April 19, 2022
Faces, new and familiar, in Liberty camp as key decisions loom
New York's slimmed-down camp roster offers some options
When the social accounts of the New York Liberty posted some photos from day one of training camp on Sunday, fans reacted in the comments with excitement and also shock. “Welcome back Asia Durr,” one user wrote on Instagram. “Asia Durr and Han Xu are back together again! Crazy!,” another wrote.
2019 rookies Han and Durr (who uses they/them pronouns) are back in New York Liberty training camp for the first time in three years. Both were not on roster during the 2020 Wubble season and the 2021 season, the first full season at Barclays Center.
“It honestly doesn’t feel real,” Durr said in a video released by the team on Sunday. “But I guess it kind of kicked in when we started practicing. I’m just super blessed and super grateful to be back with my team.”
The last time both players were anywhere near practicing with the team that drafted them three years ago, the Liberty practiced mostly at St. Joseph’s College on Vanderbilt Ave, games were mostly played at the Westchester County Center, Tina Charles was still the roster, Sandy Brondello was coaching the Phoenix Mercury and Sabrina Ionescu played for Kelly Graves at Oregon.
It’s been a long time coming for both Han and Durr. The 22 year-old Chinese center spent the past two seasons training with her National team. In addition to long flights not being the safest during the 2020 season, timely flights were almost inconceivable. Durr spent the past two seasons battling long COVID and was cleared this past November to begin training.
On Thursday after the WNBA draft, I asked some questions about the Liberty’s roster construction and what their draft picks said about what their roster will look like this season.
While these questions haven’t *all* been answered, since then, however, there’s been some clarity. Let’s begin with Han, who we reported on Friday had reported to camp. Initially, the potential road blocks for Han playing in New York this season revolved around if she could get her visa in time after getting held up in Serbia following the World Cup Qualifier in Belgrade. But, not only has Han reported to training camp, but in two seasons out of the W, she has grown an inch. Han now is listed at 6’10 rather than 6’9, her initial height.
Now the Liberty are going from lacking a contingent in the post, to having five players that are 6’4 and above including Han, new acquisition Stefanie Dolson, third year player Kylee Shook and the Liberty’s two 2022 draftees in Nyara Sabally and Lorela Cubaj. But, there is a catch there, too.
On Friday Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb announced that Sabally, who both he and head coach Brondello believe will be an integral piece of the franchise moving forward, won’t play this 2022 season due to her lingering knee injuries.
“We knew heading into the selection for Nyara that there was a very strong chance that she would not play this year because of her current health condition,” he said. “And we knew that and so in selecting her, that will be the case. And so we knew taking her we’re going to have her rights going forward. And we’re going to work with Nyara and her representatives and doctors to make sure that she’s ready to roll for ’23.”
How does this impact the Liberty’s salary cap and roster moving forward? While New York has paid players in the past who had to miss parts of the season or the whole season such as Durr and Jocelyn Willoughby, Sabally most likely won’t sign her rookie contract this season and will instead sign her rookie deal right before the 2023 draft. The team’s official training camp roster didn’t include Sabally, a fact consistent with Kolb’s announcement.
Even without Sabally on roster this season, New York currently has four post players at 6’4 or above. “I think we had a goal this offseason, in free agency as well as the draft to get bigger and get stronger in that area,” Kolb said about the Liberty’s post players. “And I think we really accomplished that.”
The goal he refers to is a direct result of Brondello’s influence on how the Liberty will play basketball in 2022 and beyond. New York will continue to spread the floor and play a more up-tempo game. But, the days of only relying upon perimeter shooting are over.
“We wanted players that could come in and complement the core group that we have here,” Brondello said on Friday about the team she and Kolb have assembled. “And you know, the versatility is a big piece here. The way that we want to play, we want to make sure we have a great inside-outside attack, and not just being all outside. So I think the players that we brought in, I mean, you know, can make an impact, not just now but obviously for many years to come.”
Is there an area now where New York still isn’t as deep? Kolb has been paying attention to what media members have written and what fans have expressed online. A team that once had a surplus of guards and ball handlers in 2019 now has less backcourt facilitators. But Kolb is confident in that area and believes that this team shouldn’t be limited to guards only handling the ball and facilitating.
“People asked about backup point guard this and that and we feel like we have the ability to develop players,” he said. “I mean, somebody like DiDi Richards, is somebody that could potentially down the line slide into that role. And…we don’t want to stunt the development of anybody. We also want to expand the roles of some players.”
Brondello agreed, adding that whoever is rebounding the ball is going to need to be capable of handling the ball and push it forward. In addition to Sabrina Ionescu, who can play both on and off the ball, Brondello mentioned Sami Whitcomb as someone who will be relied upon to play make both on and off the ball. “It’s not just being a positional look,” Brondello said. “Let’s make them skilled in all areas and let’s see what works best. Who is the best bringing the ball up facilitating offense?”
There’s a player who’s currently not on the training camp roster who could also play on this team this season and slide into a ball handler role too: Marine Johannès. When Kolb was asked on Friday about the chances that she returns to New York for the first time since 2019, he was cautiously optimistic. He laid out the only barrier that’s in the Liberty’s way of having the French sensation return to United States. “I definitely think there’s a possibility we see Marine,” he said. “It’s just gonna depend on that French season.”
