June 13, 2023
Nyara Sabally is finally where she’s meant to be
How the rookie fulfilled a lifelong dream on Sunday
BROOKLYN, N.Y. — When Nyara Sabally woke up early on Sunday morning to get ready for a 1 p.m. ET tipoff at home, she didn’t know what to wear. In recent seasons, WNBA players have used their pregame ‘fits as a way to show personality, exude their values and pay tribute to what’s important to them. She went through her closet and then saw exactly what she needed to wear.
It was a green, yellow and white hockey jersey with a giant Duck bust in the middle wearing a sailor’s hat and a scarf. It was the occasion to rep her alma mater, the University of Oregon. “Let me just wear that, you know, it fits the occasion,” she told The Next about her fashion choice.
What was the occasion? Big sister Satou Sabally’s Dallas Wings had arrived in town for a Sunday afternoon game that was being televised on ABC. It was a day that represented the beginning of a new era for the Sabally family, one that the sisters had been manifesting. They knew that it was about when, rather than if.
Sunday was the first of many on-court battles between Nyara and her older sister Satou, a pair that was denied playing together for most of their time at Oregon due to a string of injuries that Nyara endured prior to 2020. Sunday was the first time that their family, including their older brother who was in the building, would have to struggle to figure out who to root for. “He was like ‘okay, tie game and then we’ll see,’” Satou recounted.
While it’s the older Sabally that has put up All-Star-worthy numbers so far, Satou has credited Nyara as someone she looked to and thought about when she battled multiple injuries during her sophomore and junior WNBA seasons. She found gratitude, perspective and inspiration in how her younger sister persevered throughout her multiple knee injuries and surgeries.
“It’s hard to rehab, and when I had to go through it, I was always thinking of my sister and how she’s overcoming such severe injuries,” Satou said on Friday prior to the first sibling battle on Sunday. “And that was for me always like a mental note. I can do this. I can do this. So she definitely inspired me just to keep going and whenever I had tough days in the past years with my injuries.”
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Satou remembered what the conversation around her sister was prior to last year’s 2022 draft. Could her younger sister stay healthy enough to make it in the WNBA? The injury stigma deflated Nyara’s draft stock, but that was something that Satou knew wouldn’t keep her sister down for long. Even though Nyara played in the 2022 NCAA Tournament not completely healthy, Satou looked on and knew that once her sister got healthy, Nyara was destined to be someone who could make a constant impact in the WNBA. “There’s no doubt that she’s a basketball star player to me and can be one of the best in the world,” she said.
But Nyara needed a team to bet on her talent and potential, and be patient with her journey back to full health. When the Liberty selected her fifth overall in the 2022 draft, they understood that the young versatile post wouldn’t play in 2022, but they were confident in what she could be with the proper doctors, performance staff and coaches guiding her along slowly but surely.
“She’s probably one of the most talented rookies I’ve seen other than first [overall] picks,” assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next during training camp about Nyara. “But for a rookie in the draft branch when she was drafted, she’s got a very, very high basketball IQ for a rookie. Her skill set is pretty wide at this point, and she will be, I hope, I believe a long-term piece for this franchise.”
Surviving one of the most competitive training camps
What Lange noted this year was consistent with what General Manager Jonathan Kolb and head coach Sandy Brondello had said last year regarding Nyara. A year ago, Kolb and Brondello didn’t know if she’d be who they thought she was. Not many did.
Following an Osteochondral Autograft Transplantation (OCA) on her right knee at the Hospital for Special Surgery on May 3 of last year, Nyara was on the road to recovery, preparing for the start of her WNBA career. She served as an assistant coach for Sacramento State’s women’s basketball team and was part of the program’s first NCAA tournament appearance. Under one of her former coaches at Oregon, Mark Campbell, Nyara learned about how much goes into running a basketball team. She mentored the young post players and she got to ease into playing five-on-five basketball while functioning as a practice player.
But even amid the work she did in the offseason, the Liberty weren’t sure how much of her old form she’d maintain following her surgery and rehab. “I mean she’s missed so much,” Brondello said. “Playing through that. It’s great to see her back on the court, and she’s not a surprise. I knew she was good, but you never know how players come back from such an injury, which has been impressive.”
But even with the hard work that Nyara completed prior to training camp to get healthy and ready to play professional basketball, it wasn’t always a given that she’d be a shoo-in to make the Liberty. If the team’s roster resembled its 2022 form, there wouldn’t have been a thought about her competing for that coveted final spot. But with New York’s uber-talented roster featuring versatile veteran post players like Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones and Stefanie Dolson, there were questions about whether Nyara would make the final 2023 squad.
