June 9, 2022 

How signing Marine Johannès helps the Liberty

Why New York moved on from AD

Marine Johannès, the French combo guard who wowed Liberty fans in 2019, arrived in New York on Wednesday night, a league source told The Next. The team announced on Wednesday that the Liberty signed Johannès to a rest of the season contract. Also, pending her physical, she should be available to play for the Liberty on Friday night in Indiana.

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In a consequent move, New York traded Asia Durr (AD is the name they prefer to be called; they also use they/them pronouns) to the Atlanta Dream for Megan Walker and for the rights to Raquel Carrera, the Dream’s 2021 second round pick and the 15th overall in last year’s draft. Carrera, the 20-year-old 6’3 center out of Spain, currently plays for Valencia Basket, the same team that Liberty wing Rebecca Allen has played for since 2020. Our Spencer Nusbaum was the first to report on the trade.

“AD is truly one of the best people I have had the honor to know,” Liberty General Manager Jonathan Kolb said in the team’s release. “Seeing them grow and come into their own over the years has been so heartening. Their perseverance is second to none, and I wish them nothing but the absolute best as they enter the next chapter of their WNBA career.”

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After spending over two-plus years out of professional basketball due to a hip injury followed by the lingering effects of long COVID, AD returned to the court for Liberty for the first time since 2019. While they proved to be the same unassuming hard worker that GM Kolb drafted over three years ago, their adjustment to game speed was a steep hurdle.

Head coach Sandy Brondello commended them at the beginning of training camp for how hard they had worked leading up to this point. After being medically cleared to play basketball back in November 2021, AD spent the offseason building up muscle mass and training all over the country (back home in Atlanta and then in Phoenix with former Liberty assistant Dustin Gray and Brondello). While Sports Illustrated’s Ben Pickman had reported that AD had made 28 consecutive NBA-range three pointers in a row this past February, that type of consistency wasn’t visible at full game speed. Stationary shooting is one scenario, but playing five-on-five and having to read and react and make quick decisions against some of the best players in the world is another. But the Liberty wouldn’t know that until they saw what their former No. 2 overall pick had before moving on without providing them with an opportunity.

Under new ownership that’s more invested in New York’s players than ever, the Liberty could allow AD to take their time getting their reaction time up to snuff while working through the brain fog and COVID flare ups that still are a part of their world. AD’s Liberty teammates and the coaching staff were supportive as they all helped AD find their way, making sure they were comfortable at every step. If it was helping them learn the playbook or helping them retrain their brain due to long COVID’s lasting effects, the organization, including the Liberty’s player care department, provided the former Louisville standout with all of the multitudinous resources that they could need to make a successful comeback.

When the Liberty just couldn’t shoot the ball and were a step slower on defense during a blowout loss against the Sky on May 11, AD wasn’t inserted into the game. It wasn’t a matter of choice for Brondello. She actually couldn’t insert AD into the game. They were ruled out moments before tip-off due to a COVID flare up which included dizziness, nausea, sweats and chills.

Initially allowing AD some time to grow and adjust back to professional basketball didn’t appear to have that much of a risk for the Liberty. Sabrina Ionescu, Sami Whitcomb, Betnijah Laney and DiDi Richards were all expected to see meaningful minutes as both on and off ball guards. It wasn’t such an obvious issue that AD’s ramp up was progressing slowly. But once the Liberty’s injury report contained almost a third of the roster, including Laney, Richards, Jocelyn Willoughby and Lorela Cubaj during New York’s West coast road trip in late May, Brondello tried throwing AD into the fire.

The result wasn’t steady or consistant. They were hesitant on and off the ball, and defensively struggled to stay in front of opponents. During their final two-game set in a Liberty jersey this past week at Barclays Center against the Lynx, AD played a total of three minutes including none on Tuesday night. The Liberty couldn’t mask AD’s incremental journey behind more veteran players anymore. Especially with Sami Whitcomb still finding her shooting confidence and stroke after beginning the season shooting 26.2 percent from beyond the arc, the Liberty had to make a change and address the holes in their roster.

Following the Liberty’s losses to both the Indiana Fever and Dallas Wings at home, Brondello expressed during a practice on May 21 that this team was missing a shot creator, someone who could just get a bucket off the dribble without much screening action. This was at a time when Ionescu was working through some soreness and wasn’t quite as explosive as she’s been in the Liberty’s past four games. Laney was also playing through her roughed up right knee.

“At least they got one-on-one players, like Arike who can make a shot, just leave her there and she’ll do it you know,” Brondello told The Next about the Liberty’s most recent opponent. “Kelsey Mitchell, didn’t have a lot of points but in the second half she has 23. You’ve got players that can break a play to make a play and we’re just trying to see how it all fits.”

To use Brondello’s words, Johannès can “break a play to make a play.” Mark Schindler noted that part of her game is “ripping off quick decisions” to create ball movement. She also lifts the Liberty’s pace and gives New York even better floor spacing. The shoe fits.

13 players currently on the roster, how?

To make cap space and roster room for Johannès, the Liberty waived Walker, one of the assets included in the trade. But including Johannès, the Liberty still have 13 players rostered. How is this so? Remember, the Liberty still have three players who aren’t medically cleared to play in Richards, Willoughby and Laney. Speaking in simpler terms, Johannès replaces AD’s spot on the roster.

Although Rachel Galligan reported that point guard Crystal Dangerfield was released from her hardship contract on Wednesday, she also noted this was strictly procedural. New York had to free up enough space so that the team could sign Johannès. And once that was done, Dangerfield was able to sign a new hardship contract that was attached to Willoughby and Laney rather than Richards and Willoughby. Brondello expects Richards to return to the rotation next week. Once Willoughby returns at the end of June will be when the Liberty have to make their decision on Dangerfield. But for now, the team has some time to determine if she’s someone who could help them for not only the backend of the season but even beyond 2022.

This move, trading AD back to their hometown team and signing Johannès signals what Kolb and Brondello believe is the trajectory for the team. Amid all of the injuries including one to their 2021 All-Star in Laney who will be out until at least late July, New York wants to put itself in a position to win more than 12 games, a proclamation that Brondello made when she took the job as head coach in January.

Bringing back Johannès doesn’t only make the Liberty a better basketball team, but her presence will immediately draw a lot of eyes and attention from fans. Her European flare is exactly what the Liberty need right now and her career path fits with where and who the Liberty want to be: competitive and winning.

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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