May 29, 2024 

Nyara Sabally finds new level the New York Liberty need from her

Sabrina Ionescu: 'I've seen the Nyara that everyone has been waiting patiently to be able to witness'

NEW YORK — To end practice on Tuesday afternoon, the Liberty were practicing cutting. Days prior, New York fell, 84-67, to the Minnesota Lynx on the road in a game that featured stagnant offense and uncommunicative defense.

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In waves, the starters and then the bench went through recognition of their teammates’ movement in the quarter court and creating the proper passes out of that movement. 

Once this exercise had finished and practice was done for the day, second-year player Nyara Sabally celebrated by galloping like a racehorse (a comparison she’s earned before) into teammate Kennedy Burke, bumping into each other and laughing. With wide smiles, the pair ran over to the huddle to reflect on the day of practice. 

Moments later, Sabally and Burke dispersed. Burke opted to play four-on-four with the other new Liberty bench pieces and Sabally began practicing her three-point shooting with her position coach, Brian Lankton, the Liberty’s main player development coach and video coordinator. 

That juxtaposition of the silly and goofy alongside the strong work ethic and desire to be a more well-rounded pro basketball player is how Sabally has been operating in year two with the Liberty. The coaching staff and the front office have entrusted the 24-year-old Sabally to take on a much more meaningful role this season. Sabally’s the “third post” or the first big to come off the bench, usually providing Jonquel Jones moments of rest or preserving Jones when she gets into foul trouble. 

And so far Sabally’s 13 minutes a game, up significantly from a hair under 8 during her rookie season, have impressed head coach Sandy Brondello. After a 4-0 start, the Liberty have looked discombobulated and lacked energy in their recent losses to the Sky and the Lynx. Sabally, however, has been a bright spot during these adverse moments in the first month of the season. 

“Nyara was great,” head coach Sandy Brondello said following the Liberty’s 90-81 loss to the Sky on May 23. “I should have [gone] back to her a little bit more in that second half. You know, we made a bit of a run, didn’t we? We always knew she had great potential. She’s fulfilling that potential.”

A recurring theme this season has been her coaches, teammates and believers relishing her progress. It’s a “we told you so” moment for them. 

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Against Chicago, Sabally played 19 minutes and tied career highs in points, 8, while shooting 4-for-6 from the field and dishing out two assists, both to Sabrina Ionescu. When the Sky were blowing up the Liberty’s primary actions, Sabally ran pick-and-roll with New York’s ball handlers in Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot and productive results followed. Sabally’s quick first step and long strides rolling to the basket surprised the Sky bigs Elizabeth Williams, Brianna Turner and Angel Reese. She has a notably quicker burst that has paid dividends already. 

That’s not all she’s been doing so far during this young season on offense. What has popped off the game film has been Sabally’s screening ability and her understanding of angles, and how different guards and ball handlers require different types of screens. Ionescu has made 33 shots and 8 of those have come off a Sabally screen. Some are threes and others are shots in the paint via Ionescu having a driving lane to get downhill. While the Liberty haven’t started the season shooting the ball from deep as well as expected (30.4 percent), Sabally’s presence has had an early impact on that accuracy. According to PBP stats, the Liberty have shot 39.47 percent from three when Sabally is on the floor versus 27.64 percent when she is not. 

Sabally’s feel for passes in pick-and-roll with Ionescu and Vandersloot in addition to her screening prowess comes from time. It comes from a full rookie year where she watched how veteran post Stefanie Dolson set some of the most effective screens to get New York’s guards open. It comes from a full rookie year where she watched how Jonquel Jones could grab and score on a whip pass from Vandersloot, Ionescu or Marine Johannès.

“You really gotta adjust to your guards,” Sabally told reporters following the loss to Chicago. “With Sab and Sloot what I’ve learned is you always just gotta be ready because you never know when the ball is coming. So always have your hands kind of ready to catch a ball and then just being able to finish. Obviously, the paint was pretty open in the beginning…just being able to read your guards and knowing when they will pass to you.”

Defensively, Sabally has shown a more complete picture of what she’s proficient at and what areas she’ll need to continue to grow in. A common issue the 2023 Liberty struggled with was being able to keep more potent guards in front of Ionescu and Vandersloot, with help often coming late once guards penetrated. In 2024 so far, New York has taken advantage of Sabally’s athleticism and her ability to switch on, hang with and eventually stop guards from scoring. When Betnijah Laney-Hamilton is too busy keeping Caitlin Clark in check, it’s advantageous to have Sabally able to switch onto Kelsey Mitchell, stay in front of her, keep up with her drive and use her 6’4 wingspan to stretch out and block her shot. 

“She’s really good at switching, she’s really good at hedging,” assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next about Sabally’s strengths on defense. “She could stay in front of guards and all that stuff, but guarding big physical post players. That’s an area of growth.” 

That was on display against the Fever. With 1:59 left in the first quarter against the Fever on the day of the Liberty’s home opener, Sabally was guarding Aliyah Boston. Sabally executed a switch to stay in front of Erica Wheeler initially, but then switched back to guard Boston on a post up. Boston banged the ball down three times on the floor before turning around and hoisting and nailing a fadeaway 11 feet from the basket. Sabally got scored on by a big physical post player, but what was noticeable was the next time she had to guard Boston one-on-one. Around a minute and a half later, Sabally let Boston drive and try to spin toward the basket. But this time Sabally was ready for Boston and put her arms up for a well-timed block. 

