Breanna Stewart just announced that she is leaving the Seattle Storm to join the New York Liberty, and Courtney Vandersloot is leaving the Chicago Sky to join her in New York. I'm going to get to the fantasy women's basketball ramifications of this decision below, but before I do, let me take just a second to appreciate how big of a deal this move is in the landscape of the WNBA.
Stewart becomes the fourth former WNBA MVP make a major announcement in the last 20 days:
2014 MVP Maya Moore announced her retirement
2021 MVP Jonquel Jones requested and received a trade to the Liberty
Two-time MVP (2008, 2013) and two-time champion (2016, 2021) Candace Parker to the Aces
And, now, 2018 MVP and two-time champion (2018, 2020) Stewart to the Storm
I'm particularly fascinated in the way these moves form two bi-coastal super teams at a time when the WNBA already has so much positive momentum as a league. Parker, fresh off leading the Chicago Sky to the 2021 championship, joins the 2022 champion Aces led by two-time MVP A'ja Wilson. And both Jones and Stewart are both heading to New York, joining 2020 No. 1 overall pick and 2022 All-WNBA selection Sabrina Ionescu on the Liberty.
It reminds me in some ways of 1979 in the NBA, when Magic Johnson was drafted to join multiple-time MVP Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the Lakers and Larry Bird went to a Celtics team featuring former MVP Dave Cowens that would soon add future legends Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale.
That offseason completely re-wrote NBA history for the generation to come, renewing the great bi-coastal rivalry that in many ways still defines the league. Here's to hoping that someday, decades down the line, some writer is waxing poetic in a similar fashion about the WNBA offseason of 2023 that changed everything.
Enough of that. Let's talk fantasy hoops.
The Liberty now have a very deep team, featuring Jones at center, Stewart and Betnijah Laney at forward and Ionescu with Vandersloot at guard. Center Stefanie Dolson, forward Kayla Thornton and guards Marine Johannes and Sami Whicomb have all been full-time starters within the last two seasons and now project to roles off the bench. Forward and 2021 WNBA Rookie of the Year Michaela Onyenwere and 6-foot-10 third-year center Han Xu were also major rotation players for the Liberty in 2022 and seem poised for bench roles this season.
Both Stewart and Jones have experience playing on talented frontlines, which should help the Liberty from a basketball perspective. During the second half of last season, Stewart shared the court with 2012 WNBA MVP and double-double machine Tina Charles. Jones played on a Sun frontline featuring three other star players in Alyssa Thomas, DeWanna Bonner and Brionna Jones. As a WNBA fan, I'm excited to see what two MVPs that are both still in their primes can do on the same frontline.
As a fantasy hoops manager, I'm a bit less thrilled, because there's no way this doesn't negatively impact the stats of all involved.
There's only one ball, and it seems unlikely that Stewart will be able to generate last year's career-best 21.8 PPG or 2021's career-best 9.6 RPG in the same frontcourt where Jones is producing at the 19.4 PPG and 11.2 RPG pace that netted her the 2021 MVP.
Instead, we might look to their past experience for guidance.
In 2022, Jones' numbers fell across the board with averages of 14.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG and 1.8 APG as she fit into the deep Sun frontline of last season. Before Stewart's arrival I thought Jones might bounce-back, but now she seems likely to continue to produce at a similar level. Stewart averaged a career-low 7.6 RPG in 2022, again with half the season next to Charles and her elite rebounding.
Stewart has averaged 15.1 FGA to generate 20.8 PPG in her last five seasons, but next to Jones (and Ionescu) while potentially playing fewer minutes on a deep squad, she may be down closer to 13 to 14 shots per game this season. Still, we have her listed as the top player on our updated fantasy women's basketball top 100 list.
On the positive side, both former MVPs will be getting set up by one of the best young point guards in the game. While Stewart is used to getting dimed up by arguably the best point guard in WNBA history in Sue Bird, Ionescu's youthful brilliance mixed with Vandersloot's veteran playmaking should continue to get Stewart her looks where she wants them.
The Liberty backcourt represents a marked improvement in floor generalship from what Jones has had the last few seasons, which should help Jones finish her looks more efficiently in New York.
Ionescu is the other elite player on the team, and her upside is also different with this newly star-laden squad. Ionescu was building into a nightly triple-double threat, fresh off averaging 17.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 6.3 APG last season.
She may not have the ball in her hands quite as much this season with Vandersloot sharing the point guard responsibilities, but playing with another playmaker may allow Ionescu to do more scoring off the ball. Ionescu is also a volume 3-point shooter.
She finished with the fifth-most treys in the league last season and averaged 2.3 3PG. With Stewart and Jones both patrolling the paint and warping opposing defenses and Vandersloot setting her up, Ionescu should have both the driving lanes and the open looks behind the arc to return to/improve on her current career-best percentages of 45.2 FG% and 35.0 3P% that she established as a rookie.
Overall, Ionescu cut see her volume decrease slightly across the board, but her percentages and long-range shotmaking could improve.
Vandersloot was a solid play with the Sky, typically a fantasy hoops starter last season with averages of 11.8 PPG, 6.5 APG, 3.9 RPG. 1.2 SPG, 0.9 3PG and 0.5 BPG. Vandersloot has never been a heavy scorer, though she has averaged double-digit points in six straight seasons.
She used to be a higher volume distributor, leading the WNBA with an average of 8.8 APG from 2017 through 2021. In New York, she likely plays a pure distributing role with the other three assuming more of the scoring role. But, Ionescu likely handles the ball enough to keep Vandersloot from challenging for the league lead in assists again.
Overall, Stewart, Ionescu and Jones all still project to top-12 players in our fantasy basketball rankings, while Vandersloot is currently No. 32.
Stewart still resides in the top spot, and I think she's likely to be the primary scoring option on the team and perhaps see her scoring diminish the least. Ionescu still slots at number four in the rankings, and thus a likely first round fantasy hoops pick.
Jones slides the most among the three stars, down to No. 12 in the rankings and thus a pick in the back of the second/top of the third round of drafts.
Vandersloot is now more of a swing starter/streaming option, but she'll still earn a roster spot in most leagues.
With three fantasy MVP candidates and another impact player whose only job is to set them up, just imagine how good the Liberty have the chance to be.