February 17, 2021
Natasha Howard looks to ‘make things shake’ this season in New York
Acquiring Howard reveals what the Liberty learned about last season
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After the 2020 WNBA season, both Natasha Howard and the New York Liberty were looking for more. For the Liberty, the team just finished 2-20, the worst in franchise history and the second-worst in league history. And for Howard, she just won her third championship, hardware that not many current players in the league can say they have.
Since the Liberty received the number one overall pick in December, that they ended up leveraging to land Howard, GM Jonathan Kolb has been clear about exactly what he wanted to accomplish and exactly what the Liberty wanted in 2021. The Liberty’s “Hybrid Rebuild” aims to combine elite league talent in their prime to complement the young core that New York has attained since Kolb began his tenure as general manager in 2019.
As for what Howard’s intentions were in coming to New York, she said that being reunited with head coach Walt Hopkins, who she’s known since her rookie year with the Indiana Fever, and top assistant Shelley Patterson, who she won a championship with in 2017, was definitely a factor in making the change.
“Walt knows me as a player as a person, so I’m happy to be a part of the New York Liberty, and also to you know make things shake this season,” Howard told reporters when she addressed the media on Friday.
She also noted multiple times that moving to the east coast allows her to be closer to family and friends during the season, opening up the potential for her loved ones to see her play. But what Howard really wants is to be able to show the league who she really is.
Coming to the Liberty gives her the opportunity to consistently impact the game. With the return of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart in 2020, Howard’s usage rate endured a 24.11 percent decrease from her All-Star season in 2019. She’s someone who not only looks to shape a young team with potential but also she wants her altruistic ambitions off the court to speak just as loud.
“[I want to] show people that this is really me and I’m just a giving person like as a player and as a person as well,” she said. “So I’m just really excited to have the opportunity that I’ve been waiting for since I started into the league. So I’m finally getting an opportunity to show what I’m capable of on and off the floor.”
In addition to this new partnership appearing to be symbiotic for both parties involved, what adding Howard reveals is what the Liberty learned about themselves post the Wubble. After a season filled with many missed shots and many young players, New York did an “autopsy” on their system and their results. They realized the importance of defense, how important veteran leadership and postseason experience are, and whose skills are best suited to surround Sabrina Ionescu, the piece that this franchise plans to build around for years to come.
Turning defense into offense
Howard enters a new market that has fans who are hungry to win. She knows that. And on Friday, she gave the New York fandom what they can expect from their new starting center. She listed qualities such as her work ethic, her understanding of teamwork, her athletic abilities to run the floor (her alias is “The Flash” for a reason), and her focus on defense.
“I love playing defense,” she said during the presser. “I love getting into somebody’s skin and making them uncomfortable. A lot of players don’t like it in the league and stuff. That’s my identity. Just be me on the floor.”
In 2020, the Liberty’s defense was a bright spot relative to the statistical disappointment on offense. Drafting defensive-minded players in Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, Jocelyn Willoughby, and Leaonna“Neah” Odom allowed the Liberty’s defense to rank 9th and the highest of all the 2020 draft lottery teams. 2019’s roster only had two rookies, but New York’s defense was the worst in the league and was known for its lackadaisical play.
While New York was tied with Phoenix for the least opponent fast-break points per game, they finished last in opponent points off turnovers per game. Clearly, there was more effort from players who have different values, but finishing with the fourth-worst defense in the league still isn’t laudable.
Head coach Walt Hopkins noted on Friday that because of the influx of first-year players, defensive schemes were simplified. The objective in 2020 was to get the whole roster on the same page defensively with the hope that they could “master” one of the schemes. But with Howard in addition to Betnijah Laney, and the return of Rebecca Allen, whose defensive capabilities have been undersold with her “spida”-like build, the Liberty can “turn up the heat” defensively. Hopkins pointed to not only Howard’s versatility as a defender, including her razor-sharp anticipation skills but to her breadth of defensive knowledge. She’s played in defenses designed by Gary Kloppenburg and Cheryl Reeve.
“She’ll change based on the team she’s playing,” Hopkins said of Howard. “And we feel really confident that we’re going to be able to do things defensively now that we really couldn’t tap into last year, in spite of the fact that we have all these young legs and athletic players, I think that fans are going to be really excited to see the ways that we’re going to use this deep young roster defensively.”
While Hopkins’ strengths are geared toward offense rather than defense, he expressed what he’s learned about his five-out motion offense and how vital a thriving defense is for its success. In 2020, New York had the league’s worst true shooting percentage. What’s a solution when shots aren’t falling? Turn your defense into your offense.
To win a championship in this league, the team defense matters. In the past five years, only the 2019 Washington Mystics won a championship with a defense ranked outside the top three. But Washington’s defense wasn’t near the bottom echelon either. In the Mystics’ championship season, Mike Thibault’s defense ranked sixth. (It helped that the 2019 Mystics had the best offensive efficiency in the history of the league.)
“You know the defense is really the place where you can achieve consistency,” Hopkins told reporters on Friday. “And that’s something that I think we’ve seen in the NBA and WNBA for years that the best teams consistently have good defenses and championships consistently have good defense. And that can be your rock when the ball is just not going in. That can feed your offense and get you more easy buckets. A good defense makes your offense better.”
