May 7, 2023
The Liberty are sharper but aren’t taking chances in training camp
‘We're not winning championships in week one’
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — On Saturday, droves of New York Liberty season ticket holders caught a glimpse of what this 2023 Liberty team had been working on in its first official week of training camp. Off-ball movement, second-side actions, pick and roll and a whole lot of three-point shooting were what Liberty fans were privy to.
Fans watched 12 players run up and down the Barclays Center floor — which hasn’t been changed over from the Nets insignia quite yet — against male practice players while getting rilled up by the cheerleading group Torch Patrol and the 40-and-up dance troop The Timeless Torches.
Shouts echoed in the arena when a player would drain a jumper and a loud roar erupted when Breanna Stewart, who did not participate in the open practice, set foot on the floor in her black, seafoam and orange New York Liberty practice shirt.
About a year ago, during a similar type of event, the Liberty were faced with an improbable predicament: only five players were able to play and practice in front of the team’s most loyal fans. The team had to cancel what was initially meant to be a preseason game against the Washington Mystics. That same lack of bodies was the direct cause of their disappointing 1-7 start.
A year later, following a year under head coach Sandy Brondello and her staff, training camp has felt different for the returning players and the returning staff. Beyond the greatly improved health, Brondello’s squad has the benefit of more familiarity, a dramatically different roster makeup, and a different onboarding schedule greatly impacted by the first year of WNBA prioritization.
Last year’s troubling hand
There weren’t a lot of healthy players for Brondello to coach last April. Multiple players returned from overseas with injuries sustained on their various international teams, two players caught coronavirus and were out for days due to the WNBA’s COVID-19 protocols, and others like Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney and Jocelyn Willoughby were transitioning from rehabbing major injuries following the 2021 campaign
Players like Stefanie Dolson and Rebecca Allen arrived to training camp late, a situation that until this season was a league norm. DiDi Richards injured her right hamstring during a pre-season scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun.
For Willoughby, last year’s camp was overwhelming. She and many other players who were still coming off injuries had to learn a completely new system while adjusting to doing basketball movements at a different speed following rehab. Learning a new system and adjusting to game speed are both difficult individually in their own right, but attempting to tend to both at the same time was even more strenuous.
The Liberty were playing catch up into the first month of the regular season since training camp was limited and most players were rehabbing rather than having the ability to prepare for the grind of a season ahead. May, the month when New York only won its home opener, was when the team was able to put Brondello’s principles together and build chemistry. Those were two tasks that couldn’t be achieved during their injury-stricken pre-season period.
“Number one, shit happens?” Brondello said, reflecting on that period from a year ago. “I’m Australian. Shit does happen, right? I can’t control it. I’m not gonna leave. I just got to deal with what I have there. And you try and do your best in that moment. My goal was like, Yeah, you know, let’s be the best we can today. How do we get better with our five players we have on court you know, that was last year.”
The way in which the Liberty got through that demanding beginning to Brondello’s tenure in New York was through her experience in this league. She had been through losing streaks and had to get her roster to buy into staying the course, and that they did.
The feeling in training camp a year later
A year later and with a larger training camp (15 players instead of 13) with all but one player in-market due to the new prioritization rules, Brondello and her staff are way ahead of where they were a year earlier. The staff hasn’t necessarily changed their approach in year two, but they are able to begin on a much higher level since the team has players returning in addition to a new group of veterans that have a steep level of basketball knowledge.
“I think all around we are a little bit bigger,” Laney said about some of the differences she’s noticed in camp this season. And she’s right. The Next can report that Han Xu has now grown in the offseason once again and could be around 6’11 with shoes on.
“Camp this year has been a lot more physical,” Laney continued. “I feel like we have a lot more experience in terms of older veteran players. And so I think those are the biggest differences for us here in camp.” The Liberty have around an average of 4.44 years of WNBA experience heading into training camp, which is a 41.1 percent increase from 2022’s 3.14 average going into camp.
