WNBA trade grades 2023 – Liberty, Wings win big, Sun lose in Jonquel Jones deal

Who wins the three-team trade sending 2021 WNBA MVP Jonquel Jones to the New York Liberty?

In the first blockbuster move of the 2023 WNBA offseason, the Connecticut Sun sent Jones to the Liberty as part of a deal that also includes the Dallas Wings. Although the Sun didn’t get another All-Star player in return, completing the deal now will allow the Sun to use the core spot — previously occupied by Jones — to keep unrestricted free agent Brionna Jones in Connecticut, as ESPN’s Alexa Philippou reported they plan to do.

Meanwhile, the Liberty have landed a superstar interior player to pair with budding star guard Sabrina Ionescu. Remarkably, this deal not only gives New York at least two rotation players but also additional cap space, meaning it’s still possible for the Liberty to pursue fellow MVP Breanna Stewart in unrestricted free agency.

Two years after Natasha Howard went to New York in a sign-and-trade deal as the Seattle Storm’s core player, she’s on the move again, headed to Dallas. Just how Howard fits in with the Wings remains to be seen based on their other offseason moves, but for now this looks like an opportunistic move for Dallas.

Let’s break down the implications for all three teams and the upcoming WNBA free agency period.

Connecticut Sun get:
G Tyasha Harris (from Wings)
F Rebecca Allen, 2023 No. 6 pick (from Liberty)

Dallas Wings get:
G Crystal Dangerfield, F/C Natasha Howard (from Liberty)

New York Liberty get:
F/C Jonquel Jones (from Sun)
F Kayla Thornton (from Wings)

New York Liberty: A

From the Liberty’s perspective, we can sort of think of this as two separate trades. First, New York dealt Howard, Crystal Dangerfield and the No. 6 pick in this year’s WNBA draft for Jones. Second, the Liberty also swapped Rebecca Allen for Kayla Thornton.

The Howard-Jones swap is unambiguously an enormous win for New York. After she was limited to 13 games in her first season with the Liberty, Howard was an All-Star last year. But she has scored with average efficiency during her three seasons as a go-to scorer, including a .551 true shooting percentage (TS%) in 2022, when the league average was .541.

By contrast, Jones has proved capable of combining efficiency with high-volume scoring. During her 2021 MVP campaign, Jones posted a .614 TS% while finishing 27% of Connecticut’s plays with a shot, trip to the free throw line or turnover. That stayed at .615 last season, when Jones’ usage rate dipped to 24% with the return of Alyssa Thomas to the Sun’s lineup.

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An All-Defensive first team pick in 2021 and second team last season, Jones is, at worst, in the same ballpark as Howard, who was voted Defensive Player of the Year in 2019 but wasn’t able to lift the Liberty’s defense above seventh last season. (Connecticut, by contrast, had the WNBA’s second-best defensive rating.)

Looking forward, Jones — who turned 29 earlier this month — is more than two years younger than Howard, making her a better long-term option. Add it up, and any team would happily make that swap.

The undercard is interesting in its own right. Allen has been a good role player in New York, combining above-average 3-point shooting (37% career despite last season’s 31% accuracy) with solid perimeter defense. At 32% career shooting beyond the arc, Thornton offers a slight shooting downgrade in favor of more toughness.

Perhaps most importantly, Thornton’s $109,716 salary (all salaries per HerHoopStats.com) is about $27,000 less than what Allen will make in 2023. Since Jones took less than the supermax to re-sign with the Sun as a core player last offseason, New York also saves more than $16,000 on that swap. So the Liberty’s cap space has increased to more than $300,000 with this deal.

With a minimum of three roster spots to fill, the Liberty could sign a player for the max and still have about $160,000 to offer another free agent. New York doesn’t yet qualify as a superteam with Ionescu and Jones, but stay tuned on that front.

The moves did cost the Liberty Dangerfield, whose arrival helped turn around their 2022 season by moving Ionescu to an off-ball role. Still, Dangerfield’s own performance in New York was unspectacular. Her .490 TS% was poor for a player with a small 13% usage rate. The Liberty could look to find another point guard in free agency or hope Ionescu is more comfortable handling that role with more talent around her.

Connecticut Sun: D

Trading star players for equivalent value is always a challenge in the WNBA because teams need them much more than stars need the league. We’ve already seen Jones opt out of the 2020 Wubble season, so sitting out if she was dealt to an undesirable destination was a credible threat. Rachel Galligan reported Connecticut allowed Jones to meet with teams and she picked New York.

Additionally, the Sun needed to save money in this deal to create cap room if they wanted to use the core designation on Brionna Jones — who assuredly would have drawn max offers elsewhere as the No. 2 free agent after Stewart by my projections.

Those caveats noted, this return still seems disappointing in contrast to past star trades. Connecticut doesn’t end up with either of the two best players in this trade — those being Howard and Jonquel Jones. And the Sun end up with only one draft pick in the middle of the first round.

On the plus side, Connecticut should be deeper than in years past. The Sun previously had just one first-round pick on a rookie contract (2022 selection Nia Clouden) and can now add two first-rounders to the mix, having already held the No. 10 pick.

How well Tyasha Harris fits in Connecticut is a key wild card. The No. 7 overall pick in 2020, Harris never emerged as a starter in Dallas and showed little statistical improvement after a solid rookie campaign. On a Sun team that was starved for playmaking from the point after Jasmine Thomas’ ACL tear, Harris’ 6.5 assists per 36 minutes could be helpful. Alyssa Thomas was the only Connecticut player to average more.

Ultimately, this looks like a step back for Connecticut. Granting Brionna Jones has improved since then, we saw how a team starting her, DeWanna Bonner and Alyssa Thomas looked in the bubble. The Sun went 10-12 in that regular season before pulling a pair of upsets to reach the semifinals. Connecticut might be a deeper and more modern WNBA team in 2023 with Allen supplying more shooting. Yet, it’s still unlikely the Sun will be better in the short or long term without Jonquel Jones.

Dallas Wings: A-

Amusingly, this is the second time the Wings have jumped into a multiteam trade involving Natasha Howard and the Liberty. Two years ago, they got the No. 1 pick from New York via Seattle. This time, Dallas is landing Howard in exchange for role players.

Kayla Thornton will be missed, particularly if the Wings ultimately trade starting small forward Allisha Gray. But going from Thornton to Howard is an upgrade, possibly a big one if Dallas sees moving Tyasha Harris’ $83,194 guaranteed salary as a positive.

Given new Wings head coach Latricia Trammell’s preference for versatile defenders, Howard looks like a fit. The interesting question is where Howard, who has played both power forward and center, slides into the Dallas lineup. Both Wings centers, Isabelle Harrison and Teaira McCowan, are free agents. (McCowan is restricted, meaning Dallas can match any offer to her.)

At 6-foot-2, Howard is undersized for a center, but that’s where she started in Seattle when Stewart was healthy, and the Wings could similarly put size next to her with 6-4 Satou Sabally. So we’ll see whether Dallas brings back either of its incumbent centers, who are less capable of defending on the perimeter than Howard.

There’s still plenty more to shake out from the Wings’ offseason, including another key restricted free agent (starting guard Marina Mabrey) and the possible Gray trade. For now, Dallas seems to be starting free agency in a more favorable position with Howard’s addition.

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