September 11, 2021
Rebecca Allen’s teammates want to ‘be like Bec’
How Rebecca Allen’s journey with the Liberty is exemplary on a young team
BROOKLYN— After practice on a rainy and humid day in Brooklyn, New York, Liberty second-year player Neah Odom was asked about the teammate sitting beside her, and more specifically how five-year veteran Rebecca Allen has helped her along during her first professional season in market.
“How has she helped me?” Odom said on September 9. Allen smiled wide before Odom continued.
“You know what? She’s a perfect role model. I can’t ask for anybody better. You know what? You see her defense?” Allen appeared visibly embarrassed and looked away while Odom described her teammate to reporters.
“The long arms, everything, the steals—I think she gets like 3 steals a game, 4, 5, I don’t know… Honestly, I want to be like her when I grow up.”
Odom isn’t the only one who wants to be like Bec. Reshanda Gray, who played with Allen on a very different Liberty team in 2019, explained before New York’s game against the Mercury on Aug. 27 that she admires how Allen looks so unfazed when she makes a mistake. If she doesn’t make a shot or can’t get the rebound, she’s not visibly going to “dread on it.”
“If she doesn’t make her shot, she’s going to go to the next thing and get her shot going again,” Gray said.
Allen’s physical “Spida”-like abilities and her sharp-shooting have previously deemed her perfectly designed for head coach Walt Hopkins’ playing style. But Allen wasn’t made in a lab for Hopkins’ five-out motion system; rather, she worked inconspicuously in an attempt to earn her playing time and respect in the women’s basketball space.
Covering Allen for these past couple of years and watching her game grow from afar reminds me of watching any incredibly talented musician grow and begin their career playing clubs and small venues all around New York. She’s women’s basketball’s Maggie Rogers, who found New York and made it another home and a place that would help her career blossom.
Starting out in New York City
The last time the Liberty made the playoffs, they were playing at Madison Square Garden, Tina Charles made her third straight All-WNBA first team and Allen was playing under 10 minutes a game. That was four years ago.
As a third-year W player at the time, Allen was hungry to expand her minutes. She and her close friend and former Liberty center Amanda Zahui B. were pissed off and frustrated by how little they were contributing to their team on the court.
To satisfy their hunger and drive to prove themselves, their days looked like this: hit the gym at 7 am, practice, stay in the gym after practice, go home, eat, nap, and then return to the gym. They spent these early mornings and late nights with New York legend and former player development coach Teresa Weatherspoon, or T-Spoon.
They worked on everything from fundamentals to developing more intangible habits such as defensive toughness. They worked on drills without the basketball, communication on the floor and knowing when and how to get to certain spots on the court.
T-Spoon became a mentor to Allen, who to this day she relies upon for advice and counsel, appreciating that the New York legend will never hold back and will tell Allen exactly what she needs to hear. If that means being more aggressive defensively or talking more on the floor, Weatherspoon doesn’t relent imparting her wisdom on Allen even years later.
“T-Spoon is really, she’s great with the fundamentals and then just try to take your game to another level,” Allen said on her work with her mentor. “And she will make you uncomfortable. I think that’s a big thing is that, too, you need to be uncomfortable to grow.”
After an impressive run against WNBA teams in exhibition games the Australian Opals played before the 2014 World Championships in Turkey, Allen entered the league in 2015 at age 22. It was a major culture shock and reality check after exclusively playing in Australia previously. She remembers listening to Tanisha Wright and Swin Cash and noted that Cash, who played her position, was patient with her. In addition to even teaching Allen about driving on the opposite side of the road, Cash would speak to Allen in a way that was constructive and non-judgmental. She could feel Allen’s energy not only as a player but as a person, too. Cash knew exactly what Allen needed to hear so she could improve.
Something Allen heard from her Liberty teammates was the importance of defense in the WNBA and how there’s a major learning curve defensively between the pros around the world and in the W. This was something that Allen took quite personally and I asked her why.
“Because I want to be on the court, I wanted to play,” she replied. “… That’s why I was going to take it personally because you want to be the person standing beside your teammate, you want to be the one that they can count on and trust, and so that’s why. I mean, I wanted to be that teammate that people wanted on their side.”
2019 puts Allen on notice
When you hear the name Maggie Rogers, there’s one moment that most pop-music aficionados associate with her rise. Yes, that viral moment on YouTube when Pharrell visited one of Rogers’ classes at NYU and his face lit up as he had just stumbled upon a hidden gem.
Hopkins and Allen had a moment like this, but not at an NYU masterclass showcase. Rather, it was in the Westchester County Center over two years ago. Allen dropped a career-high 28 points against the Minnesota Lynx, where Hopkins was an assistant coach at the time. She went 6-7 from 3-point range, and when one of Allen’s shots would land, Lynx head coach Cheryl Reeve was in disbelief. How could a Liberty bench-warmer for so long be hitting shot after shot against her much-better Minnesota team? Hopkins just sat on the bench and watched.
“I remember very clearly,” Hopkins told The Next about that game. “I think that Bec is uniquely capable of going on individual scoring runs. Like, she’s one of the few players in the league who can legitimately put up 20 points in the quarter when she gets hot.”
Those runs that came alive in 2019, not only against the Lynx but also in a game earlier against the Chicago Sky, are a function of how Allen’s brain works specifically as a sharp-shooter. Hopkins can see in Allen’s body language how confident she is shooting the ball and how she expects every single one of her shots to go in. And that’s not an unreasonable expectation when Allen has been blessed with a 6’5 wingspan and an athletic ability that makes her shooting rhythm almost impossible to close out on.
