May 18, 2023 

2023 WNBA season preview: New York Liberty

'There's just this commitment to wanting to be great'

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When Han Xu sat in front of reporters on Monday afternoon’s New York Liberty media day, she stressed, in complete and full English, that a goal of hers during what might be the Liberty’s most pivotal season ever will to be more patient. She isn’t the inexperienced, nervous and lost 19- year-old who was navigating uncharted and complex waters.

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Now in 2023 she’s one of the most fascinating players in the WNBA, who doesn’t really have a ceiling to what she can achieve. The same could be said about Han’s team, the Liberty, a franchise that could have more talent on their roster in the history of the league. The Liberty, who acquired an MVP in Jonquel Jones in a trade, signed another MVP in Breanna Stewart and signed one of the greatest passers in league history in Courtney Vandersloot all in one single offseason, are charting an unprecedented course for a team in pursuit of its first WNBA championship in its 27-year history.

When Han was 19 years old, the Liberty were also trying to understand who they were and how under new ownership they could begin ascension after years of stagnation. Back in 2019, the front office felt like it was operating similarly to an expansion franchise following being exiled to the Westchester County Center and then being purchased by Joe Tsai and Clara Wu Tsai. The Liberty were trying to find themselves, and as was Han.

At the podium, Han described her first season with the Liberty as one where she was lonely, and upset when she wasn’t called on to play on the court and to participate. The same could be said of the Liberty’s first season out of the clutches of James Dolan and the Madison Square Garden Company. The WCC came with isolation, a lack of mainstream television exposure and an underwhelming amount of fan morale due to the facility’s limited capacity.

Now both Han and her team have found their approach and have learned how to function and move forward when life isn’t going their way. In 2020, the Liberty posted a 2-20 record in the Wubble without their No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu for most of the season. The following season, Ionescu wasn’t still healthy and much of the scoring onus fell on two-way threat Betnijah Laney, and then that load Laney carried in 2021 translated into the All-Star wing missing most of the 2022 season. Leading up to this moment, and aside from this past free agency period, the Liberty haven’t had their way often.

New York Liberty center Han Xu (21) shoots during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Han’s perspective and what she knows about not getting her way now informs her approach this season and beyond. “When you are not on the court, you just like: ‘hey c’mon.'”

Han furred her eye brows and stared clapping to simulate what she now does on the bench.

”… and talk to your teammates and give them energy,” she said on that Monday.

“And when you are on the court now you just do your best and enjoy your game. I think before I was always thinking too much, but now I just enjoy, enjoy my basketball.” At age 23, Han’s new approach toward how she plays the game, one with more patience, is exactly the way in which her team ought to approach the 2023 WNBA season.

It helps that they’ve had a full season under head coach Sandy Brondello, a calming force who stressed all year that the Liberty could still enjoy the process, the game itself and be a team that achieves success.

The calling card for Brondello and her players last season was figuring out how the franchise could put itself in a position for “sustainable success.” The Liberty became a much better team in 2022. They had the best offensive and defensive ratings a New York team has had since 2017, the final season of the Bill Laimbeer era. But in 2023, the Liberty don’t want to be just better, they want to be great. 

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The Liberty’s Lofty 2023 goals

Sabrina Ionescu, Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones address reporters on media day. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/ New York Liberty)

The Liberty’s current position in the WNBA pecking order was built out of a prophecy, or rather the self-fulfilling prophecy of Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb. Ever since the Liberty’s ownership moved the team away from White Plains and into Brooklyn, New York’s front office was building up and toward this moment. After three seasons from 2018-2020 where the team won all of 19 total games, the franchise understood what it could do to leverage its resources and location to land some of the most desirable players in the WNBA.

Aces center Kiah Stokes was in New York from 2015-2018 and then for the 2020 Wubble season in addition to some of the 2021 season. She remembered the vision that was festering and bubbling within the franchise.

“It’s funny because the GM in New York told me when I was there, ‘we really want to bring in a Stewie, a JJ just to really improve this program,’” she said prior to the Liberty’s preseason game against the Aces on May 13. “And two years later, I’m like, you did it. I think they do need a great season just because they are one of the original franchises and haven’t won yet.”

That simple fact will drive the Liberty during the 2023 season. On May 19, New York begins their quest toward changing it. But that goal, to be in the ultimate winner’s circle, comes with immense pressure and sky-high expectations. How will the Liberty manage such a high level of urgency at all times?

According to Kolb, managing the elephant in the room (the metaphorical one, not Ellie) will come from being meticulous in everything that the players, coaching staff and rest of the front office do on the day-to-day. They cannot skip any steps. And once the process and commitment to betterment are in place, the success the Liberty seek ought to follow. That’s the belief of not just Kolb but of Brondello as well.

“We don’t win championships in preseason,” she said. “We don’t win them at the start of the season, we win them at the end, so it’s the win the day. We have to come to work and get better today, and that’s building the foundation in the right way, not missing steps, because that’s when it gets back to haunt you.”