Willoughby has assessed the environment in camp this season compared to last. “So this year, I feel like it’s a lot more, like calmer,” she told The Next. “Obviously there’s still learning and imperfections, but it’s a smoother transition and overall it’s great energy. Not that [there] wasn’t great energy last year, but there’s just really good energy, intensity, and repetitiveness, And I feel like we are a little bit sharper this year.”
That sharpness Willoughby referenced came into full view during practice on Wednesday when Sabrina Ionescu fired off a no-look pass to Laney as she was cutting to the basket. The duo have been backcourt partners since 2021, but both haven’t been fully healthy at the same time. Laney carried the load in ’21 with Ionescu taking a major step a season later while Laney was out of commission for two months recovering from knee surgery.
The Liberty’s new three easing into training camp
But what about the other three members of the Liberty’s star-studded starting five, who are all new to the Liberty? For starters, Jonquel Jones has been limited in practice, performing in half-court activities but hasn’t been able to go full-court quite yet.
She suffered a stress reaction during the 2022 WNBA finals and continued playing on it during the 2022 World Cup and into the fall overseas season in Turkey while playing for CBK Mersin. Initially, she didn’t know what it was. At a basketball clinic back in March, Jones told The Next that it was the reason she didn’t go back overseas. Once she was traded to the Liberty, she was able to work with New York’s doctors and performance staff to figure out exactly what was going on with her foot.
“It’s just really taught me that it’s a process, and like everything, you have to trust the process, trust people that are around you,” she said. “And the organization has done a great job of putting the right people around us to make sure that it was successful and that we’re, you know, we’re building the right way.”
“Building the right way” was a term uttered multiple times during week one of training camp by Brondello as well. What exactly does that mean? It means not rushing players back when there are still over ten days before the season starts. It means managing the work that players do every day during practice. On Thursday, the Liberty’s practice was what she called a medium day. “It’s a science,” she said.
According to assistant coach Olaf Lange, the Liberty’s performance and coaching staff uses technology to track load management and uses data specialized to each player. This time around, the staff has a better understanding of how to work with the data of the returning players that was calculated from a season ago.
“We know when to push and when to back off,” he said. “It’s just sometimes you’re lucky. Sometimes the injury bug bites you, that was last year. This year we are bringing everyone back appropriately.”
And the same goes for Vandersloot, who went into concussion protocol following a hit she took in the face on Monday. Especially with the string of concussions that former Liberty wing Allen suffered last season, New York won’t rush Vandersloot back into play.
And then there’s Breanna Stewart who made her first appearance in training camp on Thursday and didn’t practice during her entire first week in New York. On Saturday, she watched from the bench spinning a Wilson basketball in her hands from time to time. Stewart played a heavy load of games to close out the domestic season in Turkey, and the Liberty do not want to take any chances with the 2X WNBA Finals MVP.
New York’s coaching staff isn’t worried about Jones, Vandersloot and Stewart catching up to the others. Lange noted that Vandersloot, who he has coached in the past, “can learn in one day what some don’t learn in a week.”
When Brondello was asked what the timeline for the new three in New York will be, especially with the Liberty’s first preseason game against Connecticut coming up on Wednesday, May 10, Brondello assured media members that taking it step by step with the new three is what must be done in order to be able to be in a position to attain the ultimate goal.
“We’re not winning championships in week one,” she said.
But that moment, when Jones, Ionescu, Laney, Stewart, and Vandersloot are all on the floor practicing together for the first time, is one that will be cherished and remembered for a long time. It’s a moment that Laney has been patiently waiting for ever since she returned back to New York in late April.
“You know having our whole team being able to really grasp what we’re going to look like as a team,” she said. “I think that’s what I’m looking forward to most. Just having everybody back being been able to go out and compete.”
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.
This is extremely valuable. But I’d love to see a piece from Jackie Powell very soon on the Liberty’s difficult roster situation. Looks to me (and others) like there are 14 players with a genuine chance of making the team, yet only 11 can. Many Liberty fans are wondering….