May 2, 2022 

2022 WNBA season preview: New York Liberty

Will the Liberty win more basketball games under Sandy Brondello?

BROOKLYN — On Saturday, Liberty season ticket holders got a first look of what the team looks like leading into the 2022 regular season. For a showing that was initially a preseason game (more on that later), fans had the opportunity to watch some of the roster compete against each other and then against the team’s set of practice players in a mini four quarter scrimmage.

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During the final frame of the scrimmage, head coach Sandy Brondello noticed something that was unacceptable and she made sure the team was aware of it. The Liberty turned the ball over, a play which would have led to a transition score at the other end for team practice player. But Brondello had seen enough, and whistled through her teeth to stop the play. During a interplayer scrimmage, she had some license and was able to stop and rewind rather than allowing the season ticket holders have to witness a lackadaisical play from their team. But stopping and rewinding didn’t mean Brondello was going to let this go. She let her team have it.

“Do it again,” she said sternly. “Can’t be lazy.”

Earlier that week, assistant coach Olaf Lange was asked during media day about what the Liberty fanbase should know about head coach Brondello. He smiled, laughed and said “I’m married to her.” He knows more than most about Brondello.

“She appears to be a very player oriented coach and she is,” he said. “She’s a very nice person. She’s a very positive, but don’t ever underestimate her competitiveness. She’s a very competitive person. She finds a lot of ways under the surface that the media and the fans will not see to get her points across. But at the end of the day, she’s a player’s coach. She’s a former player, she understands the grind as well as [another assistant coach] Roneeka [Hodges] does and some of the players because she’s been there. And she understands that it’s a players game. And I think she finds a very good way of being able to teach them but then eventually to let them play because it’s a players game and they will have to be able to make decisions on the floor.”

While she’ll award her players a certain level of autonomy to make the right reads, Brondello expressed on media day that she wants to play with pace, a style that has been floated amongst Liberty land ever since Katie Smith was the coach. Remember when Smith had a roster oversaturated with guards?

But Brondello emphasized that there has to be a balance between playing in transition while also playing at a speed where her players can make informed decisions. She doesn’t want the Liberty to feel sped up, which will lead to turning the ball over rather than turning other teams over. Last season, the Liberty turned the ball over 16.9 times per game, the worst in the W. And their ability to turn over their opponents wasn’t much better. They finished ninth, right above the Indiana Fever with 12.6 takeaways forced per game.

A pattern I’ve seen so far during Liberty training camp in 2022 is how the team is recalling promises that were made a year ago but weren’t realized. In 2021, New York was a team that hopped onto Zoom calls explaining their defensive focus. They talked about the commitment to making their opponents feel the Liberty when New York was on defense.

They had the third-worst defense in the league.

New York was a team that was going to play to the percentages, taking three point shots in conjunction with easier twos in the paint. A balanced offense was what the Liberty didn’t have. They made the most threes a W team has ever connected on in a season, breaking the Mystics’ 2019 record with 321 threes in a regular season.

The Liberty weren’t a threat inside. Brondello explained what her on court values were and how they differed from what we saw from the Liberty last season. She was asked what statistical and analytical metrics she’d like to see her team excel in this season.

Scoring points in the paint and getting post touches were the first items on her list. She referenced getting to the line more this season as the Liberty scored the second least amount of points from the charity stripe last season. She doesn’t want this team to settle for an outside shot unless the look is wide open.

“Assist to field goals made, that’s important too because that means we’re playing together as a team,” Brondello said.

Some Brondello-isms that Liberty fans should start getting used to are the desires to have “an inside-outside attack” — paint touches and scores in addition some wide open three point shots—with a lot of “ball-player movement”, which refers to players moving while off the ball meanwhile those with the ball are actively reversing the ball to get an open look rather than offensive creation solely on isolation play. When the Liberty froze on offense last season, often the result was creation on the ball from either Betnijah Laney or Sabrina Ionescu.

But what does all of this change mean for the players themselves? Ionescu was asked about what she believes this season represents for this team. Her first thought was in her team’s identity. The Liberty’s self-described mode of operation last season didn’t translate into a ton of winning and a deep postseason run.

“For all of us there’s a sense of urgency,” she said. “We don’t want to wait a couple of years to get to playoffs. We know we have the talent to do that now and so there’s a sense of urgency of like ‘why not us’. Why can’t we get a new coaching staff and a new change and do that this year or do that the following year. I think the identity of this team is going to come out really soon and it’s going to last for a long time.”

