February 12, 2021 

With Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, will New York begin to win in a flash?

New York stays true to the 'Hybrid Rebuild'

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Natasha Howard #6 of the Seattle Storm drives to the basket against the Las Vegas Aces on August 22, 2020 at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Well, this is what a “Hybrid Rebuild” looks like.

On a day when close to half of the league was involved in three separate trades that could continue to shift the WNBA’s franchise hierarchy, the Liberty took major steps forward.

On Wednesday evening, Liberty All-Rookie guard Jazmine Jones hopped on new social networking app Clubhouse and reflected. She discussed how many games she and New York lost in 2020. “I had never lost the amount of games we lost,” she said.

In 2021, New York and Jones may be able to put that 9 percent win percentage behind them. Acquiring Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb from the Seattle Storm could be the antidote that the Liberty need to have their first winning season since 2017.

“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,” GM Jonathan Kolb said in early December.

Well, New York has done just that. But the question was, who wouldn’t be coming along for the ride? Landing two players who have won five WNBA championships, including two together, came at the cost of saying goodbye to New York favorite Kia Nurse and ninth overall pick Megan Walker. Both were traded to Phoenix — who need youth and stability at the wing position — for the 6th overall pick in the 2021 draft and the Mercury’s 2022 first-round pick. To secure Howard, New York had to send its number one overall pick to the Storm.

The Liberty were willing to move down from the number one pick to the sixth in a 2021 draft where a lot is uncertain. So uncertain that Washington Mystics head coach Mike Thibault joked that he picked the right year to have no picks in the 2021 WNBA Draft. If New York aims to start winning more now, this was the year to trade down.

Walker, who only played in over 11 minutes a game in 18 games, was someone who out of the seven rookies on the roster in 2020 failed to make her mark on the Liberty’s first-year totem pole. While her delay to Bradenton due to testing positive for COVID-19 may have played a role, New York saw more promise from Jocelyn Willoughby, Kylee Shook, Neah Odom, and Jones. Her chances of landing a roster spot on the Liberty were slim to begin with. Trading Nurse before the final year of her rookie contract allowed for the Liberty to clear some cap space for Howard, who signed a supermax deal worth $898,700 for four years of service.

That’s a massive investment in one player. Why did the Liberty feel comfortable enough to do so? Kolb noted in New York’s press release that the former defensive player of the year “will fit seamlessly into Walt Hopkins’ system” and he’s not wrong.

On the basketball side, Howard’s strengths mirror how the Liberty aimed to play basketball in the Wubble and beyond. She fills in gaps on the court—in ways like other New York newcomer Betnijah Laney will—via her speed, strength, shooting ability, defensive dexterity, and comfort on pick and roll.

And the readers and media members that I surveyed in December were also in accordance. Coming into free agency, Howard captured the most votes as the unrestricted free agent who not only fit the Liberty the best, but she was the player who folks overwhelmingly believed New York needed to pursue.

Her championship pedigree speaks for itself. The Liberty needed someone with ample playoff experience and that’s who they get in the three-time WNBA champion.

Howard sought out an opportunity to lead and have a larger role on a team, and with Breanna Stewart healthy, Seattle didn’t have the minutes to spare. But the Liberty do and can promise that Howard will be a focal point of the offense alongside Sabrina Ionescu.

Remember: In 2019 while Stewart was recovering from a torn achilles, Howard participated in her first WNBA All-Star game, won Defensive Player of the Year, and finished fourth in the voting for the 2019 MVP race behind winner Elena Delle Donne, Brittney Griner, Jonquel Jones, and Nneka Ogwumike.

While her 2019 season proved she could be the focal point of a team, how does that translate into her leadership capabilities? Expect Howard to go through some growing pains as well.

But Howard won’t be opening this new chapter without familiar faces. Head coach Walt Hopkins and top assistant Shelley Patterson both coached her in 2017 when the trio won a championship with the Minnesota Lynx. She’s also familiar with not only Whitcomb and the coaching staff, but with Layshia Clarendon too. Clarendon had played with Howard during both of their first couple of years in the league in Indiana. (Familiarity *once again* matters!)

New York acquired Whitcomb in exchange for the rights of fellow Aussie sharpshooter Steph Talbot. On a two-year protected deal worth $150,350 a year, Whitcomb brings floor spacing and consistent shot-making. She comes off her most efficient season, shooting over 44 percent from the field and over 38 percent from three. In almost 17 minutes a game last season, Whitcomb proved that her skills are more expansive than just shooting beyond the arc. In his analysis of the Storm’s moves from Wednesday, Derek James explained that Whitcomb proved she could drive through the lane and handle the ball. She did so to provide support and take the pressure off Jordin Canada while Sue Bird was out with a lingering knee injury.

The new parent brings veteran leadership via her own non-linear road to the league. She knows what it’s like to *work* for success. In an emotional Instagram post saying goodbye and thanking Seattle, the two-time WNBA champion acknowledged her journey.

