“I’m just happy to be able to take this in,” Jonquel Jones said, back on July 10. “Like, just look at where we are right now.”
We were more than a thousand feet above New York City, atop the Empire State Building. Just a few minutes earlier, Jones had flipped a switch that would turn the iconic landmark’s façade lights to aquamarine and gold, honoring the 50th anniversary of Bahamian independence.
Yesterday, in honor of the 50th Anniversary of Bahamas’ Independence, the @EmpireStateBldg and the Bahamas Consulate General NY hosted @jus242 to light up the colors of the Bahamian flag 🇧🇸 pic.twitter.com/RhFMKwahgU
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) July 11, 2023
Following six seasons in Connecticut, the 2021 MVP asked for a trade, landing on New York for both its on- and off-court exposure opportunities, as well as for all the cultural experiences the City could provide. “I would say this is the top experience,” she said, waving a hand towards downtown Manhattan. “I’ve been to the Broadway shows, I’ve done all that stuff. But being able to pull the switch, I feel like I’ve gotten the best of both worlds. I can be a tourist a little bit, and I can get a little bit of VIP treatment, too.
While Jones dove headfirst into the City’s unique offerings, from walking the red carpet at movie premieres to sitting courtside at Nets games, she had to exercise patience on the hardwood. Early in training camp, Jones revealed that she’d suffered a stress fracture in her foot during the 2022 Finals while playing with the Sun, and she was limited throughout camp and early in the season. However, JJ is absolutely back to being a difference maker on the floor.
“The other day at practice,” Kayla Thornton said, “I got asked what has been the difference [during]the second half of our season. I said JJ.” The Liberty have battled through a tough schedule since the exhibition in Vegas but have won 10 of those 12, building chemistry largely without practice time and off days. But before this last month of success, it took Jones a while to work up to this level of impact.
In the 18 games before the All-Star break, while Jones worked her conditioning back, she averaged just 10.3 points per game (PPG) and 6.1 rebounds per game (RPG), securing only a pair of double-doubles. In the 12 contests since then, she’s been an absolute force, compiling 14.9 PPG and a league-best 11.9 RPG, while knocking down 56.8 percent of her shots and adding eight more double-doubles. In the dozen games since that midpoint, only teammate Courtney Vandersloot has a better net rating (22.1) than Jones (21.2), with the rest of the Liberty’s starters filling out the top five before other teams have players on the list.
Breanna Stewart on Jonquel Jones: "Her confidence level is exactly where it needs to be and it's only gonna continue to get better. She's a former MVP, this is what she does. It might've took her a little while to get back to form, but we knew this was her." (Q: @OwenPence)
— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) July 26, 2023
Jones, with those early-season struggles behind her, opened up following a practice last week, sharing a vulnerability that she likely didn’t even reconcile within herself before this recent strong stretch of play. “Honestly, I’m proud of myself,” Jones said. “Like, you come into media, and I believe those things that I said, but it wasn’t easy to go through the season and not feel like myself, to not play at the level that I know I can play at.”
She reflected upon the expectations she’d set on herself, too, along with whatever outside noise trickled in about the offseason roster assembly. “Being in a new environment, it was very tough; so, I definitely have tough moments, being kind of down with how everything was going but still trusting the process, just the human aspect of everything. I’m really proud of myself to be able to stick with it and see it through, being a professional and trusting the process even when it doesn’t feel like things are materializing the way that you wanted them to or as quickly as I wanted them to.”
Let’s dive deeper into those post-break numbers, because her dominance doesn’t just pass the eye test but is reinforced by the numbers. Jones leads the league in offensive rebounds (3.6 ORPG), and her effort hitting the glass has been consistent. She’s had multiple o-boards in every game since the break and has four games where she’s pulled down as many as five.
“It’s understanding that was what the team needed,” Jones said of her ability to generate second looks. “Someone that could affect the glass and be able to disrupt the game in that way. My mindset is just getting on the boards and using that to fuel me and give me energy for the rest of the game.”
“Rebounding is a gift she has,” rookie Nyara Sabally said. “She’s always in the right spot, she works for it, she knows where the ball is gonna go. She’s just getting more comfortable now.”
Since the break, only the Dallas Wings (who, with their three-forward starting lineup, lead just about every rebounding category) have more offensive rebounds and second-chance points than New York. On the season, the Wings’ 38.9 RPG lead the league, though the Liberty are in second, averaging 38.2 RPG.
For head coach Sandy Brondello, getting Jones more involved on the glass was the homework she assigned the former MVP before the grueling eight-games-in-14-day stretch that started the second half of their season.
“What I really asked of her at that All-Star break was—you need to get double-doubles every single game. Rebound, and be an anchor for us, and she certainly is that. We’ve still got to get even more touches in the paint, but I think we’re finding ways to make sure that she’s getting those touches. She’s doing a great job on the offensive end of being a big target inside.”
