August 11, 2020 

‘We are Young’: How the Liberty refocused from rock bottom to their first win

New York's 'Young Vets' are still growing

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Layshia Clarendon #7 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket during a game against the Las Vegas Aces on August 9, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.

On July 27, Layshia Clarendon rode her bike with her teammates after a day of practice. The sky was cloudless that afternoon in Bradenton. They documented the trip on their Instagram story using the caption #gangang to describe the group they were riding with. Clarendon added a song in the background, “We Are Young” by fun.—it was quite fitting for one of the most youthful teams in the WNBA.

That was around two weeks ago, and the Liberty had just come off a loss to championship contenders in the Seattle Storm, but spirits were high because of how New York stayed in the game for three of four quarters, exceeding expectations.

What occurred in the week following the cloudless bike ride would rock New York’s entire world: a lackadaisical and unbalanced performance against the Dallas Wings, losing number one overall pick Sabrina Ionescu to a third-degree ankle sprain in a single-digit loss to the Atlanta Dream and two straight 25+ point losses to a streaky Phoenix Mercury team and Walt Hopkins’ former team in the Minnesota Lynx.

It was a week that no one would want followed by a lengthy and emotional meeting. But with Sabrina or without her, this series of unfortunate events was what this team needed to reach its first win of the season and two straight contests where they played the full 40 minutes.

New York’s core of “Young Vets” needed to refocus, each one frustrated and overwhelmed by the Liberty’s current circumstances. How would New York’s veteran faction with less than 20 years of pro experience change its perspective and accept the difficult hand they had been dealt? And how would their different brands of leadership lead to their own success, inspiring the rookies rather than overwhelming them?

On Thursday, August 6, the Liberty had an opportunity to get everything out on the table in an emotional meeting where Hopkins and his staff encouraged his team to discover their own “controllables” while also learning how to trust each other.

Kia Nurse has called assistant coach Shelley Patterson the “calming and gentle force in our [their] world,” the sage who can put this unprecedented situation into context. Reflecting on the meeting, Patterson saw the emotional discussion as an opportunity to view every player and coach from a different angle. When it was all said and done, the exercise was for everyone in the room to learn how they could help the people around them.

“How can we help you, how can we help each other when things are down,” Patterson told The Next. Something that the veteran coach returns to is the amount of days that this group has been together and how relative to wubble-less seasons, there’s no reason to lose all hope.

“That’s what I always go back to, I say look, listen ladies, 35 days,” she said. “It took us an entire 2010 season to figure it out in Minnesota, and 2011, the rest is history. So I think what happens is, now they’re starting to talk to each other, be able to see what they need from each other to help lift each other.”

On that Thursday, the Liberty created a safe space to discuss real truths and the frustrating consequences that affect a team battling with constant change and adversity. When asked how this group was able to set that tone or that safe space, Patterson accredited it to the lack of judgment between the coaches and the high character that was already established from the individuals on the roster. It was all about trust, and if the Liberty couldn’t trust each other, the space wasn’t going to conducive for improvement and growth.

“Though we have Zoom meetings, yes we talked about our plays and we talked about our defensive schemes and we have all that going on, and everything’s kind of Kumbaya,” Patterson said. “But when things happen and things go downhill where do you go, and how do you lead?”

Everyone got a little vulnerable and everyone, including the coaches, shared their strengths and weaknesses. A goal of the meeting was for all personnel to begin to learn and understand each other’s temperament and knowing when to provide support and when to give someone their space.

Layshia learned that lifting yourself lifts others

Layshia Clarendon #7 of New York Liberty drives to the basket against the Washington Mystics on August 7, 2020 at the Feld Entertainment Center, in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Flashing forward to Friday August 7, and that morning after shootaround, Layshia Clarendon was asked how they was doing. The veteran point guard smiled and thought for a moment, replying: “You know what, I’m doing pretty good today.”

So how did Clarendon turn that corner coming off a day when everyone had to bare their souls?

