May 26, 2022
The unenviable choices for the New York Liberty over AD
How long can the Liberty wait for a Phoenix to rise?
BROOKLYN — New York Liberty head athletic trainer Terri Acosta’s voice quivered when she was asked to reflect on the comeback of Asia Durr (AD is the name they prefer to be called).
Acosta is included in a small group of people around the team that knew and worked with AD in 2019 and got to know them during their limited rookie season which was halted by a hip injury and was followed by a labral repair procedure in September of the same year. Since then, AD has had an unprecedented go at life. They contracted COVID-19 before the 2020 Wubble season and would miss two straight seasons dealing with the disease’s lasting effects on their body. They have a condition known as long-COVID, which has impacted their brain and nervous system and continues to.
Acosta recalled what the past couple of years since 2019 have been like. She views the athletes she works with as children of her own. Acosta would coordinate AD’s medical appointments, checking in periodically. The calls began with just asking how AD was doing while they dealt with the initial symptoms that included difficulty breathing, headaches, hemoptysis (spitting up blood), heart palpitations and a loss of appetite. The communication evolved to words of encouragement: “I want to see you back in that building” and “we’d love to see you at practice.”
Before Acosta got to see AD at practice, she saw them last June when the Liberty visited the Atlanta Dream. New York won the game 101-78 and after the buzzer sounded, AD walked down from the stands onto the floor. The team embraced them — an emotional and intimate moment where all Betnijah Laney wanted was for AD to feel loved and supported.
“Just having [them] there supporting us, you know, given the situation that [they] went through, but you know, [they] still made it a point to be a part of our family,” Laney told The Next about the moment almost a year later. “But we wanted to just embrace it and make [them] feel like that. That [they were] still a part of us regardless of this situation [they were] in.”
A lot has changed for the Liberty since that evening in late June. Kiah Stokes and Leoanna Odom, who are pictured in the post above, are no longer rostered by New York. Kylee Shook won’t play this season and her contract has been suspended. The coaching staff completely changed. But go back even further to when AD was drafted by the Liberty in 2019. Personnel wasn’t only different, but the nature of the franchise and where it was amongst the WNBA pecking order reflected a different era in Liberty history. Following AD’s first pro season, the young player and the Liberty were moving forward at a parallel plane. The idea was that AD was going to be a part of the young core that launched the Liberty back into the top tiers of the league.
But over two years later, that parallel trajectory has veered off. The Liberty are aiming toward sustainable success and eventually a championship under new and well-established head coach Sandy Brondello. And to use AD’s own words in their interview with Sports Illustrated‘s Ben Pickman, life is completely different from how it was when they were drafted. “It feels like I’m starting over,” they said. The Liberty are not starting over. Although the team has a new coaching staff, New York is much further along with a mostly well balanced roster.
“I’ve called [them] now my Phoenix because you know, we’re rising up,” Acosta said about AD.
Both parties are operating on different timelines. Amid the Liberty’s current laundry list of injuries, which includes impact players such as Laney (right knee), DiDi Richards (right hamstring), Jocelyn Willoughby (left knee) and rookie Lorela Cubaj (concussion protocol), how much longer can the Liberty continue to do right by a player burdened by unprecedented circumstances while also wanting to prove they are a winning organization? When New York needs help at the combo-guard position, how long will it take for this phoenix to rise?
Patience has been preached since day one
Since arriving in Brooklyn for training camp in April, AD has preached that they are learning to be patient with themselves and this process. Their goals were simple: “to just have fun and just simply take it one day at a time,” they told The Next.
For the player who once could put opponents to sleep with their smooth shot making and scoring, AD has had to retrain their brain since being cleared for on-court activity in November. During training camp, AD would struggle with comprehension and memory during practice. Brondello would give a bunch of sequential directions, including when to dribble and when to pass followed by when to come off a down screen. AD had difficulty processing that sequence.
“COVID has really thrown everything off, so now I have to retrain my brain to do everything,” they said. “It’s kind of like I tell people how you’re like you’re paralyzed and you’re trying to learn how to walk again. That’s kind of how it is now. And it’s learning how to think, something so simple as thinking and doing something while you’re thinking.”
The Liberty’s revamped player care staff has been working with AD since they arrived at camp on how to counter and ameliorate their brain fog. Adam Wolf, the director of player care, explained to The Next that he and his staff have worked with AD on mimicking game situations so that AD can continue practicing reflexive activity in conjunction with cognitive activity. In the Instagram post below, Wolf shows one of the many sessions he and AD have had where they worked on strengthening and stimulating their autonomic nervous system, a part of the nervous system that’s responsible for the control of bodily functions such as breathing, heartbeat and digestion. While this is an exercise that the Liberty’s player care staff can and does use with every player, this has been something they’ve done a bit more with AD. It’s been a focal point in trying to prove to AD that “they can do it.” These are skills that can be relearned.
