A couple of days before free agency officially tipped off, the New York Liberty made their first—and thus far only—2022 splash. Months after Stefanie Dolson won a WNBA championship with the Chicago Sky, the Liberty have lured her to Brooklyn. The city itself played a part in Dolson’s recruitment: Betnijah Laney may have sealed the deal by introducing her to Hamilton star, Anthony Ramos. Dolson’s love of the hit Broadway musical is well-documented, dating back to her time in the Bradenton bubble.
"Off season vibes just hit different"
what do u mean by that, STEF!?
maybe BETNIJAH knows?
— Matt Ellentuck (@mellentuck) January 16, 2022
In her introductory press conference, the 6’5” center out of Port Jervis, New York, talked about the appeal of returning to the East Coast, noting how difficult it was to have quality time with family and friends on previous visits, due to the WNBA’s tight schedule during the season.
— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) February 3, 2022
The fit, of course, was evident. Dolson fills a huge defensive need for the New York Liberty, who struggled down low last season, allowing a league-worst 38.4 points per game (PPG) in the paint. Even when a healthy Natasha Howard was available, New York was forced to play her at the 5 alongside a smaller forward, like Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere or Rebecca Allen. In matchups against players that included Jonquel Jones or Breanna Stewart, those mismatches often had the entire Liberty defense scrambling to help, leaving them susceptible to cuts or weak side threes.
In this piece, though, we’re going to focus on Dolson as a multifaceted offensive threat.
Pick, Your Poison
In the half court, Dolson’s game is versatile. To the eye test, she’s likely best known for her spacing as a pick-and-pop threat. We’ll get into some of the shooting numbers in a moment, but first, I wanted to break down my favorite Stef Dolson play: one of her crushing screens. Here’s one from back in the bubble, where Dolson was integral in setting up the game-winning score.
It’s a tie game, 82 a piece, fewer than 10 seconds to go. Courtney Vandersloot has the ball, guarded by Danielle Robinson. The Sky’s bigs, Azurá Stevens and Dolson, set a double screen action. After the first pick, Stevens’ defender, A’ja Wilson, attempts to hedge, moving laterally to stay between Vandersloot and the basket until Robinson can recover. Wilson starts to slide, unaware of Dolson’s secondary screen. When the two make contact, it’s Wilson who takes the worst of it, whiplashed as she bounces off Dolson, whose defender Dearica Hamby is now forced to help. While this is happening, Stevens rolls from the top of the key, beelining straight for the basket. Kayla McBride is the weak-side help, but she’s hesitant to leave sharpshooter Allie Quigley alone, and that momentary pause takes her out of the play. When Stevens receives Vandersloot’s pass—the point guard’s 15th assist of the night—Las Vegas doesn’t have a single defender in the paint. Ball game, Sky victory. Dolson’s jaw-rattling screen effectively occupied three Aces defenders long enough for ‘Sloot to find the cutting Stevens, and it secured the win.
Thoughts from the Big Three?
In what was fortuitous timing for me in writing this piece, in early February, the Liberty’s Big Three— Howard, Sabrina Ionescu, and Betnijah Laney—gathered in DC with their newest teammate for training camp ahead of international scrimmages for USA Basketball. I asked all three their impressions of Dolson’s game, and they all discussed how she filled an area of need for the team.
“I’ve always known that she’s a great passer,” Ionescu told Winsidr. “She’s a quick passer, quick decision-maker, and great shooter. Screens really well, understands spacing, and it’s been really hard scouting against her, playing against her, so I’m so happy that she’s on our side.”
Laney shared similar sentiments, noting that Dolson brings exactly what last year’s team lacked. “She’s a capable shooter and a very capable passer… a great screener and a bigger body than what we’ve had. So I’m happy to have her to help us out because I think that’s what we were missing last year, was just having that bigger presence on the court.”
And as for Dolson’s partner in the frontcourt? “It’s gonna make my life way easier than what it was last season,” Howard said. “It’s gonna help, with me being the stretch four, having more space to do what I love: take people off the dribble, shoot the ball. And with Stefanie burying people in the post, I’ll just have more space and won’t have to do as much banging in the post. I don’t mind that, but I’m happy we have someone that can bang down there instead of just me doing all the work.”
First and foremost, something that sets Dolson apart is her comfort level with the ball in her hands, a skill that is not all that common in the 6’5”-and-up club. Chicago often utilized her in dribble handoffs, so she could be both a passer and screener in quick succession. Below, she brings the ball to Diamond DeShields, then clears out the trailing defender, Ezi Magbegor, to give her room to shoot.