First, they had to radically accept the situation and avoid viewing this season as a burden. They needed to release some of the weight they were putting on their shoulders. They told reporters on Friday morning that they were playing frustrated and that they don’t thrive playing frustrated. Clarendon came to the conclusion that they are a more effective leader when she gets out of her head.

“I’ve been playing frustrated,” they said. “I drop-kicked the ball yesterday, I probably should have gotten a tech for that. And frustration is not my style. I don’t thrive in that so it’s been kind of refocusing on me and like having the lightness and the joy of playing basketball. And I think I’m a better leader when I do that, I’m more outside of my own head.”

Patterson noted that for Clarendon it was about expressing to the younger players what they had been harboring inside ever since Sabrina went down. She was overwhelmed by not having the help she needs to be successful. But also Clarendon had to do was open up and trust the younger players to listen.

“And because of that [discussion], she’s learning how to lead them, and it helps because what happens is now since that we had that meeting, they all know who she is and what she wants,” Patterson said. “I just have been seeing her having fun, and she’s just been lifting herself. Sometimes you got to lift yourself in order to lift others.”

On a personal level for Clarendon, it was about remembering how much they love the game of basketball, and to find joy and to self-actualize during a time when the Liberty were losing. When asked about his conversation with Clarendon, head coach Walt Hopkins explained that it was all about reminding them what this season is truly about and there is growth and there are “so many things going right.”

So how did the point guard get there? It was all about gratitude for Clarendon. They told reporters after the win against the Mystics that it was all about making a choice and choosing to be joyful at a moment when there’s a lot of general struggle.

“I need to get back to being who I am and being myself and that’s when I play the most fun,” she said.

Nurse spoke of Clarendon’s energy and what her team gains when their point guard is playing with a level of joy rather than frustration. When Clarendon is feeling positive, the Liberty “run with what she’s feeling.”

The UConn alumnae lead via their own progress

Kia Nurse #5 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket during a game against the Las Vegas Aces on August 9, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.

Now what about Nurse? Her situation is very different from Clarendon’s. Coming off an ankle injury that is preventing her from shooting at the high level that sent her to the 2019 All-Star Game, how does she harness her leadership skills in addition to her own development on the court? How does she become who this team needs her to be?

It’s back to the idea of radical acceptance. Nurse ought to accept that currently, the lift on her shot isn’t the same as it was in 2019. According to Patterson, overthinking because of the injury is what’s leading to rushed shots from Nurse. The strategy is to continue to reassure her.

“I’m trying to think of other things to help her mentally because I think a lot of it is in her head, it is in her mind that she’s you know… how it is when you’re missing shots,” Patterson said. “And now every time you shoot it you doubt yourself, but now I have to get back into her knowing that yes you can hit these shots, this is who you are. ”

But Patterson will also remind Nurse that her value on this team isn’t just about the number of shots she takes and makes. Patterson told The Next that Nurse finished Sunday’s game against the Aces with a point differential of +14. Patterson has been reminding Nurse that what she contributes on the floor isn’t contingent upon her shot going down.

Also, the Liberty guard is learning how to hold herself and others accountable for their mistakes. She’s understanding that accountability and shaming people for mistakes aren’t one and the same. This coaching staff has instilled in Nurse and in the entire roster that being liable for mistakes relates to the holistic growth. Mistakes are inevitable and should be made with effort.

“If you make it hard with that with great effort and great intensity obviously no one’s ever going to be mad about that,” Nurse told reporters before New York’s win against the Mystics. “So I think that was really one of the big parts of the accountability, is just really holding yourselves too. It’s alright to make a mistake, you make it, make it hard. But really, let’s try not to multiply that and make that same mistake over and over again.”

Nurse is young, but she’s played plenty of starter minutes in the league already, and it shows behind the scenes. In scout or a video session, Nurse doesn’t hold back. She speaks up when she has a useful tidbit or observation about a certain opponent. Nurse leads from her own knowledge for the game, and Patterson has even compared that dynamic to how Maya Moore led the Lynx.