Smaller training camp, roster outlook for Liberty

The Liberty tried something a bit different this year in training camp. They made an effort to limit the players they had in camp. They only had one invite, Paris Kea, who has since been waived. And because of global conflict in Eastern Europe, Natasha Howard was able to be on time for training camp, something she probably hasn’t experienced since her rookie season. Laney was stateside on team and league marketing deals with Richards also completed a team marketing deal. Ionescu and Willoughby both rehabbed in the U.S. with Willoughby also working toward her masters at the University of Virginia.

Michaela Onyenwere left Spanish team Spar Girona early. Kylee Shook and Sami Whitcomb returned to New York on time from overseas seasons in Australia. Cubaj jetted over to training camp following the April 11 WNBA Draft. And finally, Han Xu and Asia Durr (who prefers to be referred to as AD and uses they/them pronouns) returned after spending two seasons out of the league.

The two late arrivals this training camp are Stefanie Dolson, who has since arrived and Rebecca Allen, who is yet to land in the US. She’s currently competing in the Spanish league semi-finals. And then there’s the possibility that French combo guard Marine Johannès arrives in the middle of June once the French playoffs have concluded. If Johannès chooses to come over, she’ll obviously miss all of training camp followed by the first month of the season.

With no more than 12 or 13 players in training camp at a time, the plan was to limit the numbers in camp so that Brondello and her staff could focus on organic relationship building leading up to the season. Sami Whitcomb explained the methodology a bit more during the first week of camp.

“But I also think there’s something really special about bringing in kind of the core group that you’re going to need and maybe only having one or two that are competing or fighting for these final spots,” she said. “And I just think it keeps it close-knit, it keeps it so that we’re really building and developing these relationships that are going to be really paramount throughout the course of the year. It’s tougher I think sometimes when you’re doing that with maybe 17 or 18 players and maybe every day, every second day people are getting cut. That can be tough as well, to experience as a whole. So I think this way, we’re all really getting to know each other already. We’re developing chemistry on the court, there’s less people in and out. And hopefully that will be something that really, come game one. we’re a little bit ahead of the game in terms of that camaraderie.”

But that plan backfired when illness and injury forced the team to cancel New York’s only official preseason game against the Washington Mystics. And the Tuesday before, the Liberty only brought nine players to Connecticut for their closed scrimmage against the Sun.

When it comes to trimming down the roster before May 5, the Liberty won’t have to do all that much. After announcing on Monday that Kylee Shook will sit out the 2022 season due to personal reasons, New York can suspend her contract while holding onto her rights with the possibility of a return to training camp next season. Including Allen, but excluding Johannès the Liberty have 12 players on roster for the 2022 season.

Another cut will have to be made if Marine Johannès does come over. There has been a mutual desire for her to play in seafoam and black this season for months. But the concern has always been predicting how the Liberty might need to use their salary cap without much flexibility. With Shook officially suspended, the Liberty have $103,652 left for if Johannès joins them and for any hardship contracts if the Liberty deal with serious injuries this season, which is always possible.

As to who I believe might be on the hot seat if the French import arrives, what I’ll be watching out for is how wing minutes are split between Allen, Willoughby and Onyenwere. According to Brondello, Willoughby impressed in the scrimmage against the Sun. And when asked who should be the player on roster who’s going to surprise the general public, players and coaches were united in their thinking: Willoughby. What happens to Onyenwere’s minutes?

With DiDi Richards being given a larger role handling the ball this season by Brondello and Lange, don’t expect the sophomore to be going anywhere. Richards will be leading the offense with the second unit, shadowing the type of role Laney filled in 2021. The other player to watch will be how AD adjusts to playing five-on-five at full speed. After two years out of the league including a rookie season mostly spent watching due to an undiagnosed labral tear, I don’t expect the adjustment to be easy. And the only official rookie on the roster, Lorela Cubaj, is expected to contribute right away and “help [this team] immediately” according to a team Instagram post which included an interview with assistant coach Zach O’brien. Below are the different lineup possibilities that the Liberty could employ this season.

