April 14, 2022
Liberty add frontcourt depth in the 2022 WNBA Draft
But questions on roster, particularly international players, loom
On Monday night, the basketball operations and performance staff for the New York Liberty sat still anxiously awaiting for it all to be official. General manager Jonathan Kolb sat with hands clasped together right underneath his face while he watched his assistant General Manager Ohemaa Nyanin take the necessary steps to lock in the fifth overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft.
“The New York Liberty select Nyara Sabally from Oregon,” she said into the speaker phone that sat in the middle of the table. She then repeated herself: “Nyara Sabally from Oregon.”
Nyanin pushed a button that locked the pick in. Kolb shouted “All right,” clapping out of relief that at last the pick had been made. And new head coach Sandy Brondello put up her right fist in celebration and softly voiced her excitement.
Kolb high-fived Nayim while team owner Joe Tsai was capturing the excitement with his phone close to the door. Behind Tsai was a white board with some names written on it that previewed what lied ahead for New York in the draft.
Now travel over 3 miles North from Barclays Center to Spring Studios, which is located between Tribeca and SoHo, where ESPN’s Ryan Ruocco asked Betnijah Laney on the broadcast who she believed her team will select fifth. Laney had a feeling that New York would select a big and she was correct.
Once her name was called, Sabally was all smiles. She hugged her brother and then proceeded to get her picture taken with Commissioner Cathy Engelbert holding a black New York Liberty jersey followed by saying hello to her sister, Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally, on Zoom.
Following her interview with Holly Rowe, Sabally appeared behind an orange background to chat with media members in person and on Zoom. She was still unable to contain her smile.
“It’s a surreal moment,” she said. “It’s just something you look forward to your whole life and something I’ve been looking forward to all day. I’ve been nervous about it, but I’m just so glad that I could be here. It’s amazing to get drafted by New York. This city is amazing, the organization is amazing. It’s just very surreal, and I’m super excited.”
It didn’t take long for Sabally to be asked the obvious. After sitting out with a couple of knee injuries while at Oregon, she will finally get the chance play with fellow former Duck and current Liberty point guard Sabrina Ionescu.
Sabally’s “thrilled” to play with Ionescu and mentioned that she got to chat with Laney earlier, noting that “she’s such a sweetheart.” But Sabally had another connection to New York, and this one was on its coaching staff. She recalled a pre-draft chat she had with new head coach Sandy Brondello.
“I got to talk to Sandy,” she said. “She’s so cool. We found out we have a little connection, a little German connection. We spoke a little German. Her German is great.”
When Howard Megdal and I interviewed Brondello and Kolb for the WNBA Draft special of the Locked On Women’s Basketball Podcast, I asked her about this moment, and with humility, Bronello refuted Sabally’s comments about how her German was. “We did have a really good connection,” she said. “You know, I spoke a little bit of German. I’m not great at it. But you know, we got some familiar things that we have in common there.”
Where does the German connection come from? As we know, Sabally was born in Berlin, and so was Liberty assistant coach and husband of Brondello Olaf Lange. But besides her interpersonal connections with different players and coaches, why did the Liberty decide to draft Sabally and how exactly did they feel about her health? She only played two collegiate seasons and was limited this past season with another right knee injury.
Both Kolb and Brondello believe in Sabally’s ceiling. They believe her combination of skills—her agility at 6’5″, explosiveness handling the ball and scoring it in transition, her efficient back-to-the basket scoring and ability to stretch the floor—will add and complement the way in which New York wants to play basketball in 2022 and beyond.
Regarding Sabally’s health, Kolb explained that this was something he and his staff did their “homework on.” While he expressed that the Liberty are comfortable with where she stands health-wise right now, he explained his and the organization’s commitment to getting “her body right.”
“This is something where I think you’ve seen we really keyed in on patience and we really key in on development,” he said on Monday night. “I think Jocelyn Willoughby is somebody that’s an example of patience. And then I think you can see the development in people like DiDi Richards’ development and Michaela Onyenwere, people like that. I think you should look at this pick like that, where when she plays, I think we’re going to be really excited about her. And I think fans will be for a really long time and so we don’t want to be short sighted when you’re picking this high in the draft, we want to think long term.”
The type of patience he expressed was exactly how the team handled both Willoughby and DiDi Richards a year ago. Willoughby tore her achilles during a pre-season scrimmage last May, which left her on the bench for the season. And Richards arrived at training camp not fully healed from her hamstring injury that she sustained in the 2021 Elite Eight.
The Liberty’s approach to Willoughby was they allowed her to stay on the team and carve out a role for herself. She rehabbed while learning how to help her teammates with the scout of the Liberty’s opponents. Richards, however, got limited playing time before the All-Star and Olympic break while also working long hours in the gym with former assistant Dustin Gray. Once the W returned a month later, Richards was a much more prominent part of the Liberty’s rotation. New York will implement a similar approach to Sabally depending on what the team finds in her physicals before training camp.
Back in Brooklyn, and that white board that was behind Tsai: who were the names? There were two that stood out. Cubaj and Kone. But wait! New York only had two picks in the 2022 Draft. How were there two names up there? During the second round, the Liberty acquired the 18th overall pick from the Seattle Storm to select Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj, a defensive standout. In return, New York’s 2023 second round pick now belongs to the Storm.
In addition to Cubaj’s readiness on the defensive end, the Liberty were impressed by her playmaking skills as well. Cubaj finished her final collegiate season with 4.3 assists per game, a number that was in the 97th percentile in the country. Brondello values post players who can pass and that’s evident in Stefanie Dolson, who New York acquired in free agency. According to Brondello, if Sabally wasn’t there at five, the Liberty were considering taking Cubaj at that spot.
