Courtney Vandersloot waits for Breanna Stewart to set the screen, looking for space in the empty pick-and-roll. The New York Liberty are up 19 points early in the third quarter over the Atlanta Dream, and the offense has been humming all afternoon.
On the far side of the court, another action is happening simultaneously—Sabrina Ionescu shoots through an elevator screen, set by both Jonquel Jones and Betnijah Laney. Rather than looking to Stewart, who only dove to the free throw line, Vandersloot whips the ball to Ionescu, hounded by fellow All-Star Allisha Gray. Jones brings a quick screen, but that side of the court is crowded, so she rolls. Stewart pops to the top of the key to relieve Ionescu and immediately fires the ball into the paint to Jones, who sealed Cheyenne Parker and found a sliver of space between the Dream defenders. Three converge, but it’s too late to stop the 6’6” former MVP. One large stride across the lane and Jones is up, finishing through contact for the and-one.
The Liberty would go on to win 110-80—the second-most points in franchise history—while finishing with 29 assists on 36 made baskets.
“We’ve shown some growth,” head coach Sandy Brondello said after the game. “We’re understanding how we want to play, and they’re just so selfless. That helps, that’s why we’ve always got high assists. And they work on their shooting every single day. The ball’s gotta go in the hole. They’re ready to shoot it, and if [it’s not open], they’re ready to move it.”
To this point in the season, New York is pushing the all-time mark for assists per game (APG), trying to top last year’s Chicago Sky… a team also led by Vandersloot. With a recent stretch of cohesive play, the Liberty have edged ahead into the top spot with a mark of 24.38 APG, just hundredths of a point ahead the Sky’s record of 24.28 APG, per Across the Timeline.
“We know that Sloot’s a pass-first point guard,” Laney said, “so for us to bring her here, it just helps with the ball distribution.”
In terms of assist percentage, “an estimate of the percentage of teammate field goals a player assisted while on the floor,” New York is at the best pace in league history. Just 10 teams in league history—with two of them active—have eclipsed the 70-percent plateau, with this year’s Liberty squad comfortably ahead of the pack.
|77.7||New York Liberty||2023 (active)|
|71.9||New York Liberty||2022|
|71.5||Phoenix Mercury||2023 (active)|
To Jocelyn Willoughby, one of New York’s longest tenured players, the beneficiaries of the ball movement also deserve some of the credit. “It comes to the fact that we have people who can be playmakers and pass the ball, but we also have people who can put the ball in the hole, and you need both,” Willoughby said. “I think we’re very talented at all positions. When you have the emphasis on moving the ball and making quick decisions, you know that somebody should get an open shot and a pretty good look. That’s what we try to capitalize on each day.”
Setting the Tone
All the Liberty’s starters have found offensive success alongside each other. Across 14 games together (Ionescu missed two with injury), the first five have shot 51.2 percent when sharing the court, including an impressive 44.8 percent from long range, assisting on 48 of their 52 makes.
“The offense provides opportunities for us to just be able to make reads,” Ionescu said. “We use great pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop players to get an opportunity to score as a ball handler or, off-ball, we find windows playing off Sloot, openings [that allow us]to spread the floor.”
Ionescu, who entered the year making just 144 of 435 from deep—33.1 percent—during her time in the W, has found the range this season, splashing triples with deadly accuracy. In 2023, Ionescu is hitting 2.9 threes per night (second behind the Seattle Storm’s Jewell Loyd) at a 43.2 percent clip, the WNBA’s seventh-best mark among shooters that average at least one attempt a night from beyond the arc.
Vandersloot finds herself at the center of the web in PBP Stats’ assist network graphic, providing at least 15 helpers to each of the other four starters on the court. Across the team’s first 16 games, she’s already found Stewart for 53 buckets, generating 118 points. And as for Stewart, her current 23.3 points per game (PPG) average would be a career best, and her 61.6 true shooting percentage would be the second-highest mark, trailing just her 2018 MVP season.
“We’re getting to the point where we’re making that extra pass,” Stewart said, “and that’s what we all expect. Every game, we have high assists. We know everyone can knock it down.”
Among the starters, Laney and Jones had the longest adjustment periods, though for largely different reasons. Jones had to build up her stamina and conditioning, following a stress fracture to her foot during last year’s Finals. She’s looked far more comfortable on both ends of the floor, as well as on the glass, and the stats bear that out. Laney’s improvement month-to-month is even more noticeable.
Betnijah Laney has looked way more comfortable with her role in June, and the numbers bear it out. She's knocked down more than half her shots this month, and her accuracy from downtown has her up to 42.9 percent on the season, a mark good for seventh in the WNBA. pic.twitter.com/35sZK3iZBe
— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) June 27, 2023
Yes, Laney’s averaging career-highs in both three-point makes and percentage, but it’s in her cuts that she’s looking most dynamic. Per Synergy, she ranks ninth in the W on shots at the rim, converting north of 71 percent of those looks for 1.42 points per possession. Early in the season, Laney appeared hesitant, fading away instead of using her strength to finish around the hoop. Now, with her teammates setting her up, she’s become a nightly mismatch once again.
Tapping into the Reserves
For the Liberty to make a deep run this fall, they’ll need heavy production from the second unit. One player who has been an asset from day one, and should be in the early running for Sixth Woman of the Year, is Kayla Thornton. She’s been a swiss army knife for New York, even taking on reps at the 4 while Stef Dolson has been sidelined. To this point, Thornton is 16th in the WNBA in +/-. The Liberty have scored 72 more points with her on the floor, far and away the best mark for any of the team’s reserves.
On the season, Thornton is shooting 45.2 percent from long range, sixth among qualified shooters and well above her previous career-high of 35.5 percent. A majority of her makes—90.6 percent, including all 14 threes—have been assisted, another career-best. “My teammates give me confidence to shoot,” Thornton said. “For me, it’s just getting into the game and just doing what the offense gives you, and being confident in what you do.”
With Marine Johannès on the court, teammates have learned to stay aware at all times. She prefers to play off-ball, like Ionescu, but is always looking to exploit the narrowest of passing windows. Jones learned that early in a game against Phoenix last month, when Johannès slinged a side-armed assist from the top of the key to an empty spot in the paint. Jones, shooting a hand out like she was trying to snare a line drive at the hot corner, corralled the pass, which left her alone under the hoop for an easy layup.
“I knew she was a great passer,” Jones told a media scrum after the game. “I just wasn’t expecting the speed with which she can find you rolling in the post.”
Marine Johannès put some dijon mustard on this dime! 🔥 pic.twitter.com/B1Ao10PJk1
— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) June 18, 2023
Nyara Sabally, who has earned praise as a rookie for her positioning and cutting, has received helpers from nine different teammates already.
“With all of [our guards],” Sabally said, “you always have to be ready because the ball could be coming at any second, and you’d better catch that ball. But Marine’s have a little bit more speed—your hands have to be ready.”
There’s a long way to go between now and the end of the season, but this on-court chemistry bodes well for the Liberty’s long-term success. If they continue to share the ball, they’ll continue to exploit late rotations and mismatches. It’s a simple formula.
“This team is very unselfish,” Brondello said. “They want to play in the right way, together. And I think that’s more fun than playing isolation ball.”
Stats are up to date as of July 7, 2023 and courtesy of WNBA Advanced Stats, unless otherwise noted.