December 6, 2020
The Liberty look to execute ‘Hybrid Rebuild’ in 2021
New York earned the No. 1 pick as the return to Barclays looms
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The WNBA Finals concluded 60 days ago, but for Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb, a countdown began. After the Liberty acquired their second number one pick in two years during the WNBA Draft Lottery on Friday night, Kolb reminded reporters that the free agency negotiation period is around 40 days away. He should know, of course, he has his own countdown clock.
Another No. 1 pick is now thrown in conjunction with six second-year players, three international players who opted out of 2020, a former top draft pick who hasn’t stepped on a basketball court since 2019, three veteran type players who are under contract, a free-agent stretch post and, oh right, there’s Sabrina Ionescu. That’s around 16 players that are associated with the Liberty as of now, which begs the question (again): what type of rebuild will this be?
Here’s the exciting news: Kolb was clear about what he wants it to look like. In his own words, the Liberty are in a position to embark on a hybrid rebuild. What does that mean?
“We have a really exciting opportunity to kind of have a hybrid rebuild if you will, where we can be super competitive right now while bringing along the future of the Liberty down the road,” Kolb said in a post-lottery presser. “So that’s what we’re going to try to do. We have a plan, and we’ll see how it goes. Time will tell.”
In other words, New York is going to be aggressive in free agency, which Kolb believes is how the Liberty can address some of the leadership gaps on the 2020 roster. Experience matters in this league and it’s what can put young talent in a better position to succeed. How the Liberty come out of this February’s free agency period is going to determine how they make their second number one overall draft selection.
That’s a stark contrast from a year ago when the draft and clearing the roster for the subsequent rebuild were the focal points. A year later, however, the focus narrows. In both free agency and in the 2021 draft, New York will look for forwards or post players who not only mold well with how Ionescu operates on the floor, but that also have a similar set of values.
“For us the intangible is just the love of the game, the competitive nature, that will to compete,” Kolb said. “And so that will always be there in our analysis and I think that through this process and what we’re still going to get to talk to players, at some point, we’re going to get to know who they are as human beings and so on.”
On the ESPN broadcast with LaChina Robinson, Kolb made it crystal clear that not only do the Liberty draft and sign for skill, but they contend and hold close that character fit is something of high value and that is invariable. Team culture is a non-negotiable for New York. Kolb, head coach Walt Hopkins, and the staff survey for people who “have an insatiable taste for winning,” are competitive, but also will push those around them to be better.
In 2021 and beyond, New York is building around Ionescu and there are no ifs, ands or buts about it. He also told Robinson that whoever is selected No. 1 in the draft come April is going to “mesh really well with” Ionescu.
When asked about the EuroLeague games that began this week and if he had been keeping tabs on his players participating in the competition, Kolb mentioned he was bouncing back and forth, switching back between different games to keep up. He also noted the impressive performances that Liberty guard Marine Johannès put together, and envisioned all of the possibilities that could become a reality if Johannès and Ionescu share the floor.
“Let’s talk about Marine Johannès right now, I mean, she’s playing the best basketball of her career,” he said. “She looks the most confident I’ve seen her play. And so that’s somebody you look at and of course just like everyone else, you imagine that player with Sabrina and how that’s gonna play out. You watch her play, you picture her in Bradenton last year, and I think you see a bit of a difference and that’s special.”
Yes, the Liberty were missing players in addition to Johannès who for sure would have been able to help the team achieve greater than two wins. But let’s return to the players who New York currently doesn’t have. If the Liberty land a free agent veteran who checks all of the peripheral boxes, then the number one pick could become the “icing on the cake.”
But the road to that icing will be unprecedented and hardly predictable as many events were in 2020. With fewer games in the 2020-21 NCAAW season amid COVID-19 cases rising across the country, not just the Liberty, but other WNBA talent evaluators will be limited in the amount of live action they’ll be able to experience.
Seeing players live makes a difference. According to Kolb, film is a helpful tool, but it doesn’t provide all of the information that is needed to make adequate character assessments. How does a player interact with their teammates and coaches? What does a player do while they are on the bench? What is their body language when the team is down or up in a game?
Kolb remembered watching Sabrina in last year’s Pac-12 tournament and in addition to her behavioral qualities, he could see details that define her game.
“I think it was the Pac-12 tournament with Sabrina, and we were watching her and just to see the way she puts certain spins on passes,” he said. “You can’t pick that up over film, so it’s definitely gonna be different this year. We’re hopeful to get out to some games as we progress through the year.”
But unlike with Ionescu, this year’s draft is wide-open and even a little hazy. The top seniors in guards Aari McDonald and Dana Evans fill needs that New York doesn’t have. Also, it isn’t clear if juniors Charli Collier and Rhyne Howard will declare amid the NCAA’s new eligibility rule that grants an extra additional year of eligibility to athletes who participate in winter sports. Juniors or seniors who would be expected to come out in April might be enticed to stay another year depending on personal circumstances.
Back in October when I initially examined how the Storm and the Mystics — franchises with similar playing styles to New York — executed their respective rebuilds, I left off a more modern model. While the Aces’ playing style draws a deep contrast with the Liberty’s, Bill Laimbeer’s ambiguous three-year plan that he shaped for Las Vegas could be more where New York is headed. The goal in year three for Kolb is for New York to become competitive, or at least more in a position to contend than they were in the past two seasons.
Another goal of his is for the Liberty to start rewarding its fans. A debut at Barclays Center and potentially some wins are what he believes are the result of the organization’s current trajectory. Just a few years ago, the Liberty were without stable ownership, had no general manager, and were without the resources that winning franchises typically have access to.
“The fans that have been ride or die with this team since ‘97 deserve this,” Kolb said.
But the ultimate aspiration is to one day be the last team standing, a first for the franchise. And for Kolb, those next steps toward the finish line are incumbent upon player acquisition.
“I think everyone understands when you build something, it does take time but now we have the opportunity,” he said. “And so our hope is that we’ll be the last team standing one day down the road and our fans will be there celebrating with us.”