July 3, 2022 

The gaps that Crystal Dangerfield fills for the Liberty

How the 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield has become invaluable for the Liberty

BROOKLYN — When Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello spoke about her team’s 92-81 home loss against the Atlanta Dream on Thursday, she explained what she thought was missing from the team in their third overtime loss of the season: someone who wasn’t even on the roster at the time.

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“They played with a sense of urgency and we didn’t,” she said. “And I think the biggest thing was Crystal Dangerfield. We went back to not having a pure point guard and a speedy point guard that can, you know, initiate some of our offense and get into the paint a little bit more. It was hard getting open against their defense.”

Brondello would mention Dangfield’s name three more times during that press conference. While the Liberty could have still won that game without her, it was clear that she was missed.

Against the Dream on Thursday night, New York turned the ball over 17 times. That is the most turnovers since May 27 in Seattle, Dangerfield’s second game with the team. The Liberty also committed 26 personal fouls, the most they’ve committed in a game since that same game in Seattle.

Without Dangerfield, the Liberty reverted back to some of their old habits from the month of May. That was a month that Brondello referred to pregame on Thursday as “a training camp” because the team didn’t have a lot of their players available due to injury or overseas commitments during the actual training camp.

So why did the Liberty have to be without Dangerfield in the first place? She wasn’t injured. The way in which Brondello and later Sabrina Ionescu spoke about the point guard after the loss to the Dream communicated her value and importance to this roster, a roster that she wasn’t even on before training began.

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When the Liberty added Dangerfield on May 21 on a hardship, it was in part to simply have enough bodies. DiDi Richards, someone who Brondello wanted to use at the one, was still nursing a hamstring injury. Betnijah Laney, who later would get an arthroscopic partial meniscectomy on her right knee, also wasn’t available. Jocelyn Willoughby was also out with a partial tear of her left quadriceps tendon.

The only players capable of handling the ball before Dangerfield landed with New York were Ionescu and Sami Whitcomb. And before Dangerfield arrived, that pair combined to turn the ball over 30 times, 15 turnovers apiece.

I return to the initial question, since Dangerfield wasn’t injured, what was the deal? Why was she off the roster following a solid performance in a win against the Dream on the road? The reason for this was salary cap maneuvering.

On June 24, The Next learned that the Liberty were hoping to sign Dangerfield for the rest of the season. Hours before the Liberty’s July 3 game against the Sparks, the team announced that Dangerfield was back for good.

In order to do this, the Liberty ended Dangerfield’s existing hardship contract. This left them enough cap space to sign Dangerfield on July 3, limiting her absence to just a single game. Additionally, the Liberty would have to waive a player since they already had the maximum 12 players on their roster. New York accomplished this when they waived Lorela Cubaj on Friday.

How did Dangerfield, a player who was waived by the team that drafted her in the Lynx on May 3 and then served a quick five-day hardship stint with the Indiana Fever, end up becoming an invaluable glue piece for the Liberty? In 13 games for New York, Dangerfield averaged 5.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 24.2 minutes per game.

Those aren’t overwhelming numbers, but her contributions are deeper than surface-level stats and far deeper than just being a playable guard. Dangerfield was brought on because Brondello realized that Ionescu needed a competent ball handler who could take the pressure off, especially when opposing defenses hard hedge. “Sab had to handle the ball a lot and that’s pretty tiring,” Brondello said after Thursday night’s loss without Dangerfield.

Sabrina Ionescu (20) and Crystal Dangerfield (3) tap hands on June 12 in the Liberty’s contest against the Chicago Sky at home. Photo Credit: New York Liberty.

Another reason for Dangerfield’s acquisition was to add pace to the Liberty, something Ionescu was struggling with earlier this season. This was also at a time before the arrival of Marine Johannès. Richards echoed this sentiment when discussing Dangerfield’s impact pregame on Thursday night.

“We were 1-7, we had no pace,” she said. “We were a slow team up and down the court, and now we have a pace. I think it was something that Sab had to see and once Sab saw it she learned to do it. So Crystal changed our flow, our pace.”

But that’s not all she has given New York in 13 games played.

When The Step Through’s Sabreena Merchant and Evin Gualberto were discussing the Liberty’s 81-77 win over the Sun on June 22, Merchant mentioned Dangerfield’s impact.

“I mean the plus-minus numbers with [Ionescu] and Crystal Dangerfield have been just astounding,” Merchant said. “I gotta be honest, I watch Crystal Dangerfield and it’s like it’s sort of the way I felt about her on Minnesota where I know good things are happening, it’s just hard for me to figure out exactly why these good things are happening … Maybe they are different for you, but for me, her contributions are hard to visually notice.”

When The Next asked Brondello to further explain Merchant’s observation, the first quality that was mentioned was Dangerfield’s unselfishness. That is a characteristic which is the driving force behind how Dangerfield nets the Liberty positive beyond the box score. “What you don’t see her do is her cutting, her movement, how she creates for everybody else,” Brondello said.

This idea of creating for everyone else doesn’t necessarily mean only in the form of assists.

“Just that unselfishness creates opening spacing on the floor. She does it. That’s what we’re teaching everyone but she does it really naturally and reads things before they happen.”

That natural cutting ability that Brondello speaks of is something that not only Dangerfield, along with her teammate Stefanie Dolson, was taught while in college at the University of Connecticut. “I think you just see that in a lot of UConn players in general, is that we really know how to move the ball and how to move without the ball,” Dolson said.

Assistant coach Olaf Lange explained that Dangerfield’s cutting is routinely timely and without hesitation. She doesn’t care if she gets the ball. She doesn’t make cuts at half speed, a mistake players often commit when they try to move off the ball.

