May 13, 2021 

2021 WNBA season preview: New York Liberty

A tree grows in Brooklyn, finally

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Left to Right: Betnijah Laney, Sabrina Ionescu, and Jazmine Jones posing on media day. (Photo Courtesy of New York Liberty’s Twitter account.)

When new Liberty forward Michaela Onyenwere walks down Flatbush Avenue, random people stop her. First, they ask the 6th overall draft pick Onyenwere if she does in fact play for the Liberty, and second, they ask for a picture.

The folks who work at the Chick-fil-A near the Barclays Center all know her now, too. They ask about the rest of the team, the schedule and have an obvious interest in the Liberty, an original WNBA franchise that is about to start their first full season in Brooklyn.

“I’ve only been here for three weeks, but I feel like people are being put on notice that we’re here, that we’re in the city, that we’re about to start playing,” the rookie said on Wednesday afternoon. She can feel folks engaged in conversation about women’s basketball, shivering in anticipation and eager to see what the Liberty look like during their home debut this Friday against the Indiana Fever.

But what comes with that level of anticipation is a level of pressure that is warranted for New York. After three years of playing in remote locations far away from the five boroughs of New York City that included the Westchester County Center and the IMG Academy in Florida, the Liberty return almost unrecognizable to fans.

Rebecca “Bec” Allen and Kiah Stokes are the only two current players on roster who remain from that 2017 group that last played full time at Madison Square Garden. Sabrina Ionescu’s potential professional star power hasn’t quite fully been corroborated, yet. In two and a half regular-season games played in 2020, she showed flashes of brilliance including a performance against Dallas where she put up 33 points including 6-for-10 from three, dished out 7 assists, and hauled down 7 rebounds. But that single case study didn’t prove that the Liberty were in a position to move past their previous issues surrounding load management and usage. Fans remember how the Liberty used Tina Charles.

Ionescu needs talent around her and injured ankle or not in Florida, she simply didn’t have enough of it. After free agency where the Liberty signed 2020’s Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney and traded for WNBA champions Sami Whitcomb and Natasha Howard, Ionescu shouldn’t have to shoulder the same load. She’ll also enter 2021 with a young core to grow with her.

During the past couple of weeks in training camp, the Liberty have been working on buying into an altered version of their system, one that’s predicated less on “open set threes” but rather one that’s more reliant upon pesky defense.

A new focus on defensive nuances such as how players stand and how their arms are positioned while guarding will allow for the defense to help translate into an offense that is tailored to the natural athleticism on the roster. They’ll spread the floor too, but they’ll use the three as a tool rather than a crutch.

Their main task in 2021 remains introducing Liberty fans old and new to the way they play basketball, encouraging people watching from home and in attendance at Barclays Center to buy in as well.

When will the rest of the cavalry arrive?

Back in mid-January when I previewed the Liberty’s plans for free agency, I addressed four questions that I thought had to be answered.

All but one have been answered. What role will Kiah Stokes play in 2021?

It’s hard to know right now. Stokes arrived back in the U.S. Wednesday after competing and winning a Turkish championship with her club Fenerbahce. But, what about the Eurobasket Championships, which the Turkish National team will be competing in? Stokes is on their roster and their camp began on May 10. Will she join them in mid-June for their first match against Slovenia or is she going to stay in The States?

In Liberty camp without both Stokes and Natasha Howard, it’s been sophomore Kylee Shook who has been in pick-and-roll drills with Ionescu and it’s been Shook who got the start against the Connecticut Sun in their only pre-season scrimmage. At the Wubble, Stokes started all 22 games and played 27.3 minutes per game. Head Coach Walt Hopkins has made it clear that it wasn’t his original intent to start her with Amanda Zahui B. last season. But with seven rookies on the 2020 roster and without Allen, it gave him no other choice.

The question remains: with Howard on the roster and with Allen back, will the Liberty be playing smaller? But first, Howard and Allen have to officially report to Brooklyn. The latter finished her Spanish championship on May 6, falling to Avenida, 76-61, and Howard plays the fourth game in the Italian championships on Thursday. Her team Reyer Venezia is up 2-1 in the series and can win the series with a win.

Waiving Janelle Bailey, third-round draft pick Valerie Higgins and Joyner Holmes signals that the three will at some point be on this team. While it is currently unknown as to when Allen is scheduled to report to Brooklyn, the three veteran players will still have to go through the league’s COVID-19 protocols before they can integrate themselves with the team.

According to Onyenwere and Shook, players have to record six negative COVID tests in a row before they could join the group. Within their first four days in Brooklyn, they could do individual workouts with masks and with one of their coaches. But to escape isolation and mask-wearing in practice, six negative tests must be recorded in a row. If Stokes, Allen, and Howard recorded negative tests while overseas, the goal will be to continue that trend until they all hit six in a row.

Hence: GM Jonathan Kolb suspended all three contracts, temporarily. It’s difficult to predict how long it takes for players to finish the protocols. Suspending contracts for part of the season allows for the Liberty to employ more than 12 players on their roster.

Screenshot taken from the WNBA Transactions Page

Also, the Liberty had to suspend Asia Durr’s contract so they could abide by the league’s salary cap. This is unfortunate, but not surprising. According to the Liberty’s salary cap and assuming that the team does suspend Jocelyn Willoughby, who will be out recovering from a ruptured Achilles, New York has around $65,109 left to spend on contracts.