“We like her relentlessness on defense,” she told The Next on the Locked on Women’s Basketball podcast. “We really liked that part, but her ability to facilitate, that’s kind of rare. And we think she’s going to keep developing on her offensive skills, that having a post player that can set great screens and make the right passes for easy baskets to get our shooters open.”
And as for the final name on the wipe board: Kone. Sika Kone, the 19 year-old international prospect from Mali, was the Liberty’s final pick at 29th overall. Kolb admitted that she won’t be coming over this year, and like their third round pick from last year in Marine Fauthoux, Kone will be a prospect to “keep overseas” and allow her time to “continue to grow.” Kolb was impressed with her near double-double and perfect shooting performance against France in Belgrade during the World Cup qualifier. According to our own Em Adler’s Draft Board 2.0, Kone’s brand of athleticism and knack to rebound at will is what established her as a prospect with potential. In addition to what she brings on the court, the Liberty were impressed by who Kone is as a human being.
“Sika as somebody who you can hear her smile over the phone,” Kolb said. “She’s somebody that is just a bright light and we’re you know, adding another great person to the family over here.”
Questions about Liberty roster construction loom
Training camp will begin in a few days and there are still some questions about the outlook of the training camp roster and that of the final roster. First let’s begin with another player who the Liberty drafted when she was 19 years old, Han Xu.
A league source told The Next that Han has interest in returning to the Liberty this season. Initially, the Chinese National Team denied this request, but when the head coach of Han’s national team changed in January, a path became clearer for her return to the United States.
But then a bump in the road came after the Chinese National Team competed in the World Cup Qualifying tournament in Belgrade this past February. The team was held up in Serbia because there was a COVID outbreak on the roster. And upon her return back to China, Han would have to apply for a Visa to come the United States in addition to a three-week quarantine. Since she hasn’t been playing and training, would this all be worth it for her to come over with limited roster spots available?
And especially with two newly drafted post players that are currently in the United States in Sabally and Cubaj, it might be best for New York to suspend Han’s contract for yet another season.
Another player who hasn’t been on roster since 2019 is Marine Johannès, the modern version of the Statue of Liberty who wowed the Liberty’s limited Westchester Country Center fanbase with her European flare. While Johannès’ two year deal expired after she was suspended for the 2021 season due to her multiple French National team commitments including Eurobasket and the Olympics, the Liberty still hold her rights and are the only WNBA team she could possibly sign with for the 2022 season.
And as I have reported, both sides in Johannès’ camp and the Liberty want her to play in New York this season. So what’s the issue and why the hold up? First of all, Johannès most likely won’t be able to join the Liberty until June, which is when her domestic season in France will end. She currently plays for LDLC ASVEL Féminin, a team that is owned in majority by former San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker.
The reason her domestic season makes matters quite complicated is because of the Liberty’s salary cap situation. Do the Liberty sign her to a prorated minimum contract during the season to preserve cap space? But what if there are injuries, and the Liberty fall below ten players and need hardship contracts? This is all difficult to predict, which is why as of now, Johannès isn’t officially signed.
Besides salary cap space to consider, New York also has to remember that they have a limited amount of roster spots. Half of these spots are up for grabs and ten players including Han, Johannès and Asia Durr could be fighting for those spots. And this brings us to our next query, which is Durr (who uses they/them pronouns).
It’s difficult for the Liberty to pit Durr and Johannès against one another for a roster spot as one of the players is game-ready right now while the other is still battling back from a long two-year bout with COVID-19. Since they were cleared to play in November, Durr has been spending time training with the Liberty’s staff. They were seen working out on a court housed by Arizona State from the last week of February through March 1. Former assistant coach Dustin Gray was rebounding for them while current head coach Sandy Brondello was sitting in a chair on the side observing.
A league source told The Next that while they look good in individual workouts “endurance is still constantly an issue,” and there’s a concern over how that will translate over to game speed and 5-on-5 play.
Back in February, Durr spoke with the Louisville media since they were back at their alma mater for a home game. “I’m training five days a week,” they said. “One day at a time. It is hard you know. This is a journey because it’s not just about me being out for two years, it’s also about me being sick and me still having symptoms day in and day out. So for me most importantly is staying healthy and not getting frustrated and taking it one day at a time. This is something new. This is something new and I’m just trying to have fun.”
Durr explained that this recovery that they’ve been through for over two years has been different from anything they had ever been through. It’s not your typical injury. But Durr is optimistic.
“I’ll be ready,” they said on February 13. “Training camp is April 17, so one day at a time. I’m coming back from something that was very very very serious. So I have a great coaching staff and a great training staff that really get how serious this was and it’s no rush for me to be back for the first game but at the same time, I want to play and I will make sure I’m doing everything I can.”
Back to Johannès: this might be New York’s last chance to show her what the WNBA is all about. With the prioritization clause coming beginning in 2023, the French guard won’t be able to join a W team late without being fined if she continues to play for LDLC ASVEL Féminin. This is the Liberty’s time to make the case to her that playing in another league during the offseason will be worth it so she can continue to grow her career in the United States, and play for the best and most competitive league in the world.
On draft night, the Liberty added three more international players to their franchise in Sabally (Germany), Cubaj (Italy) and Kone (Mali). But the questions that loom now is what will happen to their other international players in Han (China) and Johannès (France), and will any member of their 2019 rookie class get a shot this season at the W?
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.