On May 17, Nyara walked into Kolb’s office, a room painted in seafoam, black and white with a giant television on the wall and a tall dry-erase board sitting behind a table meant for four. She walked in to see Kolb, Brondello and assistant General manager Ohemaa Nyanin sitting in a diamond formation in front of her. She sat down ready for her fate. The scene was reminiscent of what American Idol contestants go through during Hollywood Week. Would they move on to the live shows and fan voting? Had they done enough during the one-week boot camp that featured a lot of group work with other musicians? A lot was similar here.
But while the New York decision makers watched their rookie work and perform, they realized that her skill set complements the other multi-faceted post players on the roster. She’s not just switchable, but she can also make sharp decisions at an unexpected level and speed for most rookies. Nyara noted during her chat with the trio how there was a lot of information to take in during training camp and how practicing and playing against pros in the preseason was much more physical and faster than what she’s used to. But, New York felt incredibly comfortable trusting Nyara to be able to fill in the gaps and do the dirty work when needed.
That means executing the defensive schemes, rebounding the ball at will and also just being herself on the court. What exactly does that mean? And what did her sister, the unicorn herself, have to say about it? While Satou couldn’t come up with a mythical creature to describe her younger sister’s game, the description she came up with illustrated exactly how and why Nyara stood out to the Liberty’s talent evaluators.
“She’s definitely more powerful and explosive than I am,” Satou said. “She’s like a racehorse almost like she’s just… I’m going to put her in the Meg Thee Stallion category, she’s just bomb.”
What her early impact has looked like so far
In her first minutes as a pro, she scored 6 points in 14 minutes of the Liberty’s 81-65 victory against Connecticut. She knew exactly when to take advantage of a smaller defender, scoring her first professional basket against the Sun’s Leigha Brown.
It was such a memorable move that Satou tried to imitate it when she was asked about what proud big sister moments she’s had so far while watching Nyara’s pro film. Satou put her right hand up, followed by her left hand to imitate how Nyara hesitated and faked out Brown. But also, Satou had to mention Nyara’s floater, an offensive trick in her bag that she showed out during that same game against Connecticut and then also during the Liberty’s May 30 game in Seattle.
“Her floaters look great,” Satou said. “She might have me on that one.”
With 60 professional minutes on her resume, she’s also hit a couple of open threes, including one on a whip pass from Marine Johannès, and picked up 17 total rebounds. She has confidently executed Brondello’s many defensive schemes. Nyara has shown in just six games played how well she can execute drop and switches against the Sky, while being able to trap, show and help her teammates put two on the ball against the Sun. She even blocked a couple of shots on June 9 in Atlanta, including an emphatic rejection on two-way powerhouse Allisha Gray as she was slashing to the basket.
But something that doesn’t appear on a simple stat sheet is how Nyara has looked like the racehorse that her sister proclaimed that she is. While Johannès didn’t knock down a wide-open transition three with 50 seconds left in the first quarter, it was Nyara who set it up. She rebounded the ball and accelerated faster than two players on the Wings who are smaller than she is. She then kept her head up to get the ball out of her hands before Arike Ogunbowale flew in to deflect her pass.
“I think that [Nyara] being able to rebound and take a couple of dribbles and get outlets at half court rather than at the free throw line that’s going to start our break,” Liberty guard Courtney Vandersloot said. “You know obviously she has a unique skill set, but she’s very skillful. I think we’re only scratching the surface and have only seen a little bit of what Nyara can do in this league.”
In Nyara’s eight minutes against her sister’s team on Sunday, she helped her team on the boards, an area that the Liberty were lacking in the first half. They were outrebounded 24-17 after two quarters. But in the second half, New York flipped the switch and recorded 21 second-half rebounds to Dallas’ 13. Two of Nyara’s four in the second half were a product of her boxing out and actively pursuing the ball.
Nyara’s final play of her first game against her sister came while trying to guard the much taller and wider Kalani Brown. While Nyara’s speed prevented Brown from getting the ball in transition, it was her sister Satou that found Brown once again. Brown spun with Nyara at her back. Nyara hung in with her arms straight up, but then Brown was able to draw some contact on her way up, foul.
Following the final buzzer of a game in which Nyara’s New York would win 102-93 over Satou’s Dallas, the two sisters found each other afterward. They talked “a little shit” according to Satou, including some banter in German. Satou vented right away about losing. She didn’t like that she only made one of her six attempts from three. And Nyara, while she got the win, didn’t love that she left the game after fouling Brown. “She said it wasn’t a foul and I don’t know. I guess I can’t agree or disagree right now,” Satou said.
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.