Dolson’s anticipation also makes her an above-average facilitator. She’s ready to swing the ball to turn good shots into great ones, but she’s also skilled at recognizing cuts. Here’s a great fake into a smooth assist against her now-teammates from last season:
In addition to her ability as a passer on the perimeter, Dolson is, of course, a threat to score from beyond the arc on her own. According to Across the Timeline, Dolson’s 40.4 percent from long distance last season ranked 24th in the WNBA, out of 170 qualifiers. For her career, from three, she shoots a very respectable 38.1 percent. As a jump shooter in 2021, per Synergy, Dolson scored 1.069 points per possession (PPP), a number that placed her in the 86th percentile.
That three-point threat also allowed Stef Dolson to make plays without the ball, bringing in the basketball IQ that both head coach Sandy Brondello and general manager Jonathan Kolb praised in her introductory press conference. Both as the roller in the pick-and-roll (P&R) and on cuts to the basket, Dolson was remarkably effective, ranking seventh and 12th, respectively. She quipped that the fast-paced Olympics 3×3 tournament allowed her to show off her quickness, but there’s truth there, especially when lead-footed bigs are forced to stretch out to the perimeter and respect her shooting prowess from deep.
Last season, without a consistent inside scoring threat, New York relied on the “live by the three, die by the three” mantra, and often fell victim to it. On the Winsidr Show podcast, our Aryeh Schwartz and Rachel Galligan spoke to head coach Sandy Brondello, who preached balance and how their newest free agency acquisition could contribute to that.
“This is a team that can shoot a lot of threes—30 per game, and they shot at a very high rate,” Brondello said. “I think that’s good, we know threes are important. For us to get to that next level, all teams are most effective when they have an inside-outside attack, and that’s where Stef Dolson is so important for us. But she’s also a very capable three-point shooter as well, which will open up the floor for Tash and other players like Betnijah to get into the paint, because I think you have to have a real good mixture inside-outside attack.”
Dolson, like Howard, gives Brondello options inside when she feels like the team is showing complacency and settling too often from deep. Add to that the P&R threat with Ionescu, who loves to thread the needle with pocket passes, and the Liberty will be able to generate looks more consistently inside the arc than they did a year ago.
To Post Up, or Not to Post Up?
The one part of Dolson’s offensive game that did not grade out so well last season, as seen in the chart above, is her post-up game. Coincidentally, that’s exactly what Dolson wants to do more when she suits up in seafoam. “For me, it’s just the post,” she said to Winsidr, when asked what part of her skill-set she was excited to show off in New York. “The last couple of years, with the rosters I’ve been on, I’ve been a pick-and-pop player. Last year, it depended on who I was out on the court with, but a lot of times, I was the only one setting the screens and being on the perimeter. So, I’m more so looking forward to bringing my post presence there. I’ve been working on that this offseason and I’ll continue to do that the next few months.”
With more consistent reps—along with Howard’s spacing—perhaps there will be room for Dolson to explore her back-to-the-basket game.
|Stef Dolson’s Career in the Post (Stats Pulled from Synergy)|
|Year||Points Per Possession||Total Possessions||League Percentile|
A few things to note here. Dolson spent her first three seasons with the Washington Mystics. There, she was used far more as an inside threat, averaging below one three-point attempt per game in each season. (With Chicago, the mark for Dolson’s fewest averaged threes attempted was 1.93.)
Notably, in 2017, her first season with Sky, Dolson put up her highest post-up PPP; in that season, she still compiled better numbers as a P&R roller (81st percentile), a spot-up shooter (81st percentile), and a cutter (90th percentile). During her five years in Chicago, the lowest point output by the team came in 2017, at 82.1 PPG.
So, that aligns with when Dolson’s usage began to shift, when she began to be used more in the pick-and-pop. And with that threat keeping defenses honest, her efficiency inside the arc climbed, with four of Dolson’s five seasons in Chicago exceeding the best of her three years in DC. Three times while playing for the Sky, Dolson finished in the top 10 in two-point field goal percentage, after never climbing higher than 35th as a member of the Mystics.
Whether Dolson’s interior impact comes primarily from the block or as a roller remains to be seen, but one thing’s for certain: she brings a skill-set sorely needed on this New York Liberty roster. Coach Brondello knows firsthand how impactful Stef Dolson can be in close games.
“Stef really hurt us down the stretch,” she said, referring to the closing minute of last year’s WNBA Finals, when Dolson hit back-to-back shots to give Chicago the lead, then extend it, with under 90 seconds to go. “Maybe we could’ve gone to Game 5 if Stef stayed on the bench, to be honest.”