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New role in New York doesn’t diminish Jonquel Jones’ power

Jonquel Jones joined the New York Liberty from the Connecticut Sun via blockbuster trade ahead of the 2023 season. (Alex Slitz/Getty Images)

Jonquel Jones still thinks about what could have been.

The 2021 WNBA MVP spent six seasons with the Connecticut Sun, making the Finals twice and the semifinals another two times. Still, she turns over each missed opportunity in her mind. A tweak here, an adjustment there, and maybe she would have won a title with the Sun.

“Even when you’re reminiscing you kind of think about things that you could probably do to get you over that hump,” Jones said. “It’s in the books now. There’s nothing that we can do to change it, but there’s times where it’s bitter and when it’s really sweet, literally. I’m happy to be able to accomplish what we were able to accomplish. But I still have a sore feeling of not being able to just finish it out and seal the deal.”

That’s part of the reason why Jones sat where she did Tuesday, against the backdrop of a Connecticut Sun press conference while wearing a New York Liberty jersey. A blockbuster trade in the offseason brought her to New York, with the hope that a fresh start could lead to her first WNBA Championship.

Yet the bittersweet taste of her ending with the Sun has tinged the beginning of her tenure with the Liberty.

The 29-year-old forward is still nursing a foot injury sustained during the 2022 Finals, in which the Sun lost 3-1 to the Las Vegas Aces. And her production so far this season isn’t what the WNBA has become accustomed to seeing. Jones is averaging 9.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game, all down from her career averages of 13.3, 8.2 and 1.4.

The injury has played a part, but so has New York’s personnel. There’s a reason the squad has been heralded as the WNBA’s first superteam. The roster includes another MVP in Breanna Stewart, and still more stars in Courtney Vandersloot and Sabrina Ionescu. Then there’s Betnijah Laney, who became a cornerstone of the team in 2021, as well as a bench unit that features an exciting playmaker in Marine Johannès and a former WNBA champion in Stefanie Dolson. Kayla Thornton also has become a key piece of the secondary unit in her first season with the team.

That’s a lot of talent sharing one ball. But a decrease in production and a different role doesn’t take away from who Jones is.

“She’s still very important to what we are trying to accomplish here,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said. “She’s still getting back into top form, but in our minds, she’s still an MVP.”

The 6-6 Jones isn’t putting up 19.4 points and 11.2 rebounds like she did during her MVP campaign in 2021. But just looking at her current stats does Jones a disservice, according to Brondello.

“She complements the players that we have and we are going to increase her role a little bit and build her up in the right way,” Brondello said.

Jones isn’t the only player who is capable of more than her current role. Thornton was a starter for the Dallas Wings last season, and Johannès could start on a team without Ionescu and Vandersloot ahead of her on the depth chart. And Laney, the fifth starter, is often forgotten when it comes to the superteam narrative. But opponents aren’t forgetting about any of the Liberty players.

“You have to defend all five positions at an elite level,” Sun coach Stephanie White said of the Liberty. “It’s tough because you really have to defend one-on-one because if you get caught in rotations you are vulnerable from a rebounding standpoint. You have to be great in all areas.”

You also have to understand that you can’t stop everyone.

“There are certain players on the floor that we have to live with taking shots and making shots,” White said. “And there are other players that if they make tough shots, you have to live with that too.”

So far this season, Stewart, Ionescu and Vandersloot have been New York’s big three, with Laney, Johannès and Jones just behind Vandersloot in scoring, all hovering around 10 points per game. But every time the Liberty take the floor, someone different can provide a scoring lift.

In Tuesday’s 89-81 win against the Sun, it was Laney with 16 and Jones with 14. Two games earlier, Johannès scored 18 points off the bench, and Thornton had 10. Laney had 17 in an overtime win over the Mystics, and in an early-season win over the Storm, Dolson had 10 points and 5 assists in just 18 minutes of action.

That willingness to take what comes to them and make the most of it has helped propel the Liberty to a 10-3 record. It also has kept New York in the championship conversation heading into Thursday’s superteam clash with Las Vegas.

“You just have to be ready,” Thornton said. “You don’t ever know when your name is going to be called, so you just have to stay ready and not get inside your head. You’ve got to look at what the team needs.”