August 27, 2021
DiDi Richards has found her footing in a New York Minute
Richards, on Wednesday night, showed she belongs in New York
BROOKLYN — Crystal Robinson was inducted into the Liberty Ring of Honor Thursday night, but the postgame press conference with New York head coach Walt Hopkins was anything but celebratory following a 106-79 loss to Phoenix.
After lamenting his team’s early effort, Hopkins pinpointed when things changed, in his view. “Odds are pretty high that we put DiDi [Richards] in,” he said. “…DiDi executed the defensive game plan and she brought the energy we needed.”
After what was a vulnerable postgame presser from Coach Hopkins and three of his players including Richards, Robinson greeted the rookie as she made her way off the podium. Robinson tapped her and congratulated her on what was the brightest part in the Liberty’s brutal home loss. When Robinson was asked what she saw from Richards that made her stand out on a night when New York just didn’t have it, Robinson replied that she saw the New York State of Mind that she and her teammates embodied in the late 90s to early 00s.
On a night when Robinson was the focal point of celebrating the New York Liberty in the past, Richards reminded the Liberty legend of who and what this team needs to be. It’s what other Liberty Legend Teresa Weatherspoon preaches as the gospel of this original WNBA franchise. What it takes to play in New York is a certain level of grit that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Weatherspoon and Robinson embodied the city in how they played.
“I think that DiDi is definitely one of the players on this team that embodies the New York state of mind, that embodies that hard work because her effort and energy is something that is hard to coach,” she said. “To me she brings that workhorse mentality to this team and sometimes those players don’t always show up in stats.”
But as of late, Richards has been showing up in the final box. She has averaged 20 minutes a game since returning from the Olympic break and shot 12-for-17 from the field with an 89.5 true shooting percentage. Her breakout game came on Wednesday night where she shot 4-for-5 from beyond the arc and scored 14 points — a feat that assistant coach Jacki Gemelos wasn’t sure she would be able to achieve this year. This was player who only attempted one three pointer in college and had a reputation as primarily a defensive stopper with some playmaking abilities.
So how did Richards get from point A — the fear that comes from trying to acquire a skill set that was just as new as it was uncomfortable to point B — challenging Diana Taurasi to come out and guard her while making a three ball in her face?
It came down to the external confidence that she received from her coaches and teammates transferring inward, along with the many hours of hard work that she put in with Liberty assistant Coach Dustin Gray and player operations staffer Griffin Kent. She comes in before practices to continue working on her shot and then she stays after practice to follow up with that individual work.
“I’ve had them in there for some hours and me kicking the ball and throwing the ball down the court and getting angry,” Richards said postgame about what that process has been like. “But I think it’s paying off and it’s showing and I’m just hoping that we as a team can keep building and collectively and apply it to the game and win more games basically.”
It was evident during warmups Wednesday night, watching her hit 10 three balls in a row, her teammates delightedly shouting “You’re a shooter, not a liability!” Inside of a single season, Richards and the Liberty have been able to develop a shot that now looks unlike any other in this league.
When Richards catches the ball, she slowly bends her knees, gets on her toes, and hauls with her right arm following through with the ball as her left arm follows behind in one fluid motion. The angle she makes with arms lining them up to her head is more acute than how her sharpshooting teammates Sami Whitcomb and Rebecca Allen let it rip, but that doesn’t matter. If her shots land in the cup and she has ample time to make them because her opponent leaves her open, her unique form for now isn’t an issue.
According to Richards, she has the best shot the Liberty have when she’s on the floor and that’s something her teammate Betnijah Laney has stressed to her in practice. When defenders choose to defend the paint rather than Richards, she has the opportunity to make them pay, something she did not once, twice, but quadrice in Wednesday’s game against the Mercury.
This approach of the Liberty rookie is something that even motivates the veteran players on this roster.
“I think it’s just great seeing someone working on their game every day,” Allen said of her teammate. “I think it motivates people around them as well. I don’t think she realizes the impact that by her doing that extra work has on everyone else around her. And you see it when she comes into the game, just this energy player. And again, it builds others around her too.”
Allen also emphasized how Richards’ route in her own development has been on the fast track. For a player who was an offensive liability in college to transform in less than six months into someone that needs to be guarded and taken seriously on the perimeter and off the dribble is an anomaly.
“I love seeing how much you’ve grown already,” Allen said while looking directly at Richards postgame.
“In a… really short space of time and being able to hit that shot from three, you’re making players having to come out and guard you like that and then you’ve got your rip drive too. Yeah, she’s a player to continue watching, just growing for the rest of the season and the next.”
When the Liberty addresses the future once the 2021 season comes to a close, Richards should be top of mind. While there were questions about her sticking on the roster versus since-waived veterans such as Layshia Clarendon and Kiah Stokes, the rookie’s steady development and desire to continue working will be such a boon for New York.
“She’s another really versatile athletic multi-positional player with a really strong work ethic and a lot of tenacity in game on court,” Hopkins said of Richards. “Players like her Jaz [Jones] Jocelyn [Willoughby], they are really really valuable players. A lot of it is mental. They are really just determined people.”
Whenever Richards is faced with a difficult situation on the court, if it be a foul call she disagrees with or trying to secure an offensive rebound that slips through her fingers, she channels that frustration with style and swag. Her eyes get narrow and she makes sure she gets a hair-flip in. It’s her way of expressing herself and feeling her young adult angst without putting her team in a difficult position. That’s her own flare that she adds to New York, something that was already within her while at Baylor. But what has changed however, is her understanding of how progress works at the pro level rather than in college.
“The game is just going to love me as much as you love it,” she said before Wednesday’s game. “I think the game is gonna love you as much as you love it. So if I continue to put work in the gym, I think it will continue to love me back.”
While at the Mets game on Thursday night, Richards appeared on her own Instagram Live enjoying not only a 80 degree night in Flushing while wearing her own customized jersey, but she also was enjoying a New York staple: a hot dog. “One thing I love is a hot dog,” she said on her Instagram live. That New York culture has already permeated inside of her.
When Liberty legend Robinson spoke after her Ring of Honor Ceremony of how New York and the Liberty had made her, she noted that coming from the ABL and the Colorado Xplosion, she was just a scorer and a shooter. Playing in New York taught her how to be tough in the gym. Going to practice every day in New York gave her a newfound level of determination, competitiveness and hustle that Weatherspoon always explains is an integral part of representing the organization.
Richards, however, represents the contrapositive to Robinson. The current Liberty rookie arrived instead in New York with the tools she needed to embody the city. And that is hard to coach.
Now she’s got a shot that will keep her on the floor.
Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this piece.