“Four years ago The Storm took a risk. I was 28 and had never been in the league. But after A LOT of ‘no’s’ Seattle gave me my one yes and changed my life,” she wrote.

Kolb understood that there’s more to Whitcomb as well, noting that he believes she could be a new fan favorite. “Sami Whitcomb will be an instant fan favorite, not only for her elite shot-making ability, but also for her tenacity and drive,” he said in the team’s press release. “A two-time champion in her own right, Sami knows what it takes to win in this league, and is exactly the kind of tough, talented, culture-first player we covet in New York.”

While it’s currently unclear if Whitcomb will be relied upon to start or come off the bench during the 2021 season, the Australian Opal will most likely pick up more minutes per game than she’s seen in her career. The only concern is yes, the Liberty signed another player with International ties who could miss time due to the will it happen/ won’t it happen Tokyo Olympics.

Roster questions still remain, or do they?

Connecticut Sun forward Brionna Jones (42) New York Liberty center Amanda Zahui B (17) and New York Liberty guard Rebecca Allen (9) fight for position during the WNBA game between the Connecticut Sun and the New York Liberty at Westchester County Center, White Plains, New York, USA on August 30, 2019. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Speaking of Tokyo and international players, Bec and Amanda Days are set to end. Although league sources have told The Next that Allen is expected to return to the Liberty in 2021, no contract has been signed. And Amanda Zahui B. announced her new destination herself.

Could the Liberty have an Emma Meesseman situation on their hands where there’s a verbal commitment at play but uncertainty lies due to the possibility of the Olympics? The good news is that Allen won’t compete in Eurobasket and neither will Whitcomb, but that doesn’t answer how Allen gets paid. In 2020, Allen was originally supposed to be paid $81,600, but amid her opt-out from the Wubble, she received $13,600 in compensation from the team.

Under the new CBA, the question now remains: how much is Allen worth now? Based on how Kiah Stokes’ compensation increased post the new agreement, it’s fair to estimate that Allen is likely to get around or slightly above $100K. Right now, including the salaries of Asia Durr, Han Xu, and Marine Johannès, and excluding the training camp contract of Joyner Holmes, New York has less than $46K left in cap space. Someone has got to give. Does that mean one of the 2020 draft picks is cut? Would Kylee Shook or Neah Odom need to be waived to make room for Allen? Or do the Liberty expect Durr not to play in 2021, which amid all we have learned about her COVID diagnosis could be the case? Kolb mentioned in an interview with ESPN that he isn’t sure yet if Durr will be able to obtain another medical exemption with salary. And if that is indeed the case, could the league provide any salary cap exception to the Liberty?

And without Zahui, Kiah Stokes becomes an even more critical piece. While I continue to be skeptical as to why New York re-signed Stokes as quickly as they did in September, there’s a statistical area where Stokes proved a bit more efficient. While Zahui B. proved she could shoot from long and handle the ball when needed, her ability to score on pick and roll became a liability for a team that under Sabrina Ionescu will be heavily reliant upon..

ESPN’s Kevin Pelton revealed that via Synergy Sports, Stokes shot 48 percent off pick and roll, while Zahui B. finished shooting 27 percent off screen and rolls, the worst among players with 20 shot attempts. While Kylee Shook played fewer minutes, she still was deemed the best of the bigs on pick and roll coverage. While that’s a compliment to Shook, it was a warning sign to the Liberty that who they had in front of her wasn’t good enough. If the goal was to see Shook improve, how could she without someone excellent on pick and roll to learn from? And with Natasha Howard, one of the best pick and roll finishers in the league, that’s exactly who Shook will become a star pupil to.

Leading up to free agency, I had four questions that New York had to be able to answer in order to understand their roster construction process. While the Kiah Stokes of it all isn’t quite answered yet and we don’t know yet for sure how Allen signs, it is now clear who the Liberty found to be the glue to help their young players grow and develop.

While Jazmine Jones doesn’t know Howard or Whitcomb all that personally yet, what she did seem to understand is that their presence will allow for Hopkins’ motion- offense to function more smoothly. This will be a lineup that moves the ball swiftly off the rebound into transition.

But while Jones did note that the vibe around Liberty land includes much higher expectations for 2021, she expressed how much her organic friendships with former roommates Walker and Holmes, Nurse, Stokes, and Zahui B. shaped her rookie season. With more than half of those folks most likely gone from the 2021 roster, a new chapter begins as the tree continues to grow in Brooklyn.

Written by Jackie Powell

1 Comment

  1. SuziS on August 2, 2021 at 8:03 pm

    As a Storm fan and a U of Oregon season ticketholder, I’ve been … let’s say very … interested in what the aitch was going on after the last few days, so thank you, AS ALWAYS, expert Jackie Powell!

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