With “a great mix” around her, will Sabrina shine?

Now onto something a little less ambiguous: Sabrina Ionescu. The Liberty’s number one overall draft pick will make her return to the Liberty as her ankle is very close to healed.

Hopkins eased her into training camp, including having her rest during the Liberty’s scrimmage against the Sun. But as of Monday, he’s even more confident about her progress.

“She’s been she’s been getting pretty close to full go,” he said during media day. “There’s not a ton of restrictions, we try to keep her reps reasonable and we’re still trying to scale her up. She’s not 100 percent, but she’s getting closer and closer every day. She looks good.” 

Assistant coach Shelley Patterson has been paying close attention to Ionescu’s progression and notices the impact she makes on the court. For a player who is re-doing her rookie season, her leadership abilities that were touted at Oregon have come alive in Brooklyn. Patterson told Ionescu after practice how much of an impact her communication skills are on the court. She’s vocal and she’s organizing her teammates on the floor.

“You can tell when she’s on the floor,” Patterson said on Monday’s media day. “The organization, you can see it. You can see how people play off of her, the confidence that they have in her, and also knowing the fact that we have her back on the floor as an extra shooter makes a huge difference.”

Ionescu appreciates that she has gotten the first WNBA game jitters out of her system. This time around, she knows a bit more of what to expect. Although she didn’t get a chance to match up against the Fever in the 2.5 games she played, she feels more prepared than she did under a year ago. She’s experienced a full professional training camp and will have more veteran talent to work with than she had to begin with in Florida.

While attending a Brooklyn Nets home game on Wednesday night, she told Michael Grady of YES that she values not just the veterans that Kolb brought over during the offseason, but also the sophomore core that has returned.

“I think obviously the new players that we have coming in bring a lot of experience and being able to listen and learn from them and their past experiences from winning teams has been awesome and I think it’s helped us,” she said. “But also having our core group of returners come back. A lot of our rookies, we were rookies last year, but now come back and learn from the last year that we had and grow together has been really nice. It’s been a great mix.”

The sophomores won’t slump. Who fills in the gaps?

Michaela Onyenwere is all smiles getting ready to play in her first WNBA scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun. (Photo Courtesy of New York Liberty’s Twitter account.)

Betnijah Laney, one of those more experienced players, notices the growth of the sophomores. During media day, she explained how much work they have all put in during the offseason. No one looks “stagnant” or is in the “same spot” as they were the year before.

That off-season work has allowed for training camp to move at a bit of a faster pace, according to sophomore forward Shook. In the Wubble, there was a lot of stopping and teaching rather than plugging and playing. At the Barclays Center practice court, the Liberty have had more of an opportunity to build chemistry, making practices more “fluid.”

Sophomore Jazmine Jones has grown as a leader. Patterson referred to her as “almost a vet.” She has become more vocal, speaking up almost as much as Ionescu, and gives the Liberty everything she’s got while running the second team at lead guard.

A key member from that group of sophomores, Jocelyn Willoughby, will be out for the season. She tore her Achilles during the scrimmage against the Sun. Her three-point shooting ability, muscle, and intelligence will be missed on the Liberty. New teammate Sami Whitcomb expressed sorrow as she believed that Willoughby was primed for a breakout season.

So how will New York compensate? The good news is that Hopkins and Kolb built a roster of players who have “positional variability.” The skills that Willoughby possesses are present in Laney, Allen (when she arrives), and the rookie Onyenwere, who was deemed one of the best athletes in the 2021 draft class.

The Liberty have been pleasantly surprised by how well Onyenwere shoots the three in practice, something of concern for Patterson when she was scouting the rookie during the offseason. While Onyenwere has compared her ceiling to that of teammate Laney, Patterson called her “almost like a little Jocelyn.” With Willoughby out, the rookie will have the opportunity to get some early reps as the Liberty wait on their overseas veterans to arrive and pass through the COVID protocols.

In year 25, what are the Liberty looking to gain?

New mascot Ellie the Elephant has a moment with original New York Liberty mascot Maddie. (Photo Courtesy of the New York Liberty.)

In short, everything. But in all actuality, the Liberty are looking to connect with and to the city they are now finally playing for. Layshia Clarendon has already found their footing in a city that has embraced them already. The guard can walk down the streets of Brooklyn and blend in, which is something they aren’t used to.

“I can walk down the street and like nobody really cares because like this haircut, doesn’t even look that cool in Brooklyn,” he said. “…I’m not the player walking around [where] it’s like, ‘Oh, who is that random Black queer trans looking person, it’s just like, oh hey,’ Head nod. Everybody keeps it pushing.”

She feels a sense of pride to be playing in Brooklyn and for one of the WNBA’s oldest teams.

Both on the court and off, the Liberty aim to bring its past with it into an altered future. This symbolism extends to the fact that the franchise’s new mascot Ellie won’t be putting New York Liberty staple Maddie in the corner. This is what the Liberty will do on the court as well.

Fans old and new are going to see a style of basketball that is reminiscent of the past and the present. Yes, the Liberty will have many more wing players than true posts. But, returning instead will be the blue-collar style basketball that defined the Liberty when they made their professional debut 25 years ago.

After a 2-20 season in Florida, the returners help create a foundation that understands resilience. That’s something New Yorkers are going to feel.

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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