He noted that when players don’t fully commit to cutting, they don’t do anything to move the defense. According to Lange, when Dangerfield cuts the Liberty are incredibly efficient. New York has tracked that whenever Dangerfield cuts on offense the team’s points per possession is at 2.75.

Another component of Dangerfield’s selflessness is her screening ability. A 5’5 guard with an innate screening ability? How is that possible? Brondello chalks this up to Dangerfield’s mental and physical toughness. “She’s like a little ball of muscle,” Brondello said, describing Dangerfield. That is how she’s able to screen a taller player like Rhyne Howard.

But even her screening is a result of attention to detail and constant thinking through the game. Her sharp decision-making skills allow her to realize that she can pick up Howard and create space for Ionescu to take an open pull-up three. “Those are the little things where you know, you have to just you have to see the game so well to pick that play up in real-time, and to be able to do that on the spot,” assistant coach Zack O’Brien told The Next. “It’s not something we’ve worked on. It’s just she saw it.”

When the ball is in Dangerfield’s hands, however, she doesn’t hold it for too long. This might be another reason why her contributions can be hard to see. Her assists aren’t the most flashy. Rather, they are practical and reflect her high on-court awareness. According to Lange, once Dangerfield gets the ball, she doesn’t take off large amounts of time off the shot clock dribbling. Instead, her swift reaction time and reading of the opposing defense allows her to take advantage of which defender is a little bit off their assignment. Dangerfield wastes no time and embodies Brondello’s main philosophy of when in doubt, move the ball.

When a player has the tendency to affect the game without much evidence on the stat sheet, usually it comes at least partially on defense. For Dangerfield, that is certainly the case. Dangerfield’s presence gives not only the offense a jolt, but the defense as well. The Liberty’s defensive rating, opponent 2-point percentage and opponent 3-point percentage are noticeably better when she is on the court.

How the New York Liberty have fared this season with Crystal Dangerfield both on and off the floor. Chart via pbpstats.com.

How is Dangerfield’s status as a plus defender possible amid the conventional wisdom surrounding her size? When asked about her size, Lange expressed that in the WNBA size is “overrated.” Marine Johannès replied that she doesn’t think Dangerfield’s size is that important given everything she can successfully do for the Liberty.

In the Liberty’s 84-77 loss to the Minnesota Lynx, Dangerfield’s former coach Cheryl Reeve made sure to attack Dangerfield for her size. While this might have worked in this individual game, Dangerfield had only been with New York for two weeks and might not have been as comfortable with the Liberty’s defensive scheming. Brondello explained that the key to Dangerfield’s success on defense is how well she learns and retains player tendencies. She uses her athleticism to get into players’ space and then turns on her speed to get through, over and under screens with ease.

Size doesn’t always matter. Lange noted that the Liberty’s larger guards and wings move laterally through ball screens with less ease than someone like Dangerfield. Dream head coach Tanisha Wright agreed as Dangerfield dealt with a discussion about her size, much like Wright’s player Aari McDonald. She noted that the mismatches that Dangerfield and McDonald deal with are what the two players have dealt with their whole lives as basketball players. Part of the brilliance of how the two play the game is how they’ve successfully adjusted and adapted to what they cannot control.

“I think for both of them it’s their speed,” Wright told The Next. “You know what I mean? Obviously the ability to understand angles and different things like that. You know, they’re different though, they are different players. So I just think they use what they use what they have, their talents and their gifts, and they just play.”

The decision to waive Lorela Cubaj

Now that Dangerfield is officially set for the rest of the season, was it the right decision to waive the only rookie on the roster, Lorela Cubaj? Making sure that Dangerfield could return was imperative, and with all that she provides, someone had to be waived. But was it the right person? Going by just the rotation and noticing that Cubaj had completely fallen out of it, sure, this move makes sense. But what about for the long-term when Willoughby and potentially Laney return? While Michaela Onyenwere has scored and imposed her will in the lane, her defense has been a concern.

She has a very difficult hole to fill, usually checking into the game in place of defensive stalwart Natasha Howard. Regardless of the fact that she doesn’t fit the square peg that Howard leaves, Onyenwere routinely hasn’t proven to be able to execute some of the player tendencies of her defensive assignments.

Cubaj, however, in her limited minutes proved that she could hang with maybe the strongest player in the league in Brionna Jones. She defended Jones well and prevented her from scoring on a post-up. “People don’t usually stop Bri Jones on post-ups.” Merchant remarked about Cubaj on The Step Through. But, the drawback with Cubaj always has been her offensive abilities, which aren’t as developed as the rest of her teammates on the Liberty roster.

This choice was also surprising because the Liberty typically give their younger players time to truly see what they have. But not this time. Was it because New York doesn’t really know how healthy Willoughby will be when she returns? Or was it to avoid the questionable optics that come when a team waives a former rookie of the year?

A hypothetical posed to both Brondello and Lange was what type of player the Liberty need coming off the bench to be able to help the team in a potential playoff run. I asked which strengths, offensive or defensive, are most advantageous in the postseason. Neither could commit to either one. Brondello announced that she wants a complete basketball player, and Lange expressed how difficult it is to prioritize one over the other in the context of a playoff run.

That’s not a concern with Dangerfield, who has proven that she’s capable of impacting both ends of the floor. If the Liberty do make a run into the playoffs, she will be a key reason New York finds success.

Besides her selflessness, intelligence and athleticism, the Liberty also appreciate the type of competitor she is, another invaluable asset for a potential postseason run. “We throw a lot at her and she takes it and she competes really hard,” O’Brien said. “And so that’s been fun to see.”

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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