The Liberty understand what they can't teach in the 2021 Draft
New York's selections at Nos. 6 and 17 reveal a shift in focus, albeit a rational one
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Phase Three of the Liberty’s multi-year roster overhaul officially commenced on Thursday night. Mock drafts were tossed into the shredder when New York selected two players in the first two rounds who aren’t particularly known for their 3-point shooting in UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere, who shot 33 percent from deep in her college career, and DiDi Richards, who attempted just *one* 3-pointer in her four years at Baylor.
The team’s moves on Thursday night sent a signal quite loudly and clearly. The New York Liberty want other teams to know that they aren’t just a 3-point shooting team. Gone are the days of living and dying by it. They’ll employ it, and their motion offense will stick as well, but this won’t be a team that wins games with a relatively young roster that relies solely on the long ball.
“The offense is very motion-oriented, so when you have open shots, you have to take those open shots and you have to make those open shots,” Onyenwere, the team’s first-round pick, said in a post-draft media call.
(Emphasis on the phrase “open shots.”)
“I think that's just going to be paramount in that offense, just being able to knock down those three-point shots.”
And paramount it will be, but New York proved that this draft wasn’t about the offense, but rather about the intangibles such as mental fortitude, emotional value systems and the effort and skill on the other end of the floor. The Liberty learned last season how tough young players can be on defense, proving their aptitude while guarding the league’s top talents.
On the final day of the 2020 regular season, women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli asked head coach Walt Hopkins about what takes precedence when building a roster. She laid out a binary: “skills versus intangibles.” While he explained that it’s a “combination of skillset and cultural fit,” the player’s personality and how compatible it is with his coaching supersedes extraordinary talent.
Now, flash forward to a pre-taped interview during the Liberty’s virtual pre-draft party. General manager Jonathan Kolb emphasized the amount of time he and his staff typically spend talking to prospects. He guesstimated that if the draftees were asked, they would say that the Liberty made the most concerted effort to engage with them.
Kolb also told Liberty fans that they look for not only a special type of person but also an “elite-level skill” that could include shooting, athletic motor, or defensive versatility.
Well, over a week ago, analyst Rebecca Lobo called Onyenwere the best athlete in the 2021 draft class. Athletic motor, check. And Richards is a former WBCA Defensive Player of the Year who battled back from paralysis this year to lead Baylor to an Elite Eight. Defensive versatility: check.
But a few questions remain in New York:
If those shots do not fall, how do the Liberty win games?
How will the Liberty address a lack of size on the block when their most vertical post player on the roster is 6’4 Kylee Shook?
Who makes it to training camp?
How do the Liberty counter and resolve these looming obstacles and decisions? More on all of that later.
Onyenwere, “a class act,” will shine in New York
Onyenwere hopped on Instagram Live at 10:30 PM ET on Thursday night to bask in the moment that had just taken place. With a close friend by her side, balloons and a ton of family still floating around, including her (now viral) grandmother, she shouted into the camera: “New York, you know what it is!” Yeah, New York knows exactly what it is getting with Onyenwere.
On ESPN’s draft pre-show Hoop Streams, analyst LaChina Robinson commented on Onyenwere’s intangibles, saying that her “brilliance” will add a ton to her WNBA stock. And it sure did.
The Liberty were ready to do what was necessary to discover who Onyenwere was as a human off the court. But they had some inside help: Shook and Onyenwere played AAU basketball together for about two years on the New Mexico Heat Elite. Shook’s appearance on Onyenwere’s Instagram story a week ago alongside former Liberty and now Sparks center Amanda Zahui B. was telling: these two are close.
Hopkins noted in the Liberty’s post-draft media call that he and his staff leaned on Shook to gain some insight on Onyenwere’s character, but at the end of the day, all he had to do was listen to her speak to understand her personality and spunk.
“Her confidence is really high, but she's humble,” Hopkins said of Onyenwere. “She's selfless, but she's really confident, you know, she's got a really nice mix of characteristics from a cultural personality standpoint that I think are gonna work really well here in New York. To go with that, you combine all of that with her intelligence and her capacity athletically, it's a scary combination.”
