July 7, 2022
Natasha Howard, Sabrina Ionescu: portrait of two New York Liberty All Stars
Brondello: 'It's fun for me as a coach to see their chemistry grow'
BROOKLYN — On June 22, during New York Liberty shootaround, head coach Sandy Brondello spoke about the call she had gotten the night before. She gestured to her right and with a smile delivered the news to the team that 2020 No.1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu had been voted an All-Star starter. Once Brondello said the words, an audible gasp and a shriek was made by Michaela Onyenwere, who was standing to Ionescu’s left. Onyenwere grabbed Ionescu’s neck and jumped up and down, holding her.
DiDi Richards raced around from her position on the court to find the hug and join it. She enveloped both Onyenwere and Ionescu in a hug that sent Ioenscu’s momentum backwards. Crystal Dangerfield, who was standing near the hug sandwich, gave the group a shove.
A few days later, something similar happened. Brondello addressed the group at practice. She noted how well deserved the news she was about to deliver was. “It’s not official until laterrrr (emphasis on the rather American sounding R Brondello used), buttttttt…” she said.
“Buuuuttttt,” Richards uttered in response.
And once Brondello said the name Natasha Howard, the whole team knew the news. The Liberty were going to have two All-Stars in Chicago, and this was the first time two New York players were set to appear in one since 2019. Ioenscu came running and gave her an Onyenwere-esque hug to her pick and roll partner in crime. Richards took the role she had a few days earlier and then Han Xu sandwiched the three of her teammates.
In the first month of the season, Brondello wasn’t all that sure the Liberty would have anyone in the 2022 All-Star game. She reminisced about the month of May and how discombobulated her team was. Between multiple injuries which led to limited players available to learn her basketball system and the subsequent issues to begin the season with boxing out, rebounding and taking care of the ball, the hope of having an All-Star, albeit two, was slim.
But something changed for the Liberty in the month of June, and those adjustments allowed for two of their stars to rise. This hasn’t gone unnoticed across the league.
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“They’ve had such a rough start that you have to look at the quality of basketball they’re playing now and grade them a little differently, understanding that they had a rough start,” Las Vegas Aces head coach Becky Hammon said pregame on Wednesday. “So they seem to have kind of righted that ship. Obviously Sandy was putting in a whole new system for them and it’s just about finding your spot, so I feel like as soon as they figured that out, they became a different team.”
And that different team that Hammon spoke of went 7-4 and had a net rating of 5.6, second best in the league to the defending champions the Chicago Sky.
In May Ionescu was averaging 12.6 points, 4.9 assists, 5.8 rebounds and 3 turnovers a game. Those numbers were fine, but not what was expected of 5’11 guard who impacted the game in so many ways at Oregon. Her numbers in June silenced the skeptics — 19.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 2.7 turnovers a game in the month.
Incidentally, this has carried into July.
When Richards was asked about why Ionescu should be an All-Star, her reply was: “She’s damn near averaging a triple double.” And yes, Ionescu, the college triple-double queen is quite close to doing exactly what Richards said.
And as for Howard, one of the fastest moving players in the league, also began the season with numbers that were below expectations. In May, Howard averaged 13.1 points, 6.6 boards, 0.8 blocks and 1.6 assists per game. In the month of June, Howard averaged 16.5 points, 7 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 2.5 assists. Howard’s cumulative assist percentage this season is 14.5, the highest in her career ever and the highest since her 2019 season in Seattle, the first season she received All-Star honors.
When Richards mentioned Howard’s criteria, she focused less on her specific statistical achievements and more on the gravity she plays with. She explained that Howard plays much taller than her 6’2 frame and can execute defensively just as well and if not better than the taller players at her position.
“The fact that she play defense in the way that she does is kind of crazy to me to watch because we’re damn near the same height, it’s the craziest thing,” Richards told The Next. “ I think her work ethic and tenacity on defense and she can score on anybody at any given time.”
Both Howard and Ionescu leave a footprint on every game they touch. For Ionescu it’s flirting with triple-doubles every game and for Howard she’s the anchor of not only the defense, but also of the Liberty’s offense. When Ionescu’s shots don’t fall, Howard makes sure she has her back.
“Like me and Sab always have this conversation: when the shot’s not falling, do something on the defensive end,” she said on June 16. “Playing good defense, getting rebounds, you know passing the ball really well, even though she had a not good shooting night, but like I told her, you know like: I got your back when you’re not having a good game, and when I’m not having a good game, I know you’ve got my back.”
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That combination of Ionescu and Howard working in tandem and having each other’s backs has led to New York’s success. And when Brondello was asked about how worthy the pair was to be selected as All-Stars, she noted a stat she saw on Twitter.
“I think there was a stat yesterday or something I saw on Twitter about that they’re probably the best combo of players in the WNBA with their efficiency and you know, it’s fun for me as a coach to see their chemistry grow,” she said before the Liberty’s final game in June. And the stat she was referencing was examining the most assists involving two-player combos at the rim. And Ionescu and Howard had more assists than Courtney Vandersloot to Emma Meesseman and Alyssa Thomas to Jonquel Jones. Those pairs are also All-Stars.
When Howard signed with the Liberty in the Winter of 2021 to a four-year supermax, the expectation was she was going to be exactly who Ionescu needed to play alongside to be unlocked. Ionescu needed one of the best pick and roll bigs in the league and Howard wanted the opportunity to be a leader and build something new in a new place.
Expectations were high for both players, and their unfortunate 2021 circumstances prevented that potential to be fully realized until now. When Onyenwere reflected on the accomplishments of her teammates post her squeals and suffocating hugs, she remembered what both of her teammates had been through the year before. Ionescu was playing through an ankle that still wasn’t fully game-ready, following her third degree sprain in the 2020 Wubble. And Howard sprained her MCL after playing overseas in Italy in just her second game with the Liberty.
The result was 2021 All-Star Benijah Laney carried the load and potentially way too much of it. (Laney has only played in four games this season and has had two knee surgeries in the past seven months. She’s expected to return at the end of this month or by early August.) And while Ionescu and Howard were both simultaneously working through their own physical health, they were also mentally figuring out their place within this franchise. While Laney emerged as the natural vocal leader in 2021, the question was how would both Howard and Ionescu find not only their way but their voice?
During a two-week stretch toward the end of June, the Liberty were having difficulty closing games out after being competitive with their opponent all game long. They fell by single digits to both the Storm and the Sky. But a week later, New York beat potential playoff teams in the Connecticut Sun and the Atlanta Dream in two close games. Connecticut and Atlanta both had runs, but the Liberty punched back following every success of their opponent.
Following the game at Atlanta, Ionescu and Howard reflected on this process, being able to sustain more composure and complete closer more competitive games. Howard chalked it up to the leadership of both she and Ionescu, the Liberty’s two 2022 All-Stars. And also, Howard couldn’t forget Stefanie Dolson, the only other player on roster with All-Star distinction who has been available for the Liberty.
Onyenwere, who has been along for the ride with both Ionescu and Howard, watching as two New York basketball stars were born, couldn’t be more proud.
“There aren’t really words, I’m just really really proud,” Onyenwere said of both Ionescu and Howard being honored as All-Stars. “I know how hard they’ve worked but you said they came back with injuries, specific injuries to themselves, but just to see where they’ve come from from last year to this year and just the growth and the leadership that they’ve shown our team.”
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers 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.