Difference Makers in the 2023 WNBA Finals
The WNBA Finals are approaching fast, and the majority of media coverage has been surrounding both teams’ respective poster players- A’ja Wilson and Breanna Stewart. They’re both two-time MVPs and were in the final three candidates for MVP this year, so it doesn’t seem like a coincidence that their teams- the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty- are in the Finals. However, as both the Aces and the Liberty are being referred to as superteams, it’s very worthwhile to acknowledge some of their other players who will carry just as much sway in the outcome of this series.
Jonquel Jones, now a forward for the Liberty, was the league MVP in 2021 with the Connecticut Sun. She was a key player in the 2022 finals, leading the Sun in scoring in their 1-3 series loss to, fittingly, the Las Vegas Aces. She’s competed in the playoffs in five of her six active seasons in the league. Her playoff experience will serve her well on a team that hasn’t made it past the first round of the semifinals since 2017.
Jones is the only player in WNBA history to win the Sixth Woman of the Year, Most Improved Player, and Most Valuable Player awards. She also just recently was awarded MVP of the 2023 Commissioner’s Cup, which New York won, in August.
Shockingly, on the season, she is only the Liberty’s fourth-highest scorer. However, she seems to be heading in an upward trajectory: in the semifinal series against the Connecticut Sun, her former team, she was the second-highest scorer for the Liberty, scoring about three points for every four of Stewart’s. She also recorded double-doubles in each of the four games. She’s on a roll heading into the Finals, and will surely be seeking revenge against the Aces, who prevented her from adding a championship to her long list of accolades.
Kelsey Plum for the Las Vegas Aces seems to have emerged into the limelight in the past few years. She was named the WNBA’s Sixth Player of the Year in 2021, and in 2022 had a starting spot and the second-most points scored this season across the entire league. She has kept this up, in sixth place for points scored in 2023.
Plum doesn’t like the superteam label for the Aces, saying, “There were years we weren’t super. Those of us who are homegrown players, every year we’ve seen the growth.” She has history with the Aces, joining the team when they were still the San Antonio Stars in 2017. In her first two years with the franchise, they did not qualify for the playoffs. Now, this is their third Finals series in four years, and they’re coming off a win in 2022.
Plum is Las Vegas’ second-highest scorer this season, after Wilson, averaging 18.7 points to Wilson’s 22.8. Plum consistently produces on an approximately even level to Las Vegas’ other two starting guards, Jackie Young and Chelsea Gray, who are all in the top 20 players who have scored the most points this season, along with Wilson. This statistic really shows the amount that the Aces function as a team, even though many of their players are stars in their own right.
Courtney Vandersloot is an interesting player for the Liberty, as she does not usually make headlines for her scoring, but rather for her assists and vision in a game. This has followed her for her entire career, and she led the league in assists in six different seasons. Up until the 2023 season, she held the all-time record for most assists in one season, with 300 (now held by the Sun’s Alyssa Thomas). She has many highlight-reel plays and is praised most often for her distribution. She is also a four-time WNBA All-Star.
Vandersloot is another player who only joined the Liberty this season. Previously, she had spent her whole career with the Chicago Sky, who drafted her in 2011 and won a championship with in 2021. She competed in eight playoffs with the Sky in her 12 years there. In these eight playoff qualifications, they only played in two Finals, including their win in 2021. However, this experience in playoffs represents only a sliver of Vandersloot’s overall experience. She is the Liberty’s oldest player, at 34, and her 12 years of experience are what will prove to be the most impactful to the Liberty.
Jackie Young is the Las Vegas Aces’ up-and-coming star. She was their #1 draft pick in 2019, and in that same year was named to the WNBA All-Rookie team. From this already high bar, she was named the league’s Most Improved Player in 2022, the same year that she won a championship with the Aces. In both 2022 and 2023, she was named an All-Star.
In a more quantifiable manner, she has also recently proven to have strength in all areas of the court. Usually, her shooting is her strongest suit, averaging 17.6 points per game in the regular season. Her shooting efficacy has dropped a little bit in the playoffs, but almost every other stat has come up to make up for it. Her number of rebounds, assists, and steals per game have all risen to 6.4, 5.0, and 1.8, respectively.
Young effectively complements the rest of the Aces’ stacked roster, and she is only coming into her peak now. This team doesn’t need any more shooting power when they have Wilson, Gray, and Plum on the offense. If Young can keep up the all-around strength, she will be exactly what Las Vegas needs to keep the Liberty at bay.
Both of these teams have a wide range of skills on show in various different players. They split the four regular-season games, but the Liberty beat the Aces in the Commissioner’s Cup final to win that title for the first time. This will be the Aces’ third WNBA Finals series in four years, while the Liberty have not been in the Finals since 2002. Obviously, the Aces are the defending champions, while the Liberty were the seventh seed and eliminated in the first round of the playoffs last year. However, they have put up equally good seasons this year, and have equally strong teams. It will be the #1 seed against the #2 seed. The battle of the titans will begin on ESPN on Sunday, October 8 at 3 p.m.