Olaf Lange, assistant coach and spouse of Brondello, explained that in years when he’s been involved in pro locker rooms and there’s been talk about championships, it usually didn’t happen. “If you guys come and talk to us about championships, we’ll probably ignore you,” he said on media day.

What makes New York’s elevated goals for the 2023 season attainable besides the star power that was acquired during the offseason was the talent New York was able to retain and re-sign in the process. On an episode of the Locked On Women’s Basketball Podcast, our Howard Megdal referred to the Liberty’s 2023 roster as ”the Noah’s Ark of rosters” not only due to the depth, but because there are at least two players able to fill each on court role.

Point guard Shooting guard Small forward Power forward Center
Courtney Vandersloot
Sabrina Ionescu
Marine Johannès

Sabrina Ionescu
Courtney Vandersloot
Marine Johannès
Betnijah Laney
Jocelyn Willoughby
Betnijah Laney
Kayla Thornton
Jocelyn Willoughby
Marine Johannès
Breanna Stewart

Breanna Stewart
Kayla Thornton
Jonquel Jones
Betnijah Laney
Nyara Sabally
Han Xu
Jonquel Jones
Stefanie Dolson
Han Xu
Breanna Stewart
Nyara Sabally

In addition to Ionescu and Laney filling out the Liberty’s starting five, New York’s bench unit might be more talented than some other starting lineups across the league. During training camp, Brondello referred to New York’s bench as one of their “strengths” that allows the Liberty to have more versatility and ability to adjust lineups when something on court isn’t working. 

Case and point: when the Liberty played their final preseason game in Las Vegas on Saturday, Brondello explained that she was trying to find the right player who could stop Kelsey Plum amid struggles from the starting unit. This is a luxury that not all WNBA rosters have.

The Liberty’s roster riches can be summed up by Brondello’s mention of the one player who hasn’t been in training camp and won’t be. “We’ve got Marine Johannès coming off the bench,” she said. “We know how special she can be.”

Speaking of Johannès, The Next can report that before starting EuroBasket preparation with the French National team, Johannès will report to Brooklyn to get settled, get her physicals done, meet with New York’s staff and get to know her new teammates. She’ll jet off to New York following the conclusion of the French league playoffs which run through the earliest May 20 and the latest May 22.

She’s expected to be with the Liberty from the completion of the French playoffs through when she needs to report back to Europe on June 1 for EuroBasket, per the CBA and the FIBA rules. This move indicates that Johannès is very committed to being a part of the historic team that the Liberty have assembled. The extra week allows her more flexibility and less of a logistical strain than when she returns following EuroBasket. If she were to arrive in New York for the first time following EuroBasket’s conclusion on June 25, the team would have three games in six days following her arrival rather than days without games between May 21 and May 27, her estimated time of arrival.

Johannés and her close friend Stefanie Dolson will both play pivotal roles coming off the bench this season, but what about who might not?

New York Liberty forward Nyara Sabally (8) and New York Liberty guard Betnijah Laney (44) box out Connecticut Sun center Olivia Nelson-Ododa (10) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

The decisions that the Liberty had to make

According to Her Hoop Stats, the Liberty will only house 11 players on their final roster this season. The locks besides the protected contracts of Jones, Laney, Vandersloot, Stewart, Dolson and Thorton are Ionescu, who just signed a two year extension, Johannés, Han and Jocelyn Willoughby who is on a protected rookie scale contract. New York believes that this season they need a player like Willoughby, a skilled and sharp communicator. The New Jersey native will do whatever is asked of her and knows how to make an impact on the floor without the ball in her hands.

With a lot of players on New York’s roster that can and are proficient at scoring and shooting the basketball, the Liberty value Willoughby’s ability to hit open shots, be a spacer, move the ball when she has it, get to the line when she can, and lock down other perimeter players while on defense.

After Willoughby is when the decisions became more difficult and the process of completing the back end of the roster became “agonizing” for Kolb, Brondello and the rest of the basketball operations staff. 

One final roster spot was up for grabs amongst five different players that have been in training camp. While Morgan Green, and in particular Stephanie Mawuli have impressed in training camp and in pre-season games, both players were brought to camp for the purpose of challenging the players the Liberty already have while also allowing for flexibility in the case of injuries. The Liberty aren’t taking any chances with their super star talent, and having a 15 person training camp was the way to do just that. The 24 year-old wing Mawuli and the 20 year-old power forward Sika Koné have proven that they have potential at the WNBA level. And for the Liberty, it was difficult to let two players with a lot of pro potential go. The plan will be to bring back Mawuli for next season’s training camp and if another WNBA team doesn’t swoop up Koné, there’s a possibility that the Liberty bring her back this season on a hardship contract.