Intriguing defensive possession from the Liberty.
Empty side PnR for Chelsea & A'ja — they've been torching teams w this all year — and we get Jonquel at the level before releasing. Blows it all up. pic.twitter.com/PpUPC6vieG
— Nekias (Nuh-KY-us) Duncan (@NekiasNBA) August 6, 2023
“She’s consistently getting a double-double, night in, night out,” Breanna Stewart said. “It just continues to give us so much more when we win the rebounding battle like that. It’s really difficult to beat, and it’s also her ability to be so versatile, offensively and defensively, especially with switching and using her length to her advantage on quicker guards. If people make shots over us, they’re tough shots. You clap and just go back down on the other end, because those are the shots that we want them to take.”
With both Jones and Stewart as a second line of defense, the Liberty are holding other teams to a league-low 42.1 percent shooting. That number is especially impressive, given how much chemistry New York has needed to build throughout the season. While Stewart had been active in space, switching and hedging hard from the start of the season, Jones had to work up to it. Now, the communication is second nature, and JJ has shown her ability to keep just about anyone in front (or at least remain close enough that her long arms can bother the shot).
Even before that trust and chemistry was established defensively, she did a great job in shutting down her mark in individual defense. Per Synergy, Jones is limiting opposing players to just 0.704 points per possession (PPP), a number that ranks third in the WNBA among players with 100+ possessions. As a team, defending within five feet of the rim only Atlanta (54.5 percent) limits opponents at a better clip than New York (56.4 percent).
Thornton, one of the team’s strongest individual defenders, loves playing alongside the Liberty’s frontcourt of former MVPs. “On the outside, me and [Betnijah Laney] can be more aggressive, knowing that we have backside help. If we do get beat, we can just switch, and we have rim protectors [in]Stewie and JJ.”
Still, with the help defensively and all the switching, it would be easy to understand if Jones was out of position, but the 6’6” center continues to get inside and end possessions. On the season, she ranks third in rebounding percentage, snagging 16.8 percent of all available misses, behind only Washington’s Queen Egbo (17.3 percent) and Indiana’s NaLyssa Smith (17.0 percent). Since the All-Star break, though, Jones has been the standard, pulling down a W-best 20.8 percent over that stretch. Surrendering fewer second chances has helped New York climb to third in defensive rating, and all those touches have led to more usage on the offensive end for Jones.
Per Synergy, Jones is generating her highest mark as a roller since 2018, generating 1.11 PPP out of the pick-and-roll.
For her, it’s simple. “[I’m just] screening hard,” Jones said. “Getting great players open ultimately opens me up, because [opponents]have to respect them. I’m just playing the game the right way; that’s all I’m trying to do.”
Vandersloot, who takes pride in setting up her teammates for easy baskets, noted that the team needed reps together, even the players that had competed together overseas in the past. “Early on, I probably led the team in turnovers trying to get the ball to JJ,” she said. “It’s different because when I played in Russia, I could just throw it up, and she was gonna catch it no matter what, but the athleticism is different [in the WNBA]. It was something that we needed to go through. Now, I have a better idea of where she wants the ball and when she’s most efficient. I think a lot more was about us getting her in the right spots than her struggling early.”
Vandersloot’s also become a beneficiary of the gravity Jones creates. Defenders need to remain glued to Jones, even around the rim, and the veteran point guard has capitalized, generating a career-high 55.8 percent of her points in the paint. “It’s been a huge emphasis for us, establishing JJ as an inside presence,” she said. “It starts to open things up for Stewie and Sabrina [Ionescu] to get more open shots, driving lanes for me. We can’t live and die with the three always. There are going to be some nights that they’re just not falling, and that’s when JJ has been really big for us.”
While Jones’ impact around the rim makes her a dominant scorer, she’s also got the ability to stretch to the perimeter. Jones is knocking down a three per night on 39.7 shooting, her highest mark since 2018. That versatility means that teams cannot just throw their biggest bodies into the paint to try and slow Jones down, because she’s got the ability to make you pay from downtown, as well.
“Every time she does what she does on the inside,” Ionescu said, “it opens the outside up for her and for all of us. She’s come into her own in being able to dominate the paint, and then also space and hit shots.”
Ionescu knows that, once the playoffs roll around, they’ll need Jones at her best, if the team is to deliver the franchise’s first championship. “It’s nice to see her figure it out and come into her own, because we’re going to rely on her heavily throughout the rest of the season.”
With both Broadway shows and the Empire State Building checked off her to-do list, Jones’ last remaining goal—one that both she and the organization have been chasing for a long time—is to bring a basketball championship to Brooklyn.