in similar spots.
I believe Wilson and Candace Parker will figure it out far better than Cambage and Wilson did, but a look at their shot charts reveals that a lot of their established spots on the floor overlap. (All shot charts via stats.wnba.com.)
Compare that to where Jones and Stewart excel on the floor, and you can see a yin/yang scenario even as the two of them played for different teams. (They’ll also have the all-time leader in assist percentage in Courtney Vandersloot and the second-place point guard among active players in the stat in Sabrina Ionescu to help them figure it out.)
I said this was the “Noah’s Ark of rosters” on the podcast you’ll hear below, and that extends to virtually everything necessary for a team to win, but the “two MVPs comfortable scoring anywhere on the floor with the length to provide mismatches” is a pretty solid pairing to build around.
The Liberty also feature two of other things no roster should really have, like “two playmakers with assist percentages well over 35 and the ability to knock down threes” in Ionescu and Vandersloot, “two centers capable of providing stretch-five and rim protection in ultra-big lineups” in Stef Dolson and Han Xu, “two defenders capable of guarding 1-4 at an elite level” in Betnijah Laney and Kayla Thornton (three if DiDi Richards makes the team!) — this is, indeed, a team that can pivot when something goes awry, or there’s an injury, or someone hits foul trouble.
Laney is her own level of luxury. An all star with a demonstrated ability to be a primary scorer for long stretches of time is going to need to do that for New York if… Jones, Stewart, Vandersloot and Ionescu are all struggling to score. How often do you expect that to happen? When it doesn’t, how does any team expect to limit Laney offensively by guarding her with, what, their fifth-best defender on the floor? Some teams don’t leave opposing coaches with any palatable choices. This is what that could look like in practice.
I will leave you with the great unknown that is Han Xu, because even though her comments that she is old at 23 felt like a personal attack, I am still professional enough to leave that aside and focus on her game. It is not possible to compare her to other WNBA centers of the past who entered their age-23 season at 6’10 having shot 44 percent from three the year before because:
1) There hasn’t been anyone like that in WNBA history
2) She’s not 6’10 anymore, she grew and is now 6’11.
I don’t know what her ceiling is and neither do you. I’d venture to say the same is true of the 2023 New York Liberty.
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