August 24, 2021 

How Natasha Howard’s return affects the Liberty’s success — and growing pains

The Liberty are adjusting to playing with their new star Natasha Howard

BROOKLYN — When the Liberty signed Natasha Howard in February of this year, the expectation was that she would fit New York’s revised five-out motion offense like a glove. With seven games remaining in the 2021 WNBA season, Howard is still finding her footing. New York didn’t expect that her first season in Brooklyn would mean playing in less than half of 2021’s regular-season games. They didn’t expect that by the last full week of August she’d be figuring out what works in the Liberty’s offense and defense and still shaking off some of the rust.

With the pandemic delaying the finish of her overseas season in Italy, Howard missed out on April and May’s training camp due to the Italian championships. And once she finally made it through COVID-19 protocols including a quarantine, she finally could begin the moment she’d been waiting for, the opportunity to show the New York fans and the W itself the player she knows she can be.

In her first game with New York without much of a practice, Howard scored 12 points on shooting 5-10 from the field and brought down 7 rebounds in 22 minutes of play in a win on the road against the Chicago Sky. A day later, the Liberty played again but this time at home in what ended up as a beautiful letdown in an 88-81 win against the Dallas Wings. Howard dropped 17 points and 6 rebounds in another 22 minutes without any practice time. But the win came with an unwanted consequence. Howard had suffered an MCL sprain while screening for Betnijah Laney.

Over two months later after rehabbing, healing and taking some time away from the team during the Olympic break, her time has come. While delayed, the sights she had set during the winter time weren’t going to be deferred. In four games since her return to the court, Howard has averaged 17 points on 43.5 percent shooting along with over 7 rebounds a game.

But her solid offensive stats have revealed the work the Liberty will need to continue to do if they seek to be a top-seeded playoff team in years to come. The Liberty and Howard find themselves juggling the present and the future. How can she become comfortable functioning on the court while not taking away from the growth of the younger players? How quickly can she build trust on and off the court with her teammates? And have the Liberty finally laid down the roots of their team identity?

Howard shows the Liberty Flashes of their on-court identity

In her first game back against one of her former teams in the Minnesota Lynx, Howard, who Hopkins noted was 80 percent herself, went off. She scored 30 points on 13-22 shooting in the Liberty’s 88-78 road loss to the Lynx. Against Minnesota, Howard found a large portion of her success on mismatches, with guards finding her when she was being covered by a defender a lot smaller than her. She was able to score easily when she had Layshia Clarendon or Kayla McBride guarding her. Liberty sophomore Kylee Shook acknowledged how much of a presence Howard is and how she can’t be left open with the ability to score from anywhere. She can spread the floor but also run the floor.

“So she’s a matchup nightmare,” Shook told The Next. “Do you put a guard on her, do you put a post on her? Do you switch? Do you stay? It’s gonna be hard in my opinion for teams to figure that out because they switched last game [against the Lynx] and she just rolled them down, or stay and she slips.”

But scoring isn’t all she does on the offensive end. She creates offensively by just being on the hardwood. That presence that Shook referred to opens up the floor for New York. While Shook is still developing offensively, teams aren’t as tempted to over-help in the post, which was an obstacle that the Liberty dealt with during the first half of the season.

Assistant coach Shelley Patterson, who worked with Howard back when she was in her mid-twenties on the Lynx, noted that defenses were more worried about the Liberty’s potent backcourt of Sabrina Ionescu and Laney. Opposing pick-and-roll defenses weren’t fearing rollers in the paint. But with Howard in the lineup, that all changes. It’s not just her length in the post, but rather how quickly she can get there. She is called the Flash after all.

Without Natasha, teams were able to focus more on our guards,” Patterson said. “They were able to double team whether it’s spending more time pinned on a screen. They didn’t fear the roll. They didn’t fear the possibility… now with her in the game, she rolls so quickly, she has the name flash for a reason.“

But if defenses key in on Howard, which they often do, she might not have that open lane to the basket. Her former team the Seattle Storm took advantage of that familiarity, knowing she had to be a defensive focus. They forced Howard to jockey for position in the post either up against 6’7 Center Mercedes Russell or up against a swarm of Katie Lou Samuelson, Jewell Loyd and Stephanie Talbot. Howard struggled with her one-on-one game on the block against her former team, shooting under 30 percent from the field against her former team.

But her value isn’t limited to her field goal percentage or her scoring. Point guard and pick-and-roll partner Sabrina understands that Howard can change the game for New York without the ball in her hands. In addition to her resume as a former defensive player of the year, Howard creates opportunities for others, a key component of the Liberty’s on-court culture, a sharing of the ball that’s unselfish.

When the Liberty were down 60-49 against the Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart-less Storm on Wednesday night, Howard drove to the basket off the ball while Laney dribbled right above the half-court circle. Howard backed her way into the paint with Loyd on her, and then Samuelson and Talbot left the wing players they were guarding when they saw Laney was about to pass to Howard in the middle of the paint. But Laney, ball faked the Seattle Storm defense twice before passing the ball to her left where she found an open Rebecca Allen on the wing. Samuelson didn’t recover quickly enough and Allen drilled an open three-point shot all alone on the weak-side.

