Offensive confidence for the Liberty's youngest takes time

It's no coincidence that New York is a more confident team on defense rather than offense

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Leaonna “Neah” Odom #0 of the New York Liberty defends Napheesa Collier #24 on August 15, 2020, against the Minnesota Lynx at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Liberty’s offense and defense have switched places, swapped identities. The former squad from a year ago was known for a lack of effort on the defensive end. In 2019, New York’s defense was ranked the worst in the league alongside an offensive play that was ranked only two spots better at 10th. But in 2020, those numbers have reversed.

Kia Nurse has spelled out multiple times that her current teammates play with fearlessness and an effort. That’s apparent on the defensive side of the ball. Now on offense, however, hesitation has yielded turnovers for the Liberty, a stat that has hindered New York from putting points on the board.

The Liberty turn the ball over 18.5 times per game, giving up the most takeaways in the WNBA. This isn’t anything new, unfortunately. Turnovers and a lack of focus on defense were the Achilles heal for the 2019 New York Liberty. But as I’ve previously noted, the TOs have looked different this year.

“It was really, it was the turnovers, again,” head coach Walt Hopkins said after falling to the Connecticut Sun 82-65 on Saturday. “And I think part of that comes from what I'm talking about, it comes from people, you know, being in positions and being indecisive, and not playing with confidence. I think that is probably the biggest thing contributing to those turnovers. I don't see people, you know, trying to make crazy passes or, once in a while, we get a player dribbling into two or three people when they shouldn't.”

The Liberty defense is ranked a tad bit better, but the turnovers haven’t disappeared and are still an Albatros. The numbers say New York’s turnovers have ballooned from year to year and have even gotten worse. This flip-flop in identity may bode as one step forward and two steps back, but it’s not. These are the growing pains that are expected from a team that’s half full of first years. The turnovers and their multitude have occurred for a different reason than a year ago, and they are correlated with New York’s lack of efficiency on offense that’s stagnant and not used to one another.

The incremental success on defense represents the identity that the Liberty have excluding Hopkins’ offensive system.

An upward trajectory on defense

Kia Nurse #5 and #24 Kylee Shook defend Allie Quigley #14 of the Chicago Sky during the game against the New York Liberty on August 20, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

A year ago, the Liberty finished the season 8th in defensive rebounds per game (25.5) and 9th in the league for defensive rebounding percentage (67.4). In Bradenton, this rookie laden roster has helped New York reach 26.5 defensive rebounds per game and a 72.3 defensive rebounding percentage. Both numbers are third-best in the league.

Remember all of the turnovers that turned into opponent fastbreak points from a year ago? In 2020, New York only gives up a hair under 4 points per game on fast break, while in 2019, this number swelled to over 7.

Even with Amanda Zahui B. on the team in 2019, the Liberty finished last with 3.7 blocks per game. A year later, however, this number has increased to four blocks per game, the fourth-best in the league.

Also, while Kiah Stokes wasn’t on last year’s roster, this season she has a 7.8 Player Impact Estimate, which means she’s not the only one actively contributing on defense to inspire these 2020 figures.

So what’s the reason for this? Well, there are multiple:

  1. The Liberty value defensive effort.

  2. New York drafted defense-first players.

  3. The learning curve involved in defense isn’t as steep.

Against the Chicago Sky on August 20, rookies Megan Walker and Joyner Holmes didn’t see any time on the floor. While Hopkins alluded to the matchups that the Sky presented the Liberty as one reason for the two not fitting into the rotation, he mentioned that their effort on defense in practice didn’t warrant them any minutes. “I didn’t think either one of them was bringing the defensive effort or the focus necessary in practice to justify the minutes,” he said during a pregame presser before taking on the Sun.

An admirable effort on defense is a non-negotiable for Hopkins and his staff. This isn’t an issue for most of New York’s rookies, as another reason for the exponential improvement on defense is who the Liberty drafted. Kylee Shook left Louisville as not only the ACC Defensive Player of the year but the school’s all-time leader in blocks. Along with Shook, Jazmine Jones also represented Louisville on the 2019-2020 All-ACC Defensive Team. Jocelyn Willoughby impressed Liberty GM Jonathan Kolb on day one in training camp with her pro-ready defense. And then there’s Neah Odom who has told her team that a goal she has in this league is to someday be named Defensive Player of the Year.

Teammate Layshia Clarendon called some of the rookies “defense-first players” as something they always aim to do while on the floor is to get stops.

Shook has registered over 25 percent of the team’s defensive rebounds, Jones holds over 35 percent of New York’s steals and Willoughby created 25 percent of the Liberty’s total blocks. And Odom is responsible for the highest defensive win shares out of all first-year players on the Liberty and sits a smidgen behind Kia Nurse who’s New York’s best perimeter defender.

The numbers don’t lie and Nurse has noticed.

“What [Odom] did, starting with our game against Vegas she had to guard Angel McCoughtry, in the second half in Chicago and she came in and she guarded Quigley,” she said. “And she kind of slows down pretty much everybody we put her on. It's her length, it's her athleticism, it's her effort on defense. And she did a great job with DeWanna [Bonner] tonight again and I think that's just her ability to really put a length on people and use her effort to really get her athleticism going.”

