No team in the WNBA boasts more star power than the Las Vegas Aces, but the defending champions aren't the only juggernaut vying for the title as the 2023 playoffs underway. The revamped New York Liberty were every bit as dominant as their Western Conference counterparts during the regular season, and have the frigid winters of eastern Russia to thank for it.
How did New York's star-studded triumvirate of Breanna Stewart, Courtney Vandersloot and Jonquel Jones come together before 2023? Due to the on and off-court kinship they developed while playing multiple seasons for Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg during breaks in the WNBA schedule.
“Vandersloot, Stewart and Jones first started to chatter about playing together during the brutal Yekaterinburg winters while playing for Russian powerhouse UMMC Ekaterinburg, or EKAT for short,” ESPN's Katie Barnes writes. “At the time, they played for three different WNBA franchises: Stewart for Seattle, Jones for Connecticut, and Vandersloot for Chicago…They might have been courted by Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb, who stared at their names on a whiteboard for a year. But it was Stewart, Jones and Vandersloot who fell in basketball love playing together abroad and decided to re-create that experience in the United States. Never before had players with their pedigrees left teams to join another one together.”
Stewart, the newly minted AP WNBA Player of the Year, took a paycut to sign with the Liberty on February 1st. Vandersloot joined her in New York a day later, several weeks after general manager Jonathan Kolb began re-making his roster by swinging a blockbuster trade for Jones, the 2021 league MVP.
Stewart, Vandersloot and Jones, of course, aren't the only All-Stars who play for the Liberty. Former No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu might be New York's most popular player, while veteran wing Betnijah Laney made her first All-Star team during her Liberty debut in 2021.
New York, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, begins its road to a seemingly inevitable WNBA Finals clash vs. Las Vegas on Friday night. The Liberty host the Washington Mystics from Barclays Center at 4:30 p.m. (PT) on ESPN2.