Johannès’ French regular season officially concludes on April 30 when her team LDLC ASVEL plays Saint Amand LFB. But, the playoffs begin on May 7 with the quarterfinals running through May 13, the semifinals running through the latest May 23 and then the French Finals running through the absolute latest June 9. Johannès’ team is currently second in the French League standings with a 14-6 record.
If her team is upset in the quarterfinals, Johannès will miss only a few WNBA games. But if her team makes it to the finals, she could miss as many as 12 Liberty games.
The rest of the roster includes players in addition to Durr who are returning from serious injuries and health concerns. Paris Kea, a guard who the Liberty brought into the Wubble in the middle of the 2020 season, is returning to the team after tearing her ACL while playing in Israel in January of last year.
When Brondello was asked about the progress and her expectations for both guards, she praised their work ethic in how they’ve “worked really hard on their bodies.” But, the work doesn’t end there. She explained that there is a lot of new at Liberty training cap and one of the main objectives will be figuring out what and who works best in the system she created for this roster, which also includes Jocelyn Willoughby. After tearing her achilles during a pre-season scrimmage almost a year ago, Willoughby is now back in the fold.
The former 10th overall draft pick, who sustained the same injury that Breanna Stewart, Kelsey Plum and Alyssa Thomas have endured in the past couple of years, is primed to have a bounceback season. The 6′ guard/forward, who established herself defensively in the Wubble initially while also showing exponential improvement offensively in 2020, is expected to be a key cog in the Liberty’s system this season and beyond. The final step in her return to full strength on the court will be building up her confidence after such a serious injury. Patience will be a provision for not only Willoughby herself but for Kolb, Brondello and her staff.
Willoughby embodies the versatility that is this roster’s hallmark. She also embodies the defensive urgency that is being preached right now in training camp. Brondello noted that the way she wants to play has specific defensive “non-negotiables,” a philosophy that Willoughby will buy into.
While Sabally won’t be joining New York this season, another rookie will be. Cubaj was targeted by New York specifically for her defensive buy-in and talents. When discussing her pre-draft conversations with Cubaj, Brondello recalled how much the rookie adores the defensive end of the floor.
“You talk to her and not many players when you talk to them and they go ‘hey that’s me, that’s what I want to do,'” she said. “And you need those kinds of players to get to play the style of defense that you want.”
The defensive intensity that will be drilled all camp long is something that Cubaj herself was giddy to discuss. The dirty-work gritty style of playing is how she’s at her best. It’s how she enjoys playing the game the most. She’s communicative as well, a indispensable part of playing alert and aware defense.
“I’m an energetic person on the floor,” she said when asked about how she fits into the grittiness that shapes New York basketball. “I’m talkative, I talk a lot. So I feel like that’s a really good thing to bring to any team. And I hope I can do that as well for this team and I hope it only adds to the good things that I already have. And honestly, that it’s like I always put everything that I have on the court. If it’s energy wise, like body wise and just mentally I just put it all out there.”
What roster unknowns are left?
As of now, the Liberty have 12 players that have reported for training camp. That’s the maximum roster size allowed in the W during the regular and postseason. During training camp, teams are allowed 15 players at max to participate. Some teams such as the Chicago Sky and the Indiana Fever have upwards of 20 people listed on their training camp rosters. How is that possible? Other commitments overseas are usually the reason.
So why didn’t New York go the Chicago route? Last season the Liberty had at least four training camp contracts while this season the only one they have going into this season is Kea. The ideology here is with so much new including the coaching and performance staff in addition to a new playing scheme, and some new players, the Liberty wanted to focus on their core group while working toward building genuine chemistry immediately.
“Chemistry is vital,” Kolb said. “Sandy has spoken about it a lot and I think the more we can drill down with our group, the better. So we’re going to stick with those that that are listed on our roster currently. And go from there and kind of rely on practice guys and things of that nature to fill in.”
With 12 players in camp right now, does that mean the team won’t have to waive anyone before opening day in May? Not exactly. The Liberty have two late reports with both Stefanie Dolson and Rebecca Allen expected to miss time due to the Hungarian and Spanish playoff schedules. Dolson will arrive toward the end of training camp with her playoff schedule ending between April 23 and April 30. During training camp, there shouldn’t be any cuts, as Dolson’s addition puts New York’s camp at 13 players rather than 12. But before the regular season, one player currently at camp won’t be able to start the season in seafoam and black.
The same will happen once Allen returns which could be right on time for the start of the regular season on May 7 if her team is eliminated. Or her team could prevail and she could miss at most between 3-4 regular season games with an expected arrival time after May 15. But whenever Allen does arrive in Brooklyn and is activated, another player that isn’t Dolson, Natasha Howard, Whitcomb or Betnijah Laney will be waived. That group including Allen are all on protected deals and can’t be cut unless they are paid out part of or their full contract. While both Layshia Clarendon and Kiah Stokes were waived and bought out last season, I’d be shocked to see a similar situation in occur in New York this year.
And finally, if Johannès arrives in mid-June, another player with an unprotected deal will be most likely be on the hot seat. Does Cubaj beat out Shook? Does Willoughby outplay reigning rookie of the year Michaela Onyenwere? Are there injuries that make this even more complicated?
These and more will be the set of unknowns that will follow the Liberty into the beginning of the 2022 regular season.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also covers women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.