It’s a combination—motor, natural athleticism and character— that we’ve seen play out before in the WNBA. While some have called Onyenwere a “tweener” because of her limited college experience on the perimeter, Robinson doesn’t think that will be a problem for Onyenwere. Robinson believes the rookie has the ceiling of Alysha Clark, who also had to adjust from playing mostly on the block to mixing it up beyond the arc. But, for a Liberty comp, look no further than Betnijah Laney, who Onyenwere mentioned Hopkins had previously compared her to.
Here’s who the Liberty have at the sixth pick: someone with the on-court potential of Laney, the intellectual curiosity of Jocelyn Willoughby, the athletic motivation of her pal Shook. And she even has the commitment and the poise of one Sabrina Ionescu. “I'm just looking forward to experiencing that growth being uncomfortable, but it's also getting better,” Onyenwere said. Sound familiar? It should.
Onyenwere’s time at UCLA gave her all the tools she needs to don seafoam and black. Her coach Cori Close taught her and her teammates the importance of recognizing their platform as athletes. Onyenwere also learned that it’s not about who scores or how much someone scores, but how she can impact someone else. She’ll have ample opportunities to do that in New York.
“I love helping other people out; it always kind of filled my heart,” she said. “And so that's really cool that it was going to be in an organization that really values that and I'm super excited to give back to the community, get to know the Brooklyn community, and just kind of just be ingrained in that.”
DiDi’s defense and desire to develop
The Liberty believe Onyenwere can step in right now and defend at a WNBA level, and that same belief goes for Richards, their No. 17 pick.
Richards can be a defensive stopper on the perimeter and even on the block. She can alter shots in addition to blocking them. When it comes to grit, hard work and perseverance, she fits the bill. A certain amount of toughness is required to go from not being able to walk to being the centerpiece of a team’s NCAA Tournament run.
Richards’ unique physique also fits the bill for the Liberty, a team that requires its players to play multiple positions. She’s a 6’2 guard with spider-like legs that not only make her super quick, but also give her the ability to extend vertically. Her jump shot from the high post resembles an A’ja Wilson pull-up. As someone who didn’t play the point until her senior year, she’s more than just a willing passer. A 6’2 point guard when Ionescu or Layshia Clarendon are a little gassed? That bodes very well.
But the elephant in the room is her 3-point shot.
Richards didn’t appear worried but rather expected the questions and concern. “I've been in the gym since we finished the NCAA Tournament,” she said after her name was called. “I knew I was going to get to a team where they were going to question that, so I've been working on it and getting better at it.”
This is on the Liberty’s radar, but they aren’t too worried about it. New York’s staff includes Shelley Patterson, who has worked with WNBA superstars to refine their shot mechanics. Napheesa Collier wasn’t known to shoot threes at a high clip in college, but with hard work and some appointments with Patterson the shot doctor, Collier now boasts a career average above 37 percent from beyond the arc.
Hopkins contends that his staff’s focus on player development, especially on the offensive end, will prove valuable for Richards. “I think that we can move the needle with a lot of the on-court abilities if the player has the capacity to defend at a really high level, [has a] high basketball IQ, and can kind of have a wide-ranging set of skills that we can then kind of tap into and decide where we want to grow that player the most,” he said.
Richards will have to adapt, but that’s nothing new to her after shifting from the wing to the one and moving from, well, *not moving* to being a Big 12 champion. “One thing about me, I'm very good at adapting to something that I'm around,” Richards said during a league media call. “So I think that my style of game—not even my style of play, just the way I am—is to figure out what's going to get me on the court.”
Hopkins noted that the hardest part of becoming a 3-point shooter is building the confidence and trust “to take that shot consistently.”
Richards isn’t short on confidence. The Houston native told Sirius XM’s NBA Radio that she believes going to the Liberty was a “blessing in disguise.” In addition to taking full advantage of being near New York’s fashion district, Richards was looking to transition into big-city living.
Richards will benefit from being in New York, and so will the Liberty. After losing one former WBCA Defensive Player of the Year in Kia Nurse, New York will gain another in Richards.
Asset management remains foggy for now
With training camp about a week away, the Liberty have some decisions to make. Do all of their picks make it to camp? Do they even have room? Right now, no, but Kolb provided some insight into how New York will manage its assets in light of overseas leagues running into WNBA training camp.
“It all gets complicated with the overseas seasons that are currently ongoing,” he said before the draft. “There are a lot of COVID outbreaks out there, which is unfortunate, and the leagues had to pause and then they extended their seasons and so … all the teams are trying to figure out who's coming when to camp, and we want to make sure we have enough players to do that. So there is a benefit to having extra players on the roster right now.”