“We have fun, they laugh a lot,” Wolf said. “And what we’re trying to do is get them to laugh partly because of the long-haul COVID symptoms … that we’re trying to stimulate their autonomic nervous system. Fight or flight, rest and digest. So just to stress them as much as possible, but also allow them to have fun while they’re being stressed.”
Another support system for AD in this process has been assistant coach Roneeka Hodges, a former player-turned-coach who has taken it upon herself to provide AD with confidence. A goal of Hodges’ is to make AD feel comfortable and provide necessary feedback. Hodges can sense when AD is feeling down or struggling, and she has taken it upon herself to be there and talk out what’s bothering them. “It’s one of those things where I lived it, I’ve experienced it,” Hodges told The Next. “It’s easy for me to recognize it in players and that’s something that I’ve always tried to do with AD since day one.”
When it comes to dealing with a situation like AD’s that is unprecedented in the world of sports, Brondello has preached patience and has communicated that managing a comeback like this is a group effort. Brondello has lauded AD for the hard work they’ve done leading up to training camp. She watched them train in Phoenix with former New York assistant coach Dustin Gray, and AD was very public about the type of work they did in the off-season to build their muscle mass after losing 32 pounds due to their bout with COVID. “They’ve worked their butts off to get to where they are now,” Brondello said on May 6, a day before the Liberty’s home opener.
Can AD be who the Liberty need them to be?
When Brondello was asked on April 22, days after training camp officially began, about her expectations for AD and what their role could be for the team this season, she provided a list of ways in which a player who hasn’t played at all in almost three years could make an impact on this New York Liberty team. Showing aggressiveness with the ball, slashing, shooting when they are wide open, creating havoc defensively and “being poised” were all examples of what Brondello wants to see from AD.
Brondello’s assistant and husband Olaf Lange expanded upon these goals, explaining what he saw as a potential role for the former No. 2 overall draft pick. Lange was very hesitant to make what he called a “prediction.” But here’s what he did tell me a day before the season began: AD would be coming off the bench, unlike when they first came into the league three years ago. AD needs to be a shot maker and develop into a playmaker, especially when New York rotates through its lineup. And similarly to what Brondello said, Lange said that AD ought to have a defensive presence. They have to “get through screens and apply pressure whenever it’s applicable and necessary,” Lange said.
“The biggest thing is with [their] size, that [they] impact both ends of the floor. We can’t just have a one-way player coming off the bench, and that will have a big impact on if their minutes will grow, if [they’ll] be able to do that.”
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So how have they done in five total games played? During the home opener against the Connecticut Sun, AD played six minutes and didn’t register anything statistically in the simple stats that are communicated in a box score. My observations of their first minutes in three years are as follows: They were lingering around the corner pockets, didn’t move a ton off the ball, hesitated often and got the ball back in Sabrina Ionescu‘s hands when in doubt. Also, they were routinely beat on drives by Natisha Hiedeman and over-helped on penetration from Jasmine Thomas.
“I thought their minutes were solid,” Hodges said on AD’s first minutes. “That’s one thing that we always talked about is that every player is important to the team from top to bottom. Whether you play 30 minutes or if you play two, you come in, you do your part, do the job. You contribute in whichever ways that you can at that day. They were solid defensively. Didn’t try to force anything offensively. And that’s all that we ask.”
Is what the coaching staff asks of AD enough for New York to win? We don’t know yet.
Four days later, on the road in Chicago, the Liberty just didn’t have it. Shots weren’t falling, and defensively, the entire team was one step behind the Chicago Sky. The effort that the collective displayed on Saturday night in its first win had been squashed. And while New York was down by as many as 25 points, it would have been an opportune time for AD to get their feet wet, especially when the game wasn’t on the line in the fourth quarter. AD didn’t appear, which was peculiar. But later, the reason was revealed: According to Brondello, AD was ruled out in the first half and had some “illness.” Brondello wanted to put them in but simply couldn’t.
When the Liberty returned home to face the Fever on May 13, AD confirmed that they had experienced a COVID flare-up, something that has been prevalent in their life during their battle with long COVID. They began to feel ill the night before Wednesday’s game in Chicago. The next morning they felt better, but then the symptoms returned as the day progressed. “I started feeling, you know, pretty dizzy and nauseous, sweats and chills,” they said.
But on May 13, they felt better. In a game that would eventually go to overtime, Brondello inserted AD into the game when the Liberty couldn’t get anything offensively. Would Nite-Nite return and make something happen in transition? Almost. On a missed Queen Egbo layup, AD grabbed the rebound and continued to handle the ball in transition. They drove alongside Destanni Henderson, and Henderson put her hand right in front of AD’s field of view. They went up for the layup and the ball rolled around the rim.
But even in addition to that missed layup, AD remained hesitant and didn’t provide that level of aggressiveness that their team desperately needed. Following the miss, which was well-guarded by the rookie Henderson, AD was guarding Henderson at the point of attack. AD went underneath the Egbo screen but found a way to close in on Henderson’s space. Cubaj leaned over to help AD and put some pressure on the Fever rookie, but Henderson’s spin move caught AD off-guard and they trotted way too deep into the paint. Henderson had all the space she needed and fired from the free-throw line with a very late contest from AD.
