September 9, 2020 

Jocelyn Willoughby’s breakout game comes amid ‘some little cracks’

And why is the latest Liberty loss is partially about who didn't play

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The New York Liberty celebrate during the game against the Las Vegas Aces on August 29, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

The top story coming out of the Liberty’s 96-70 loss to the Sparks wasn’t amassing an unruly amount of turnovers or shooting incredibly low from the field. It wasn’t about how the Liberty’s 2-2-1 zone coverage that worked for a quarter. Jocelyn Willoughby’s impressive 7-for-8 shooting performance, including perfection (5-for-5) from three, felt inconsequential.

Amanda Zahui B. and Jazmine Jones did not play. Jones remained engaged cheering for her teammates whenever a basket was scored or a charge was taken. She sat in the middle of the first row of the socially distant bench, getting up, clapping, and even waving her sideline towel around when Joyner Holmes made an easy two on a cut to the basket. Zahui B., however, remained distant and away from the action, standing and then sitting away from her teammates, adjacent to the scorers’ table and behind assistant coach Dustin Gray.

On her 27th birthday, Zahui B. didn’t start. As for the person who started in her place, Jocelyn Willoughby, 2020’s 10th overall pick is proving that her versatile game and focus toward defense warrants a spot on this roster past 2020.

Willoughby shooting 87.5 percent from the field on Tuesday and defensive effort against Candace Parker was admirable. Earlier this season there were questions as to why she was having difficulty making the rotation due to initial shooting struggles and trouble finishing on her strong drives to the basket. On Tuesday, she got an opportunity and she relished it.

“You know the thing with Joce is she’s the quintessential teammate,” Hopkins said postgame. “She’s an eager learner. And it doesn’t matter if she’s playing or not playing, making shots, not making shots. She’s always going to do what’s necessary, she’s going to look out for her teammates. She shows up every day and wants extra film, extra work, extra shots. We’ve seen that work pay off a couple of times. This year and to come in and play the four and a have to guard one of the best players in history, in Candace Parker.”

Megan Walker took the bulk of Jones’ time on the floor, playing for over 22 minutes and scoring 8 points in the loss, tying her season-high. While shooting 3-for-11 from the field still isn’t pretty, Hopkins wanted to see how she responded to more playing time, “letting her play through some things.”

“It’s really tempting to leave the starting group out there all the time and it’s been something that I’ve fallen back to a lot probably like I said before the game, maybe a little too much,” he said.

Jocelyn Willoughby #13 of the New York Liberty shoots the ball against the Seattle Storm on August 18, 2020 at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via GettyImages.

Still, that doesn’t answer the question of the DNPs. So what was going on with Zahui B. and Jones? Both weren’t on the injury report. Both didn’t have a minute restriction like Kylee Shook, who is still nursing a rolled left ankle. While Jones played over 13 minutes off the bench in New York’s 83-67 loss to Phoenix, Zahui B. played for around 3 minutes.

What’s going on? Hopkins was asked twice pregame to expand on the decision to sit Zahui B. for extended time. He was asked: Is she in the dog house? This was his answer.

“We need to keep getting looks to what those guys can do, I probably should have gotten them more minutes a little sooner,” Hopkins said pregame on Tuesday. “Obviously we weren’t and still aren’t trying to tank the season so we’re doing everything we can to win every game. Unfortunately, some things haven’t gone our way. That’s all I have to say on the matter.” 

Speaking of tanking, Hopkins was asked to respond to disgruntled fans who find that New York is indeed tanking. He wasn’t having any of it.

What’s significant about pulling Zahui B. and Jones out of the rotation is that in a game where New York lost by nearly 30 points, it’s apparent that both players’ statistical outputs were missed. For a team that is second in the league rebounding, pulling down around over 36 boards a game before Tuesday, New York hauled down only 26 against the Sparks. Zahui B. has collected almost 9 a game. And for a team that attempts close to 20 free throws a game, the Liberty only attempted 16. Jazmine Jones attempts over four per game.

“To the point of tanking, we don’t need to,” Hopkins said pregame. “We don’t need to tank. We’re playing extremely hard night in and night out. And as I’ve said, the development of the team, that’s been number one and going into this season is seeing what we have, who works in the long term, who fits what we’re trying to do.” 

That should be the goal in the final week: to figure out who continues with New York and whose play adheres best to the system. The game plan is to see some more rookies who have garnered less minutes before difficult decisions are made in the offseason. With all else being equal, Zahui B.’s lack of playing time could make sense. But why in two straight games and why doesn’t New York employ the same for Kiah Stokes?

If Kylee Shook can continue to get healthier and more mobile in the final days, she and Joyner Holmes should be given opportunities in addition to Willoughby. Also, Ben Dull argued that Shook should be placed alongside two wings. Could we see Shook play with Willoughby, Walker and Odom? It’s possible and it should happen if Hopkins and co. want to get a justifiable sample size in minutes for everyone.

Also, Jazmine Jones typically sees over 19 minutes a game, and is even getting honorable mentions for Rookie of the Year, so all of this speculation could be nothing. Or it could be something. This is the final year on Amanda Zahui B.’s contract. Does someone who looked like a key building block of Hopkins’ system move on from the Liberty in 2021?

“You know it’s been ups and downs, she had a really nice streak there and then kind of regressed a little bit so that’s all part of…that it’s all part of becoming a leader,” Hopkins said on Zahui B.’s growth on Tuesday. “You know when you haven’t been [one], those are all things you’ve got to learn.”

Is Zahui B. a leader for this team moving forward? Are Hopkins and General Manager Jonathan Kolb as high on her as they were before the season?  

Joyner Holmes told reporters on Monday that Hopkins addressed the team, calling for everyone to have compassion for each other in this final week. When asked why he thought he needed to communicate that message to the players, he compared the situation to senior-itis. He remarked that for the most part, this young group hadn’t withdrawn from each other, but heading into the final days, the exhaustion and collective frustration might be getting to them.

“It’s something we haven’t done all year really, we’ve done a pretty remarkable job staying together,” he said. “And we’re starting to see some little cracks, and so, it’s understandable, it’s human, it’s not anything that you know is hit the panic button or anything like that, it’s more like this could have happened a month ago. I think we’re seeing a little bit of factioning, so I’m going to have to step in and clean some of that out but that’s all part of it.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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