“The reason those runs are sustained for her is because she knows she can do it,” Hopkins said. “It’s not a surprise to her, like, ‘This is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ Yeah, that’s how her brain works.”
Becoming “one of the more valuable players in the league”
Even back in 2019, it wasn’t just about sharpshooting for Allen. In a transitional final year at the County Center, Allen was one of New York’s best on-off players, especially defensively. The team’s defensive rating plummeted almost 12 points when Allen wasn’t on the floor. While the Liberty were the worst defensive team in the league in 2019, that number is no fluke. Allen is headstrong in her belief that her defensive prowess is something that she’s earned, calling it her “proudest” accomplishment to date in the WNBA.
Two years later (after she opted out of the 2020 Wubble season), people who didn’t pay close attention to Allen’s previous defensive on-off numbers are now seeing her defense show quite clearly statistically. She’s currently tied for first in the W with 1.8 steals per game and tied for sixth in blocks per game with 1.4. She’s the only guard/forward hybrid putting up these kinds of numbers.
And her teammates and coaches have noticed that as well, with Hopkins noting that she’s been one of the Liberty’s most consistent defenders through certain stretches. The Liberty are able to put her on almost any position and she has found success by fighting over screens, deflecting, rebounding and blocking with her length. Those are all of the little things that the Liberty need from their entire roster day in and day out defensively.
“I’ll definitely have to say that I’m really proud of Bec and the [place] that she improved the most was her defense,” Gray said. “I mean, she was out there. I saw her work really hard on defense and she saved our butts a lot of games with deflections and just getting steals.”
However, getting blocks and steals doesn’t always mean a player is a skilled and competent defender. Solid defense is also exemplified by how a player can get into the skin of the player they are guarding and how quickly a player can recover back to their person. While New York got whooped in its two-game home series against the Mercury, the bright spots for the Liberty (besides the emergence of DiDi Richards) were how Allen was able to corral Diana Taurasi one-on-one in addition to being aggressive enough to hustle from keeping an eye on Skylar Diggins-Smith to hauling the ball down on the boards.
But even as a young veteran at 28 years of age, Hopkins still believes that this is just the beginning for Allen. Her trajectory isn’t predictable. There’s still so much that he believes she can improve on, such as her consistency, which has been much more visible since the second half of the season began, and more specifically her skills off the dribble. Those include finishing in the paint with two feet, something both she and the younger players are continuing to work on.
“It’s clear that Bec is going to be one of the more valuable players in the league,” Hopkins said. “But I think it’s just a matter of the consistency that separates. So it’s like what we talked about with our team. It’s like if Bec gets consistent with all these behaviors on both ends of the court—which she has been in this stretch—once that continues, I think that’s going to continue to rise in terms of how much she can contribute.”
Allen’s Radio City Moment: New York is home
Allen is having her Radio City Musical Hall moment right now. It’s not quite selling out at Madison Square Garden (or maybe for our sake, Barclays Center) quite yet, but like Rogers, her story is all about how one city shaped her and made her fight for what she wanted.
And while she isn’t the most vocal leader on the current iteration of the New York Liberty, her set of experiences and the way she exemplifies what’s expected in this league is a large part of her value.
I think having somebody who’s been here through hard times, who’s seen multiple ownership groups, multiple coaching staffs, multiple playing styles, different types of players and cultures here, I think that it’s really valuable that Bec can speak to some of those things. When we’re in a closed meeting, when sometimes she does and she’ll say: ‘This is something we should really be proud of because this isn’t something that every team has’ or things that. You know she can contribute in that way. And I think, obviously, being somebody who’s been in late game situations is very valuable with our team because we don’t have a lot of people who have.Walt Hopkins on Allen’s value being in New York since 2015
In addition to her wealth of Liberty-related experiences, focus and conscientiousness in practice, she never lets her own frustrations become external. If she’s struggling, her team doesn’t often feel that burden. She’s engaged and still encouraging everyone around her, including the rookie Richards.
“I can walk in the gym and [if I] am having a bad day, she’s gonna find a way to pick me up or make me laugh about something or kind of like reconstruct my mind and thinking that I’m better than how I found myself today,” she said of Allen. “Bec is really good about doing that. Whenever she’s down, I’ve taken it out of my way to go and lift her up. She makes the team like that.”
But as Richards said, Allen isn’t perfect. She has her dark days, too. Like many artists and contrary to what Gray sees on the outside, Allen’s biggest enemy isn’t who she’s guarding or shooting over but rather is herself. All the emotions that she doesn’t let her teammates see externally, she keeps on the inside. When she doesn’t make the shots that she expects to make every time, she gets in her own head, which was something we saw a lot of earlier this season after she arrived late from her international season in Spain.
How to respond in a mentally healthier way to the game is something she’s actively working on right now. On a hot 80-degree day after practice on Labor Day, Allen explained that she’s working on how to actively stay present. It could be as simple as self-talk or just taking a breath.
But Allen should take a breath and look back at the accomplishment in front of her: being the longest-tenured member of the 2021 New York Liberty. While at first she didn’t say that she thinks about that quite often, she paused and took it in. She’s proud of being able to have started and continued her WNBA career in New York, the city that taught her a lot of what it means to be a professional and is now her second home.