In their seven minutes against Dallas, it was more of the same. But, in their 29-turnover blowout loss, AD scored for the first time in three years. They played 11 minutes, in part out of necessity because both Jocelyn Willoughby and DiDi Richards were out. Willoughby, who Brondello would employ at the two, has been ruled out until late June. An opportunity was afoot for AD. Their first score came with under four minutes left in the fourth quarter. Connecticut had their second unit out on the floor. They picked up a loose ball from Nia Clouden‘s failed drive to the hoop. They dribbled past a Sun defense that had nothing to play for and hoisted the ball over their head while in the black and seafoam paint. Post player Joyner Holmes was late to contest, and there it was: AD’s first score since 2019.
2019 teammate Rebecca Allen thought that amid the painful loss, AD provided “positive energy” during that game. “Attacking, finding the way when they went for the shot in transition and making it,” she said. “And showing glimpses of what we saw in 2019 as well.”
Following that loss, New York’s depth suffered even more. Even after a week off that included practice, Laney and Cubaj were now also ruled out in addition to Willoughby and Richards against the Lynx. AD would have yet another opportunity to prove their value to this group. During Brondello’s pregame presser in Minnesota, Lea Olson, the Lynx’s color analyst, asked her about AD’s story and their progress. “Is the conditioning coming, is there rhythm?” she asked.
“They’ve really made big steps in the past week, to be quite honest,” Brondello said. “They feel like the fog is not there anymore. It feels like they are getting a feel for the game again. It takes time. You can’t just expect them to go out there and be normal. Especially the symptoms that they had to face.”
AD’s 10 minutes against the Lynx didn’t show much that was new. They struggled to stay in front of Kayla McBride and the much taller Jessica Shepard. While their foul on McBride probably wasn’t warranted, they lost McBride on her drive to the basket. They missed a shot that was well-contested by rookie Evina Westbrook and got trapped behind a Bridget Carleton screen that led to a drive and score from Westbrook. At the end of the second quarter, AD began moving off the ball more than they had in games prior. But, when they got open, the taller and more athletic Aerial Powers read Michaela Onyenwere‘s pass and took it the other way.
AD’s final minutes in the third began with a Carleton drive and a make. They lagged far behind. Han Xu had AD’s back when Crystal Dangerfield tried to pass it to them. Dangerfield’s pass bounced off of AD’s back. Han picked it up and was handling the ball. But once AD got the ball back from Han, they dribbled and kicked to Allen, who was wide open and drilled a three that gave the Liberty their first lead of the game.
AD’s final play of the game was a ball that they bobbled, which turned into another Lynx transition play at the other end. Once the quarter trickled down to the end, AD didn’t see another minute on the floor in the Liberty’s 84-78 loss to the Lynx.
How sustainable is this approach for New York?
When Sabrina Ionescu was asked about what it’s like to have AD back during the infancy of training camp, she explained that AD’s story is just one of many that the Liberty use to define who they are and how they play.
“We’ve had kind of this, you know, Sandy [Brondello] talked about it and Jonathan [Kolb] talked about it,” she said. “Just the story of everyone that’s kind of battled something, whether it was last season or just, you know, in their careers and kind of the stories of them getting back, and I think it really will shape the identity of this team.”
So far it has, but not in the way Ionescu would like.
The WNBA is an unforgiving league. At most it can hold 144 players and right now holds around 140. The Liberty entered this season with a desire to build on what their story was in 2021. The team made the playoffs but with 12 wins, the fewest wins for a playoff team in WNBA history. When Brondello was hired in January, she was quite sure that under her watch, this team was going to win more than 12 games.
AD’s start to the season is by no means solely responsible for the Liberty’s 1-5 start. At the moment, this team only has nine available players including AD. And at the beginning of training camp, general manager Jonathan Kolb refuted some of the criticism the Liberty received for not drafting another combo guard in addition to Sami Whitcomb. He noted that ball-handling would be done by not only Ionescu and Whitcomb but by Laney and Richards. But this was before we knew that the latter two would be out for an extended period of time.
Lange noted that AD is expected to develop into a distributor. But how much time can the Liberty wait when there is a player in France who can contribute more than 10 minutes a game right now? Marine Johannès will be finished with her season in at most two weeks’ time. There were whisperings from both the Liberty and Johannès’ camp leading up to this season that this was an auspicious moment in time for her to make her return to the WNBA, especially before 2023’s prioritization kicks in.
Every attribute that the Liberty coaching staff have assigned to their hopes for AD are things Johannès does every day. Soon, New York may be forced to decide whether it wants to continue its experiment at the opportunity cost of such a player.
This is a franchise that is currently trying to prove to its fanbase, and potentially 2023 free agent Breanna Stewart, that it is moving in the right direction and ready to start contending. The 1-5 Liberty face the Seattle Storm for a two-game set this weekend. Stewart will be watching. How long can the Liberty wait for Terri Acosta’s Phoenix to rise before it’s too late?
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.