She’s able to share with all our guards or Jasmine [Jones], even our post players ‘hey this is what… A’ja Wilson’s gonna do this, I’ve seen her do this often. This is where we can help here, this is where we can dig down.’”

Another young vet who leads by example and expertise is Kiah Stokes, who isn’t as vocal as Clarendon, Amanda Zahui B. or Nurse, but will show the younger players the work that is required to become a main contributor on this team.

“You got Kiah Stokes is just going to go out there and she’s one of those kind of leaders that’s kind of quiet but is gonna pick you up in a different way,” Patterson said. “You know if she’s working hard everyone else wants to follow that.”

Amanda Zahui B #17 of New York Liberty drives to the basket against the Washington Mystics on August 7, 2020 at the Feld Entertainment Center, in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Amanda Zahui B.’s leadership style is her own

During 2019 WNBA season, Amanda Zahui B. was still leaning on others. Before the team’s first win against the Washington Mystics this season, Hopkins discussed the progress of the young vets, noting that both Clarendon and Zahui B. hadn’t been “in a position like this” before.

Patterson noted that for post players especially, the adjustment to playing at an elite level in this league can take longer. The fact that Zahui B. didn’t get adequate minutes during her first few years in the league is worth considering. The New York assistant explained that sitting on the bench for all of that time can cause loss of confidence every time the player makes a mistake.

In Patterson’s extensive discussions with New York’s Swedish center, the focal point in addition to the “35 days” that they have been together has been for her to embrace her own leadership style and not try to be like anyone who came before her. While Clarendon is the cognitive and brainy leader who will talk to teammates in “that Cal Berkeley way,” Zahui is this group’s emotional leader.

Nurse agrees, believing that the key to Zahui’s game is just her being herself and leading with emotion.

“I think Zahui is obviously one of our vocal leaders, we ask her to do a whole lot for us on the court, and off the court with not only her play but her voice as well and her energy, and I think today, she just found a way to get it done,” Nurse told reporters after the Liberty’s first win. “And I know that she’s been tough on herself over the last couple games and really wanting to come out and play better for us, and it was just a really a matter of fact just being herself.”

So how did she refocus herself after initial underwhelming performances to start the season? Zahui B. explained how her “focus is different now,” has “re-evaluated” herself and how she can put her team in the best possible scenario to win.

In a postgame interview coming off the team’s first win, she expanded upon how she got to this point.

“I feel like I haven’t stepped up for my team as I should have and we’ve been talking with each other and we’ve been open on what we need to do for each other to strive and get wins in this league,” she said. “So it was just a different kind of focus that I have to keep on playing with.”

Patterson has instilled within Zahui B. that she has to choose herself the way that she wants to lead and that’s how she’ll be the most effective. She doesn’t need the intensity of her former teammates Plennete Pierson and Tanisha Wright. But the Liberty assistant coach acknowledged that leadership can be trial by fire, and it won’t click until Zahui B.’s been in situations where she must step up and lead, a lot like where the Liberty are right now. She’s learning.

Patterson believes that the leaders on the Liberty will develop based on what they see from head coach Hopkins. She saw this in Minnesota with Lindsay Whalen, Seimone Augustus and Rebekkah Brunson and how their leadership mirrored that of Cheryl Reeve’s. This rationale of thinking applies directly to Zahui B., who has been speaking to reporters about staying positive, and leading with a similar positivity that she sees day in and day out from Hopkins.

“I think now she sees something that’s working for her, and that’s just staying positive, that’s more on the Walt Hopkins side,” Patterson told The Next. “You know staying positive, kind of talking to people.”

In a postgame presser following an embarrassing loss against Patterson and Hopkins’ former team the Lynx, Zahui announced to reporters the same exact message that Clarendon did before all of the madness, during the calm before the storm. The same words of the fight song that Clarendon played while riding on her bike, Zahui B. announced to the press: “We are young.”

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, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.

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