April 14, 2021 

2021 WNBA Draft Preview: New York Liberty

New York plans continue adding pieces who all possess grit and selflessness

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Jasmine Walker of Alabama holds the ball against Maryland in the econd round of the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo found on the Las Vegas Aces official website.)

The New York Liberty’s ongoing roster overhaul has occurred in phases. The first occurred almost a year ago when New York added six first-year players including point guard and new franchise face Sabrina Ioenscu. The goal was to start over and build a young core with a set of principles that would shape the franchise in years to come.

Phase two commenced this past February during free agency. The goal here was to acquire veteran leadership still in their prime who could complement a budding youthful group. Two-way players Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney, and Sami Whitcomb will be relied upon to glue together what’s still a team young in age and in culture. And then there’s the growing Louisville contingent.

The Liberty will enter phrase three on Thursday, the 2021 WNBA draft. What’s the goal this time? It’s awfully different than it was a year ago. Instead of foundational pieces or glue, this time around, New York is looking for the “icing on the cake,” which general manager Jonathan Kolb believes the Liberty can attain at the number six spot instead of with the first.

“We’re going to look to not necessarily have a one-year fix, we’re not gonna plug somebody in because okay we need that spot this year,” he told WFAN’s Danielle McCarten in a post-free agency interview. “It’s going to be with a forward-thinking approach, and that’s what we’re looking for. So I know that’s not the finite answer but it’s really the truth, and so we’re going to find the best person for us going forward for the long term.”

Phase three is about rounding out roster dynamics as much as it is about targeting the specific skillset that New York is known to prioritize. But in addition to planning for the long-term, the Liberty’s draft must also address the short term. 2021 is not only an Olympic year but it is also a Eurobasket year. Potentially, New York could lose time from French guard Marine Johannès and Turkish American center Kiah Stokes due to the European championships.

But beyond the Olympics, uncertainties still remain about names on the roster and names expected to be on the roster.

Possibilities at the sixth pick: Another Walker, Natasha, or a Cardinal?

Oklahoma State forward Natasha Mack tries to score on Cameron Brink of Stanford during the second round of the Division I Women’s Basketball Tournament. (Photo found on NCAA Digital Media Hub.)

When the Liberty traded for Natasha Howard in February, they also made sure they had insurance in the draft after dealing away the number one pick. When the Mercury acquired Kia Nurse and Megan Walker, the Liberty retained their sixth overall pick in the upcoming draft. While Mystics GM and head coach Mike Thibault has joked about this year being the right year to not have any picks, Rebecca Lobo acknowledged in a media call last week that this year’s class “isn’t as strong.”

With all else being equal, however, that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent that could positively impact New York in 2021 and beyond. On the offensive end, the Liberty values athleticism, the ability to space the floor, and drawn contract in the paint. The Liberty could also use size and strength in the frontcourt. Alabama forward Jasmine Walker fits the bill with her 6’3 frame and her knack for shooting the ball from deep. With the Crimson Tide, she averaged shooting near 37 percent from three-point range, and in her final season, she proved her rebounding ability when she averaged merely a double-double this past season. 

ESPN analyst LaChina Robinson mentioned last week during the league’s pre-draft media call that in addition to playing with power at the rim, Walker could “be the best pure shooter” in this upcoming draft at the wing position. She’s someone who has the potential to play both the four and the three professionally similarly to how Satou Sabally has carved that niche out for herself on the Dallas Wings. We know Ionescu can play with someone like Sabally, after all.

Another possibility for New York could be Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack, who would be an athletic post player who could fill the Liberty’s requirements on the defensive end of the floor. In 2021, with defensive stalwarts in Laney, Howard, and even in second-year players Jocelyn Willoughby, Neah Odom, and Kylee Shook, the Liberty want someone who can guard multiple positions and is well astute in pick and roll drop coverages. In 2021, Mack earned a plethora of defensive honors including the Big 12 defensive player of the year, the WBCA NCAA Division I Defensive Player of the Year award and the Naismith Women’s Defensive Player of the Year. 

While some have compared the 6’4 Mack to the type of length and quickness of new Liberty center Howard, Mack has had limited attempts from beyond the arc, doing most of her scoring on the block. While her skills have a place on New York, the Liberty also have Neah Odom who has also been compared to Howard and has struggled to put up consistent shots from deep. But, Odom is going into her second professional year and the Liberty have other holes to fill.

Dana Evans alongside her teammates in the Sweet Sixteen Round of the 2021 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament at Alamodome on March 28, 2021 in San Antonio, Texas. (Photo by C. Morgan Engel/Getty Images).

But in addition to considerations on the offensive and defensive side of the ball, the Liberty don’t have ample players who can function more frequently in the backcourt. Gone are the days when New York had a copious set of guards. Who plays the two? As of now, Sami Whitcomb and Jazmine Jones are most well suited next to Ionescu. But with Asia Durr most likely not set to return this year and multiple international commitments for Marine Johannès, the Liberty need a dynamic guard that can take some pressure off of Sabrina. 