Nurse believes that the effort has been key for all of the rookies’ success on defense. It’s a place where first-years can easily gain confidence as the road map to success isn’t as ambiguous as the Liberty’s offensive system. “The best defenders can kind of understand, but it's tendencies knowing that, and then really just making multiple efforts and putting that in,” she said.

Assistant Coach Kelly Raimon agreed with Nurse, telling The Next that defense can appear easier to a certain extent. “It's probably the hardest thing to do but if you're in the right spot, and you're athletic, it’s something that can be done really well and taught easier.”

“I think on the offensive side, it's the feel for the game and each other. And that sometimes takes time,” Raimon said.

Confidence is easier said than done on offense

Jocelyn Willoughby #13 of the New York Liberty drives to the basket against the Minnesota Lynx on August 15, 2020, at FeldEntertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.

After the Liberty’s 86-79 loss to the Indiana Fever on August 13, Hopkins admitted what’s causing New York’s offensive struggles as the worst-rated offensive team in the league. The eye test confirms that the Liberty struggle most when they are stagnant and not moving in the halfcourt off the ball. But, New York has struggled when plan A doesn’t pan out. “We were still really having trouble with secondary actions when our first action gets bogged down,” Hopkins said.

The Liberty staff made a collective decision to challenge the young players from the get-go. They didn’t want to put the team “on train tracks” but rather have been teaching the group how to read and react to each other. They decided to “rip the band-aid off.” But that’s a lofty challenge when only five players have ever played with others on this roster.

“Regardless of what offense you put in, if they don't know each other, and they can't read off each other, it's pretty much the same outcome,” Raimon told The Next. “The better they get at that, you can run absolutely anything, you know.”

Another goal for the Liberty on offense has been learning game by game where each member of the roster thrives on the floor, and where they are most comfortable with the ball.

For players like Shook, Odom, or Willoughby it’s been a challenge to find their footing on offense when pro defenses thrive off of any hesitation. Willoughby’s minutes have recently decreased and Hopkins has attributed that to analytics and trying to parse together which players will put together the best offensive sets. Early on, Willoughby got to the line often, but couldn’t finish on her drives. For Shook, she’s working on slowing down in the post especially when she’s passed the ball. Odom hesitates to shoot from deep when she’s open.

On Willoughby and Odom, Clarendon believes that the two are struggling with confidence due to the learning curve associated with this new offensive system. As slashers and cutters, both rookies are navigating a system that’s dependant on the three-ball that both have the potential to shoot but maybe aren’t as used to taking.

“When they end up getting a lot of open threes but kind of had that indecision on taking them, I think it's just a kind of a personal preference, that they like the defensive end better and they've just kind of figuring out as a rookie in a new system,” the veteran point guard said.

But what’s frustrating for both rookies is that Odom’s stroke from long is incredibly smooth and Willoughby finished her senior season at Virginia shooting over 40 percent from three.

*They can do this.*

Nurse put it in perspective when talking about her younger teammates and their confidence. This is a very new team that hasn’t had nearly enough practice time to be proficient in the tendencies of one another.

“And I think offensively, the system is different, right, we're all new to each other, we haven't had a whole lot of time to get in the practice gym and really understand people's tendencies, and where they're best suited where they find the easiest shots, where they find the most confident shots,” Nurse told reporters after a loss to the Sun. “So that's tough when you have a new system you have a new coaching staff you're coming into a brand new team and you're coming into a new league, where you're playing against the best players in the world night in and night out.”

Fighting through the bouts of insecurity

How does this offense get better? It’s not simple. According to Raimon it’s more reps and turning the Liberty’s defensive abilities into less complex offense. “I think the more that we can push the pace of the game off of things that we get off of defense I think we'll be in a less pressured situation to score,” she said.

Assistant Shelley Patterson’s method with Odom is that the staff and the players are going to celebrate every moment when she does attempt to take a three-ball. This is an approach that gives her confidence even when her shots might not fall.

After practice on Monday, Odom told The Next what motivates her to fight through her own self skepticism. Young vets Nurse and Zahui B. aren’t hesitant with the former Duke Blue Devil. Nurse has encouraged Odom to drive and draw contact and Zahui B. has motivated her to go one on one with anyone in the league.

“Just hearing those voices, I think it does sell for confidence in myself,” she said.

Confidence isn’t black and white. There’s no formula for gaining it, and it comes from within. According to Nurse, it ought to come from an internal belief in the work that has been put forth. A player always has that confidence, it just may take a while for her to fully realize it.

If you really look at what confidence is you always have it…And a lot of times I mean it can't come from wins and losses. It has to come from the ability to know and yourself and know in your mind and know in your heart that you put the work into the gym, and with this group, we do have a lot of time in the gym to get some extra shots up. We find ways to do it and we have a lot of people who want to go in and it's optional, but you'll see a ton of us in there, and that's where you're really going to find your confidence again, you're going to find your rhythm.

Or maybe the rookies just need to find their swagger (maybe aside from Jazmine Jones of course). This was something Erica Ayala discussed on the latest episode of her New York Liberty podcast Gotta Get Up!

“The swag needs to come back… I need some swag on this team,” Ayala said. “You know who has swag on this team Jazmine Jones has swag. You know who has swag potential, like low-key swag potential, Kylee Shook.”