WNBA free agency: Breanna Stewart, 2-time champion, announces she'll sign with New York Liberty
Breanna Stewart is signing with the New York Liberty, the two-time WNBA champion and 2018 league MVP announced on Wednesday. The signing vaults the Liberty into immediate title contention after their trade for 2021 MVP Jonquel Jones last month to play alongside All-Star guard Sabrina Ionescu.
— Breanna Stewart (@breannastewart) February 1, 2023
Stewart's move is one of the biggest in WNBA free agency history. She spent the negotiating period sharing cryptic tweets and reportedly narrowed down her choices to the Seattle Storm, the franchise that drafted her in 2016, and the Liberty, the team of her home state. The Storm won titles in 2018 and 2020 and Stewart, a Syracuse native, was named Finals MVP in each.
To announce the much-anticipated news that should create dominoes elsewhere in the league, the superstar shared a tweet of the Empire State Building and a video of her shedding a warmup jersey to show a Liberty shirt. Text on the jersey read, "I want to do my part to make this world a better place." Stewart reportedly made charter flights a major factor in her free agency and her signing will shake up the WNBA both on and off the court.
"I decided to go to New York because I want to continue to be great and I want to go to the place where I can help this league become better. To continue to raise the standard," Stewart told ESPN Wednesday. "And I feel like, why not go to the biggest market in all of sports? And I'm really excited to go after their first championship."
Stewie joins @SportsCenter with more on her decision to sign with the NY Liberty pic.twitter.com/v2MKI2BxZF
— Malika Andrews (@malika_andrews) February 1, 2023
The Liberty join the reigning champion Las Vegas Aces as two super-teams gunning for the title. New York is one of the league's original franchises, but has never won a championship. The Aces, which had all five of their starters signed to return, traded Dearica Hamby in January to sign two-time WNBA champion and two-time MVP Candace Parker. Now that Stewart has announced her decision, more moves from top free agents are expected to follow.
All-Star point guard Courtney Vandersloot announced on Tuesday night she would not return to the Chicago Sky, the franchise that drafted her 12 years ago and she won a title with in 2021. Stewart was reportedly factoring Vandersloot in her free agency decision. An announcement from Vandersloot is expected this week, Ramona Shelburne of ESPN reported on Wednesday. The two play together on an overseas club in Turkey beginning this month.
Stewart's free agency raised issues of charter flights
Stewart's free agency decision will likely go down as one of the most pivotal moments in WNBA history. She was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 Draft after winning four NCAA championships in four years with UConn, raising her marketing profile before she ever signed a sponsorship deal. Ahead of the 2021 season, she upped that prominence with a rare signature shoe deal with Puma. The Stewie 1s were released late last year.
She has averaged 20.3 points and 8.6 rebounds over her WNBA career and put up one of the most impressive stretches of any basketball player following Achilles surgery in 2019. Stewart was in line for another MVP in 2022 in a tight race with A'ja Wilson. Her career scoring average is the fourth most over a player's first six seasons, following Cynthia Cooper, Elena Delle Donne and Diana Taurasi, per ESPN Stats and Information.
The talent and marketability allowed her to use her power and bring charter flights to the forefront of the free agency conversation. Teams are not allowed to fly charter in the collective bargaining agreement because it would create a competitive advantage for those that did.
But players want it for their health and safety, and Stewart reportedly discussed it with the Liberty, Storm, Minnesota Lynx and Washington Mystics in negotiations. ESPN reported, "Stewart believes she has raised the issue to a level of importance that meaningful conversations will continue in the immediate future."
The Liberty and team owner Joseph Tsai are proponents of charter flights and were fined $500,000 after using them without league approval in the 2022 season. The Aces and team owner Mark Davis, who also owns the Las Vegas Raiders, are also in favor of allowing charter flights. Two of the biggest free agents in the current period have already signed with those two franchises while no others can say the same.
WNBA team owners would have to hold a board of governors meeting and vote to change the rule. The players' association would also have to agree since it's written in the CBA. Stewart had pledged to give her name, image and likeness to a potential league-wide charter deal and many other players raised their digital hands that they'd do the same. Another option is allowing it to be used if a team owner so chooses, a move that would impact competitive fairness.
Liberty a favorite to win 2023 WNBA championship
New York slid into the playoffs in 2021, breaking a three-year drought, and nearly upset the stacked Phoenix Mercury in the first round. The franchise took the next step by hiring Sandy Brondello, who led that Mercury squad for eight years until they mutually parted ways, and courting Stewart in her first free agency period. Brondello won the 2014 WNBA title with the Mercury.
Stewart, 28, instead stayed with the Storm on a one-year deal and celebrated point guard Sue Bird's final season before retirement. The Liberty again sneaked into the playoffs and took the reigning champion Sky to a full three-game series in the first round of the newly structured playoff format. But offensively, they needed more.
Stewart and Jones, 29, will provide much-needed frontcourt scoring the Liberty didn't have and pair with Ionescu, the 2020 No. 1 draft pick who was fully healthy for the first time in 2022. The trio are all top-11 in win shares, via Basketball Reference. Stewart (7.4) ranks first, Jones (4.9) ranks seventh and Ionescu (4.3) is 11th. They're also all top-20 in scoring, led by Stewart's league-leading 21.8 ppg. Ionescu averaged 16.4 (eighth) and Jones averaged 14.6 (19th). Ionescu ranked third in assists (6.3).
The Liberty, who also have All-Star guard Betnijah Laney rostered, can still make moves in free agency. They came into the period with $426,799 in cap room of an approximate $1.4M max, per Her Hoop Stats. Much of that will go to Stewart, who would likely make the player maximum of $202,154. ESPN reported Stewart and the Liberty are still working on the specifics of the deal. They will have, at minimum, two more roster spots to fill.
As for the Storm, they have a lot of moves to make after losing two of their three top players in Stewart and Bird. They only have Jewell Loyd and Mercedes Russell rostered. It will be a full rebuild in Seattle around Loyd.
WNBA reacts to Stewie's signing
The Liberty roster's excitement couldn't be contained to lower case letters.
Hellllllllllll Yeahhhhhhhhhhhh Letsssssss Gooooooooooooooo 🗽🗽🗽🗽🗽🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥
— Jonquel Jones (@jus242) February 1, 2023
OMFGGGGG LETS GOOOOO 🗽🗽🗽
— Sabrina Ionescu (@sabrina_i20) February 1, 2023
Let’s GO!!!’ https://t.co/mrQFzvl5YK
— Sandy Brondello (@SBrondello) February 1, 2023
FINALLYYYYYYY!!!!! Welcome to NY!!!!! https://t.co/J5OwpwFuGq
— stefanie dolson (@bigmamastef) February 1, 2023
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant wanted Stewart to come to New York in a segment on his podcast earlier in the week and will not be giving out any more tickets. Tsai owns both the Nets and Liberty teams, and both play at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
Aye, don’t call my phone lookin for tickets this summer, they gone. Let’s get it @nyliberty https://t.co/dPx7emIeMP
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) February 1, 2023