Bec Allen nails a three-pointer on an assist from Betnijah Laney.

Although it was difficult to see in the first game against the Lynx, when Howard got 22 total shot attempts, Ionescu acknowledged that it’s going to take her and Howard time in conjunction with the other pieces on the Liberty to nail how the flow of the Liberty’s offense changes with Howard on the floor. While New York now has more scoring options; that doesn’t mean Ionescu can snap a finger and the Liberty churns out possessions like a well-oiled machine.

“I think just her experience in playing with, you know such great teams and her ability to impact the game not only scoring or defensively,” Ionescu said. “But just being a presence in the gravity that she has attracting people on pick and rolls, opening shooters up, you know everywhere on the court and so I think that’s been a huge part obviously we’re still trying to figure out chemistry wise.”

A different but still effective leader

The Liberty have two very vocal leaders in their captains Laney and Sami Whitcomb. Whenever New York gets into a pregame or prequarter huddle, you can always see Laney and Whitcomb’s heads bobbing up and down as they address the group.

That’s not how Howard leads. Howard is quiet but not silent, which Hopkins noted was how she used to be when he knew her earlier in her career. Back in Minnesota, Howard would only speak or communicate to call a screen. But five years later it’s almost night and day according to both Hopkins and Patterson. Howard understands her value on this team and knows that there are players like Shook, Michaela Onyenwere, or Neah Odom who could use and will willingly accept her counsel.

The leadership trio of Laney, Whitcomb and Howard reminds Patterson of what she saw in Minnesota when Seimone Augustus, Lindsay Whalen and Rebekkah Brunson were all young vets but were thrust right into leadership roles. “The players gravitate toward her,” Patterson said of Howard before Wednesday’s win against the Storm. “She’s going to be a great leader. She leads by example …. So yes these young players are going to gravitate toward her.”

She’s quiet but knows how to get her teammates’ attention, especially Shook, who was given a starting role when Howard went down. Shook looks to Howard as someone who can help her develop her game and help her figure out the type of player she wants to be in this league.

Shook has watched closely and notices how Howard uses her body, how she plays defense and the separation she’s able to get between opponents. “Her pick and roll, she releases so quick, I want to learn how she does that, just everything she does,” Shook said.

As to how besides just watching Howard does Shook learn? During practices, if Shook tries something that she feels uncomfortable with, Howard will find her when there’s a break or once the practice is over to advise her on how it can be corrected so she can get more comfortable so she can use that skill in the future.

“If I’m trying to make the separation by getting into somebody’s body she’s like you could have went up with your left hand side using the opposite side,” the second-year forward said. “So she’ll grab me after and kind of tell me. I think she does that to everybody when you get a moment on the baseline she just grabs you.”

Hopkins has noticed these moments and remarked before Wednesday’s game how the first thing Shook told him was the way Howard has been counseling her and making her feel more comfortable expanding her game. He notices her leadership style, one that isn’t incredibly vocal, but more out of urgency. “She’s really good at interjecting when she needs to,” he said. “And you know, when she has a little tidbit about a team that we’re going to play.”

Natasha Howard drives to the basket on a finger roll layup against her former Seattle Storm. Photo credit: The New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.

After Wednesday night’s come from behind win, Howard was proud of her apprentice in the post, how Shook was able to step up in the fourth quarter; when she was still frustrated with some of her rust that she’s shaking off. Howard noted that minutes and the idea of Shook’s growth being stunted because of Howard’s return doesn’t really bother the Liberty sophomore. Developing confidence in the post is her main emphasis for growth.

“Stay physical, stay physical in the post, get the rebound that we need you to get and stuff like that and go up firm with that,” Howard said of what she advises Shook. “And she’s been doing that consistently in a game and she’s been doing her part and I’m really proud of her.”

But Shook isn’t the only one with opportunities to grow amid challenges. Howard herself is figuring out her game again. And how she can be the best version of herself with her new teammates. She was frustrated with the way she played against Seattle and turnovers haven’t been kind to the three-time WNBA champion.

In her first four games since returning from injury, Howard has turned the ball over ten times — sometimes in crucial spots. For instance, her bobble of the ball on a post-entry pass from Ionescu came at the worst time against the Sparks. With around four minutes left in regulation, Howard relented to Brittney Sykes’ pressure once her handle got loose and Te’a Cooper picked up the steal.

Hopkins is not worried about Howard but noted that to ease her frustrations his plan is to watch some film with her. To Hopkins, Howard has looked like an elite player who still has a lot of rust after being off the court during gametime for around two months. She needs the repetitions in game-like situations to get back to who both she and Hopkins know she can be.

“He told me it’s okay, let the game come to you,” Howard said. “Relax. When you get the ball, slow down.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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