New York Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince (10) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Expect the Liberty to employ many hardship contracts this season since they can only formally carry 11 players under the hard salary cap. And the first of potentially many will come on Friday, which was first reported by Winsidr. On Wednesday afternoon the Liberty waived native New Yorker Epiphanny Prince in order to finalize their 11-person roster, but Prince is expected to clear waivers in time for Friday’s season opener in Washington against the Mystics. While the New York talent evaluators weren’t sure what they were going to get from Prince, what impressed them most was how steady she was playmaking in addition to a respectable effort on defense amid her limitations. When the team watched film on their first preseason game against the Connecticut Sun, Brondello praised Prince for her effort running over ball screens and at 35, she was doing it better than most of the guards who were playing in that game.

With Johannès still competing for the French League title and the Liberty wanting to take a lot of caution with rookie Nyara Sabally, the final player that made this roster, the Liberty go under 10 players available and qualify for a hardship to begin the season. Speaking of Sabally, while she was working with the performance staff on agility drills during Wednesday’s practice, the decision for her to most likely not play for the first two regular season games is so the team can keep her as healthy as possible. In the past two weeks, she’s played more basketball than she has in two years. Prior to her surgery in 2022, she wasn’t practicing all that often during her final couple of seasons in college. Allowing her surgically repaired knee some time to breathe following the most activity she’s put on it in a long time is a priority for the Liberty.

Sabally really impressed in training camp, and proved to New York that their choosing her at fifth overall in 2022 was justified. The Liberty feel confident about putting her alongside any of their other posts. She has the athleticism of a power forward but with the size of a center. Her game is similar to Dolson’s with the addition of being able to put the ball on the floor and drive to the rim. In addition to Johannès having to pop in and out to fulfill national team commitments, the same will be for Han in June for the Asia Cup, a time when Sabally will get an opportunity.

The Liberty’s talent evaluators believe that with Sabally, they have a high-caliber player that will be with the organization for at least the next few years. “We want this, as Sandy and I have talked about ad nauseam, we want this to be incredibly sustainable,” Kold said on media day. “Part of that are rookie scale contracts, they’re, the production per dollar, what could we get out of that not only for now but looking forward. That’s a consideration.” And that was part of the consideration to go with Sabally rather than third-year player and fan favorite DiDi Richards.

Right now, Richards would be less expensive to keep on the roster than Sabally with the former earning $69,053 and the later making $71,300. But in the future, that could change. How high does Richards’ price look like in 2024, especially since New York didn’t pick up her fourth year option prior to being waived? It could be $76,535, 2024 vet minimum which is less than what Sabally will earn in 2024 ($72,727). The Liberty are consciously looking at how they can take advantage of rookie scale contracts so that they can have enough cap space to retain their uber talented core.

To get here, the Liberty at last understand who they are

Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney run a two-player game set during training camp. (Photo Credit: Brandon Todd/ New York Liberty)

The New York Liberty are, as Brondello puts it, “the hunted” in the WNBA. At this exact moment four years ago, being a team that had that type of a reputation was a dream rather than a reality.

The way New York got from point A (White Plains and the Wubble) to point B (the most anticipated season in team history) was going on a journey to understand what it truly means to be a part of the New York Liberty.

Coming out of the Wubble season, the two center pieces of New York’s roster in Ionescu and Laney were trying to figure it all out. Ionescu was still rehabbing her third degree ankle sprain while trying her best to play and Laney had just arrived in free agency from a completely different roster and team culture. The Liberty’s culture and what the team stood for as an organization on the court was theirs to build and theirs to discover.

Coming off years of isolation via playing White Plains or the limitations of COVID-19, the Liberty’s own fans didn’t really know who the team was. But under the grit and intensity from Laney, who willed the Liberty to their first playoff appearance since 2017 in 2021, and then through the clutch decision, shot making and leadership from Ionescu a season later, the fans were reintroduced to the Liberty. And the pair now know exactly what it means to wear the seafoam and black jerseys and play in Brooklyn, a certainty that helped the Liberty land three of the most desirable players in the WNBA.

Wearing the seafoam and black means being held accountable, being coachable, understanding roles, respecting teammates and being able to work toward a common goal. That was the qualitative list that Ionescu shared when I asked her at the team’s season ticket holder event on May 6, two years following the team’s first season at Barclays. “We’re excited to all be bought in and understand what it means to play for the New York Liberty,” she said. But I asked her again: what does it really mean?

And in two words, she spelled it out: “buy in.”

In order for this new historic super team to work, Laney explained that this team is about “giving more than we’re taking.” Ionescu didn’t even want to call the 2023 Liberty a “super team” but rather referred to her team as one “chasing greatness.”

“We want to do that for a really long period of time, and we’re all committed to one another,” she said prior to the team announcing that they had signed Ionescu to an extension through 2025.

That is what both Laney, Ionescu, the shareholders and stakeholders of the franchise believe will set the Liberty apart from other teams that have tried to assemble top tier talent and haven’t gotten the job done.

“We all want to win at the highest level and do it for each other, and I think that’s something different,” Ionescu told The Next. “There’s a lot of super teams out there that are doing it for themselves and for us it’s for one another and trying to accomplish goals for this organization, not for us as individuals and that’s the main thing for me. For all of us that are coming in there’s just this humbleness and there’s no ego and there’s just this commitment to wanting to be great.”

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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