Following the New York Liberty’s series-clinching Game 2 win over the Washington Mystics, I asked Jonquel Jones a question she didn’t love answering.
I understood why. It was the last question of a 20-minute presser following, so far, the high-point of the Liberty season, and a question that didn’t reflect the jubilation Jones and her teammates were feeling. But, since it was bothering me the whole night, I had to ask it: Why didn’t the ball come anywhere near her prior to clutch time?
After a dominant, 20 & 12 performance in Game 1, where Jones post-ups were the focal point of the Liberty offense — Sandy Brondello said as much after the game — she saw just two post-up opportunities against an overmatched Myisha Hines-Allen in the first half of Game 2, and they went how you’d expect:
Post-up #2 for Jonquel Jones (and a 'too small'): pic.twitter.com/b1S6yf5RmN— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) September 19, 2023
Yet, as New York’s offense collapsed after the break — 19 points over the first 17 minutes of the second half — Sandy Brondello & co. refused to go back to the well. This was particularly surprising given the nature of their offensive struggles.
The Liberty, who broke the WNBA assist-rate record in the regular season, capitalize on every advantage they’re presented with. The ball moves side-to-side quicker than defenses can either prepare for or counter. Yet, while Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu comprise an elite backcourt, neither are particularly explosive downhill threats. Thus, creating the initial advantage is where the Liberty can occasionally falter, especially when facing the point-of-attack defense that Washington offered. No, most teams don’t have Brittney Sykes and Natasha Cloud to fight through ball-screens, but Washington does. So, in Game 2, they forgot about trapping ball-screens or even hedging, only mixing in some occasional switching.
New York fell into the trap, running ball-screen after ball-screen but unable to pop a hole in Washington’s perimeter defense. Finally, down 71-65 with time as an enemy, they threw it into Jones, and it produced the easiest two they got all night:
After a stop on the ensuing possession, the Libs called a timeout to draw up a play for a critical offensive possession; here’s how it went:
It’s a telling possession, with Sykes’ hounding perimeter defense forcing the Liberty to run their first action, a Jones-Courtney Vandersloot handoff, 40 feet out with 13 on the shot clock. Rough start. But the Mystics switch it, and Jones takes Sykes down to the paint to post up, with Breanna Stewart looking to feed her on a high-low connection the duo has perfected in their inaugural season together.
Advantage created. Hines-Allen abandons Sloot to help out down low, and while the Liberty can’t get it to Jones, Sykes has to recover back to her original matchup, Sloot. But it’s a long closeout, and it allows New York’s point guard to penetrate and kick it to Betnijah Laney for a huge 3-pointer. Jones doesn’t touch the ball on this play, but her number is certainly called, and that causes the all chaos her star teammates need to capitalize on.
That Jones can dominate in the post, yet also play 5-out basketball as a perimeter shot-maker, passer, and driver just gives the Liberty that many more ways to create advantages:
In sum: ”She’s big and good. Big and good. That’s a former MVP,” as Mystics Head Coach Eric Thibault said after the series.
More than that Jones is one of the most under-appreciated athletes currently playing their sport. I mean that in the most literal sense, not in a “WNBA players need more shine” or “Jones is overshadowed on such a stacked roster” way. It is unfathomable that she, at 6’6”, 215 can move the way she does, on either end of the court. I know Elena Delle Donne is 34 years old, but I don’t know how many other true centers are even given that assignment, much less sticking with her like this:
Jonquel Jones is ridiculous: pic.twitter.com/dGd2xqYBcT— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) September 16, 2023
If that’s not impressive enough, how about Jones demolishing Washington’s guards in isolation down the stretch of Game 2?
The Liberty tried switching Jones more often earlier in the season, but found it overwhelmingly challenging to rebound without her in the picture, so they’ve shied away from it in recent weeks. That doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t bust it out in crucial moments.
Jones’ distinctive athleticism isn’t a fun quirk, like a bench player throwing down massive dunks in garbage time or a blazing pinch-runner that steals a bag once every five games. It’s a tool that, amid an already versatile roster, further allows Sandy Brondello and the New York Liberty to play nearly any style of basketball they want.
It also helps that Jonquel Jones is not one to make a fuss over her role on the court, or if she gets the ball enough, even if her status as the 2021 MVP would grant her some more leeway to do so.
Just listen to her respond to my silly question about it: “I mean, I don’t know, when you’re just playing basketball, that’s the way it is. My job is to make sure that I’m doing whatever I can do and control whatever I can control to help us win.”
So far, she has.