Point Guard Shooting guard Small Forward Power Forward Center
Sabrina Ionescu
Sami Whitcomb
*Marine Johannès
DiDi Richards
Sami Whitcomb
Asia Durr (AD)
Betnijah Laney
Rebecca Allen
*Marine Johannès
Betnijah Laney
DiDi Richards
Rebecca Allen
Michaela Onyenwere
Jocelyn Willoughby
Natasha Howard
Lorela Cubaj
Jocelyn Willoughby
Michaela Onyenwere
Stephanie Dolson
Han Xu
Lorela Cubaj
The different positional combinations of the current New York Liberty roster. * Johannès hasn’t officially signed a contract, but she is expected to come over after she finishes competing in the French league’s postseason.

A pivotal year for Sabrina Ionescu

After two years of being bogged down by a third degree ankle sprain, this season all eyes will be on the 2020 No. 1 overall pick Ionescu. Brondello sees her as a leader of this team, growing alongside the more veteran guards in Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb. On the Liberty’s April 28 media day, Ionescu credited the pair for not only guiding her but for being patient with her as well.

“Definitely these two sitting next to me have probably been of the most impact to me, just being guards and being great leaders,” Ionescu said about Whitcomb and Laney. “And they’ve gone through many experiences. I think like Sami was talking about how she’s learning about that through other people’s stories, but it all tells a story and it tells a story on the court.”

Ionescu is referencing the road that both Laney and Whitcomb took to get here. The long journey to get to being a starting-caliber player on the New York Liberty. Both worked doggedly to make rosters over their careers, proving to Ionescu that having a prolific college career doesn’t define her professional one. But Ionescu has never been a player that rests on her laurels. She’s been at her best when she’s put in the work. It was how she held her team accountable in college.

Sabrina Ionescu dribbles the ball in a closed scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun. Photo Credit: Josh Sawyer

So battling a serious injury for multiple seasons changes the approach for someone who all they know how to do is work long hours in the gym tossing up shots. Ionescu has even admitted that she returned too soon last year and wasn’t quite ready. Last season she learned that playing when you aren’t healthy isn’t always the answer. She learned that playing through something isn’t productive.

“I think it’s just kind of trying to understand the big picture and I have great a great team around me that’s been helping me just figure out the balance,” she said on media day about how she manages her workload with preservation. “But at the end of the day, there’s a lot of ways that you can work and improve your game without it being on the court shooting shots and whether that’s in the weight room or figuring out different ways to do that. That’s what I’m continuing to do.”

In the huddle before the scrimmage on Saturday and even after practices, Ionescu was noticeably speaking more and taking ownership that this is her team. The Liberty go as she does.

What is the Liberty formula for sustainable success?

When Willoughby was asked about what this season represents for the New York Liberty, she reiterated another Brondello-ism. “I feel like we’ve made strides in the past couple of seasons, and this is a year where I feel like we can really turn the corner and become a good team and a great team,” Willoughby said. “And so making that sustainable also.”

The term “sustainable success”: what does it mean in the context of the Liberty? It means that the expectation is consistent playoff appearances and much more winning each season than just 12 total games.

What does she believe the equation is to put that goal into action? Besides moving the ball, being selfless with it and balance in scoring, what Brondello has emphasized the most has been defense and developing a tougher team.

Willoughby reiterated this. “I would say a level of toughness and a level of grittiness is something that we can expect from us,” she said. “We’re long and versatile and mobile, we’ll definitely be getting up on people on both ends of the floor and looking to be more of the aggressor.”

But how do we know that after the unkept promises of last season that Brondello and her staff have put their money where their mouths are?

Onyenwere was asked about the differences she sees between training camp this season and last. The difference I see is the defensive intensity,” she said. “We were scrimmaging probably like the second day. So you saw Sandy’s vision and what she wanted for our team.”

While Onyenwere and Richards continued to equate defensive productivity and intensity with general buy-in and effort, when Cubaj was asked about what she believes are the building blocks of defense, and she went into a bit more detail.

She explained that to be great defensively, team chemistry is vital. (Maybe that’s another reason for the Liberty’s smaller group in camp.) When a team has chemistry, a trust is established and Cubaj views defensive success as a result of communication on defense. But then the rookie wipped out an extended metaphor.

“I feel like that’s the first component, building chemistry with your teammates and from there building the trust and being cohesive all the time and just being a fist,” she said.

A fist. What does that mean exactly? Once media day concluded, there were rumblings around that the fist metaphor is one that Brondello preaches in practice.

A couple of days later before the Liberty were about to scrimmage their own practice players on Saturday, Brondello addressed her team with a fist and put it on her chest. The team watched, listened and then followed suit by placing a fist to the chest.

Written by Jackie Powell

Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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