Howard’s commitment to playing defense and knowledge of multiple defensive schemes and patterns should provide the rising second-year players with resources and examples to follow.
“Just being nitty and gritty on the defensive end, and when I started doing that, that’s when my other teammates, will follow too as well,” 2019’s DPOY said.
Winning can become a reality with veteran leadership
In 2020, the Liberty assembled a roster that consisted of four younger veteran players relative to their seven rookies. The term “young vet” or “baby vet” was born. It was an experiment that was incredibly ambitious but didn’t end up yielding the most desirable results.
The Liberty learned that veteran leadership doesn’t necessarily equate to age, but rather equates to the roles that a player has embodied in their career and the situations they’ve played in. A player who has a) many minutes of experience starting and b) has ample playoff experience is exactly what New York gets with Howard. This is what they were without in Bradenton.
Hopkins noted that Howard is someone who leads by example in not only her work ethic but in her disposition as well. He reminisced back to when he used to see her arrive at practice in Minnesota. She was a “light and joy to be around” with a steady mood. And that’s what Hopkins expects in New York. He expects Howard to be comfortable among like minds who just want to work.
But Howard might look to get a bit more vocal on her new team. She wants her new teammates to know that she aims to be the type of leader who not only will help push them through what may be uncomfortable but someone who they can lean on and trust. Howard explained how she learned Leadership 101 from her former Seattle Storm teammate Sue Bird.
“Bringing them underneath my wing as well, you know you’re guiding them in the right direction. You’re pushing them to the level that they’ve never been pushed before, but in a respectful way and you’re showing them love,” she explained on Friday. “Like ‘Hey, I know you can do this. And I know you’re capable of doing it. Let’s get out of your comfort zone and make something that you’ve never done before.’”
That wisdom will benefit a bunch of second-years who will continue to develop their confidence as relative newcomers in the league. Howard might as well have a mini-her on this New York squad in Odom. When the Liberty were scouting Odom before the 2020 draft, assistant coach Shelley Patterson compared the former Duke Blue Devil to Howard, as Odom possesses similar athleticism and quickness. Odom values defense just as much as Howard, and so much so that she has her sights set on winning Defensive Player of the Year.
Howard looks toward guiding young players like Odom and showing them “what hard work looks like.” But the former DPOY doesn’t have to carry that load alone. She’ll have help from 2X WNBA champion Sami Whitcomb, 2020’s Most Improved in Betnijah Laney and Layshia Clarendon.
Building around Sabrina Ionescu
When she played for the Oregon Ducks, not only was Ionescu known as the triple-double queen, but she was pick-and-roll royalty as well. While Ionescu only played in two and a half games in 2020, the Liberty shied away from screen-and-rolls and only finished a play with them under six percent of the time. With Howard as New York’s starting center—who Hopkins referred to as a “nightmare” to try to defend on pick-and-roll— expect that percentage to skyrocket.
In addition to unleashing Howard on pick-and-roll, Ionescu will be surrounded by more shooting, a luxury that if she played the full 2020 season, she might not have had. As of now, even amid the will they/won’t they Tokyo Olympics, Hopkins expects Marine Johannès and Rebecca Allen to return to the Liberty. He has kept up with both of their overseas seasons and has even tried to communicate with them once a week. He believes that their presence and ability to space the floor, coupled with Johannès’ playmaking ability and Allen’s ground game will take the pressure off of Ionescu, who will be finding her footing in her first *full* professional season.
And that includes on defense as well. With Howard and Laney’s defensive prowess, Hopkins and co. will be able to scenario plan around the inevitable. Similarly to what Asia Durr went through during her rookie season in 2019, offenses will attack Ionescu and go after her flaws on defense. But the difference this time is who Ionescu will have around her, versus the very thin defense Durr worked with almost two years ago.
But back to the offense for a moment. Hopkins equates the roster to a “pick your poison situation” where teams are going to have to decide to either guard Howard slipping out of a ball screen, try to defend the sharpshooting of Johannès, Allen, and Whitcomb, or prevent Laney from charging to the rim from the wing.
“All these things are just going to make life easier for Sabrina, and that’s something that you really need to do when you have a player that teams are going to key in on,” Hopkins said. “One of the focuses is absolutely to make life easier.”
‘There’s not really another Natasha Howard’
There wasn’t much that Hopkins wouldn’t have given up to land Howard. With a bunch of unprotected contracts on New York’s side, Hopkins gave Kolb the directive to do whatever it took, even if it meant trading away the number one pick in the 2021 draft, something that rarely happens in the league.
“Being able to acquire a player of that caliber is, it’s really rare,” Kolb said on Friday about trading the away the number one pick. “Those don’t come around very often. She fits us like a glove and so we really thought about it, but at the end of the day, we made the right decision.”
Howard is ready to get to work, which was something Kolb and Hopkins sought out when building the roster for the 2021 season. They wanted to bring in talent who wanted to work and win without any “shortcuts.”
“I think that’s what New Yorkers are about,” Kolb said.
And that’s what Howard is about too. She sees the light at the end of the tunnel for the Liberty. She’s going to do whatever it takes to win, make the playoffs, and one day hold up a trophy when it’s all said in done. It’s what both she and her new team are looking for.
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 and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.