Enter Dana Evans, who would be the fourth Louisville player drafted by New York in three years. While her size may be a concern for the Liberty especially on the defensive end, Evans can get out and run in transition, score both on and off the ball and provide a similar amount of energy and swag that New York saw in Jazmine Jones last season. Evans also understands how to be successful on a team where she isn’t the focal point. She was named ACC sixth woman of the year as a sophomore on a roster that included Jones, Shook, and Asia Durr. She also edges Walker and Mack when it comes to familiarity, which I still contend matters. 

While all three prospects have contrasting skillsets, a commonality is their approach to their craft which includes an unwavering work ethic and a selfless and a collaborative disposition. 

According to Alabama head coach Kristy Curry, Walker is someone who has “owned her development” over the years. When Walker and Curry were being asked about Walker scoring her 1,000th point in December, Curry made an observation about her star and how she reacted in complete shock to the milestone. “She’s total team and not about me, it’s about we,” Curry said of Walker.  

Mack has been lauded as someone who “loves her teammates.” In a post-college career interview by OSU Athletics, she was asked what she wants WNBA talent evaluators to know about her. “I try to be the best teammate I can possibly be,” she said. “So that’s really it. I mean I’m a great player overall, but you know teammates. You know it’s not just a one-person game. It’s a team, it’s all five against everyone else.”

Evans has been open about her struggles with mental health, but with help from a sports psychologist, her family, and Louisville head coach Jeff Walz, she found her footing and unleashed her work ethic. She started her career shooting under 25 percent from three to then winning back-to-back ACC player of the year awards.

For the Liberty, a prospect’s core values regarding how they view their role on a team could be even more integral to how well their skillsets function within offensive and defensive scheming. “These are all different personalities, Kolb told The Next when referencing his current roster. “But there is one commonality, and that is their grit.” 

Drafting reinforcements due to uncertainty

New York has three more picks, but this time those selections fall toward the latter half of the draft rather than the top. While it is less than likely that New York’s 17th, 25th, and 29th picks make an opening day roster, training camp ought to be competitive especially when some might be missing in action. Kiah Stokes will be competing in the Euroleague Semifinals and potentially the Final depending on how her team Fenerbahce performs. Her arrival might be delayed.

Speaking of post players, what about Han Xu? The last we’ve heard about Han was in February during Natasha Howard’s welcome to New York presser. Kolb noted that he has kept in contact with her and her management. Could the Liberty suspend her contract for a second straight season so she can develop and focus on Tokyo?  I wouldn’t rule it out. 

To fill those potential voids, the Liberty could draft Chelsey Perry, a forward from non-power five school UT Martin. Rebecca Lobo noted that her performance against Louisville this season was telling and that she’s a WNBA talent. “She’s incredibly skilled, 6’2, big, strong body, plays on balance, can shoot the three, works extremely hard for position in the post,” she said of Perry. 

Without a lot of insight into both Johannès and Durr’s official plans for 2021, a shooting guard could be drafted here to fill those voids as well. Aleah Goodman from Oregon State averaged shooting 49 percent from three in her final year as a Beaver. 

And then there’s Bec Allen who technically isn’t signed, but is expected back not just by Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb, but apparently by her potential teammates as well. Natasha Howard congratulated the Aussie after she and her team Valencia Basket defeated Howard’s team Reyer Venezia in the Eurocup Final on Sunday afternoon.  

If she isn’t signed or has commitments from the Australian Opals to honor (Sami Whitcomb might also have similar commitments), New York will need another power/small forward hybrid-type player with guard skills. Patriot League prospect Natalie Kucowski could get a shot. In her final season with the Lafayette Leopards, she averaged a double-double of almost 18 points and over 13 rebounds a game. In 36 attempts from beyond the arc, she connected 44 percent of the time. During a weekend of games against NCAA tournament participant Lehigh, Kucowski scored a combined 53 points on 22-38 shooting, including 4-7 from three-point range with 36 boards, 7 assists, 4 steals, and 5 blocks.

But even if a deal is struck with Allen, which appears to be where the Liberty are headed, the roster could be in constant flux throughout the season. Although multiple second-round picks were on WNBA rosters in 2020, that was due to a large percentage of opt-outs from the Bradenton Wubble. This year, however, lower round picks might get some WNBA exposure, but instead, for limited stints of time while reserved players are overseas competing in the Tokyo Olympics and the Eurobasket championships.

If only in seafoam and black for a limited time, New York will still value the same set of criteria. Analytics are valued but aren’t only what makes it or breaks a prospect’s potential to join the Liberty.

“But beyond analytics for us, it’s really about getting to know the people and the people that we’re bringing into this organization player, staff or otherwise,” Kolb said on WFAN. “And that’s a major component to what we do.”

Written by Jackie Powell

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