It is very possible that Kiah Stokes arrives late to training camp, as her team Fenerbahce will compete in the EuroLeague third-place game on Sunday. (The Minnesota Lynx have already indicated that Stokes’ teammate Kayla McBride will be late to camp.) With another training camp slot available for at least some of camp, many of these picks will compete for the final roster spots.
Higgins, who is the first player from Pacific to be drafted, is familiar with some of the personnel on the Liberty. She played with both Ionescu and Neah Odom in high school: Odom and Higgins both attended Chaminade College Prep, and Ionescu and Higgins both played under Kelly Sopak on his Nike Girls Elite Youth Basketball team CalStars.
Higgins’ college coach, Bradley Davis, described her as the “ultimate competitor with tremendous character.” Well, that sounds like a New York Liberty player.
“The first thing I thought when I saw my name is, I want to get to the gym and get ready for training camp, just to be able to compete, put my best foot forward,” Higgins said in a press release from Pacific University Athletics. That also sounds like a New York Liberty player.
Last note on Higgins: before the start of her last college season, she was recognized as one of the players to watch for the Becky Hammon Mid-Major Player of the Year award. Becky Hammon. Oh my, yes, that sounds like a New York Liberty player.
Does Higgins make it to camp? It seems awfully possible, especially because Fauthoux will likely not. And unfortunately, neither will the human statue of Liberty herself, Marine Johannès. Both French guards are slated to report to Toulouse on May 16th to prepare for the 2021 EuroBasket competition, which will run from June 17th through June 27th at the latest. And then there’s the Olympics.
Although I’m not sure if Johannès will come to New York after the Olympic break, the Liberty should suspend Fauthoux’s contract for the season. She’s a 19-year-old prospect whose rights they will want to maintain for the future. For further evidence of that, just ask two-time WNBA champion Devereaux Peters.
Also, it was reported over the weekend that Han Xu will not join the Liberty in 2021 as New York suspended her contract for the season. The center will continue to train with the Chinese national team for the Olympics.
And then there’s her fellow 2019 draftee Asia Durr. During his interview for the Liberty’s pre-draft party, Kolb noted that the Liberty are still motoring her situation. It wouldn’t be a surprise if her contract was suspended for 2021 as well.
With Stokes late; Han, Johannès, and Fauthoux all out on international commitments; and Durr still battling the long-term effects of COVID-19, 14 players are expected to arrive at camp. Who’s missing? That’s right, Rebecca Allen still isn’t officially signed. But the Liberty are confident she will play in Brooklyn, calling her contract situation “a safe bet at this point.”
Another name that isn’t as familiar on the Liberty’s roster is Louisville alumna Asia Taylor, a utility player who was well liked during her two stints with the Minnesota Lynx. The 29-year-old wing has been in and out of the league, seeing her last minutes in 2019. Taylor will help Hopkins and his staff run a competitive camp.
“We really want to bring people in who push us, who prepare us and it's not just a one-sided thing,” Hopkins said. “Because then those players, we get to look at them, they get to look at us. They get to see kind of how we do things, what the organization area’s like and the system is like, what we coach like, and what their teammates would be like here.”
But Kolb also made it very clear that the roster will constantly be changing this season. An Olympics, EuroBasket, a COVID season and potential injuries present ample opportunities for players drafted late or players who have been waived to make other teams’ rosters. Fortunately, it will be a bit easier for teams to add players this year with loosened coronavirus safety protocols relative to the Bradenton Wubble.
Back to those looming obstacles. In the draft, the Liberty proved that they understand what cannot be taught. Athleticism, work ethic, motivation, effort and selflessness aren’t learned but rather are intrinsic. Now, how do they address those holes, countering larger post players and the risk that shots won’t fall?
The Liberty will bet on their defense and whip out the oldest trick in the book. They’ll aim to get out and run, turning their more experienced defense into more offense, and will use their speed (Natasha Howard calls herself “The Flash,” and rightfully so) to beat bigs who are a bit more dilatory.
That’s why there has been such a focus on defense. When the shots don’t fall, the Liberty will get offensive production by turning stingy defense into steals, missed shots and plays in transition. This was the plan all along, but this time, they will have personnel who are much more equipped to do it.