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When the Liberty’s front office prepared to draft Sabally fifth overall two years ago, they noticed how much defensive potential she had. She struggled in the middle of year one communicating on switches with her new teammates and as a result, fell out of the rotation. There were spurts of potential, but not enough consistency. So what’s the difference this year? 

For starters, Sabally played a full overseas season in Prague for EuroLeague team ZVVZ USK Praha alongside the Seattle Storm’s Ezi Magbegor. She was getting constant reps — a challenge last year when she was behind Dolson on the depth chart, battling for minutes alongside Han Xu. Sabally also had trouble cracking the rotation when the Liberty were deep in their playoff run. She was just a rookie on a roster trying to march to the WNBA Finals.

“Last year, she had great people around her and, you know, you learn a lot in practice, you learn a lot by watching but you don’t get the full effect until you’re thrown into the fire,” Lankton told The Next. “So I think that really helped her grow and develop into the player that we see this season.”

Nyara Sabally brings the ball up the floor.
New York Liberty forward Nyara Sabally (8) during the WNBA game between the New York Liberty and the Connecticut Sun at Mohegan Sun Arena, Uncasville, Connecticut, USA on May 10, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

After having a full year of learning the Liberty’s playbook and being able to test out what she had learned in a lower-pressure setting in Europe rather than during a WNBA Finals run, Sabally gained confidence. She also returned to New York knowing how her teammates like to move on the floor, and applied that knowledge when she got on the court during training camp.

“I think it’s been about everyone else really realizing what she’s been able to do and her having confidence in herself,” Ionescu said of Sabally. “Obviously having debilitating injuries year after year isn’t easy in terms of just getting your confidence back. I believe last year, having the year she did and then being able to play overseas has really given her the confidence to come into this year from her first day in training camp that she was able to participate in. And so from the first day of training camp, I’ve seen the Nyara that everyone has been waiting patiently to be able to witness and I’m just glad she’s able to showcase that now.”

When the Liberty drafted Sabally, Lange and Brondello both explained that her sharp basketball instincts and above-average basketball processing skills were part of the draw. What stood out to New York also was Sabally’s wealth of basketball experiences in Germany when she was playing with pro-level players at age 16 on the German national team.

That’s turned out to be the case — Lankton has praised her learning style and learning speed. She isn’t shy when it comes to asking questions and for the information that will allow her to adjust. She has an exceptional mastery of If/Then statements but in basketball. For example, if the Liberty are in a high pick and roll and a teammate pops, she knows that she needs to dive to create space. Her roll to the basket also puts her in an opportune position to grab a potential offensive rebound.

Nyara Sabally drives to the rim.
New York Liberty forward Nyara Sabally (8) drives to the basket during the WNBA game between the Connecticut Sun and the New York Liberty at Barclays Center, Brooklyn, New York, USA on May 27, 2023. Photo Credit: Chris Poss

Sabally has also become a student of what her play could look like on the perimeter. She and Lankton work on her three point shooting each opportunity the Liberty have a practice to do so. A common drill they work through is how many three pointers can she hit in a set of 25. They’ve focused on her shooting preparation rather than her form, rhythm or  her balance. Lankton and Sabally work on building that muscle memory of knowing exactly the fluid motion that should happen when she gets the ball on the perimeter and is wide open. 

Liberty wing Leonie Fiebich, who has known Sabally for a decade since they have played together on the German National team, has noticed this growth. “When we first got to know each other and played together, she was always driving, always really dynamic and athletic,” Fiebich said. “But she has really worked on her shot. There’s times when she makes like seven, eight threes in a row in practice when she’s shooting.” 

What Lankton appreciates most about Sabally is how even when days of shooting might feel frustrating because the ball isn’t going in the hole, she perseveres. Her disposition is consistent and joyful alongside a drive just to be getting 1 percent better each and every day. “Just the energy and attitude when ‘hey we need to work on this. It’s not always going to be fun.’ But she’s up for it,” Lankton said. “She knows it’s going to get her better in the long run.” 

And Sabally’s sunny, goofy disposition is exactly what this 2024 Liberty roster needs at times. Especially when that pressure that the roster felt last season is back and even heightened. While Jones served as a mentor for Sabally last season and still does, the two are pals. They have a tradition before each game where they head out to get an acai bowl after shootaround. 

While Jones has often teased the younger post about the ways she attempts halfcourt shots, the two hang out a lot. “We’re talking about the game, we’re talking about life, like we’re talking about everything,” Jones said. 

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While Sabally is technically a sophomore in the WNBA, she often provides the presence of a veteran emotionally. Sure she makes people smile and laugh, including Magbegor who noted that Sabally would always find ways to make her laugh in an impish way while in Prague. 

But there’s not an arrogance or pretentiousness about Sabally and who she is in year two. All she wants to do is bring a lot of energy and do all of the little things that the Liberty need to be winning as often as possible. 

When a reporter asked Sabally what she thought of Brondello saying she needed to go to her second-year player more following the loss to the Chicago Sky, Sabally got a bit awkward about it. She wasn’t sure about how to answer the question. 

The description of herself that she told me pregame would have sufficed. “Whether it’s getting my teammates open, getting rebounds, playing good on defense and just kind of filling whatever role I need to fill at the moment,” she 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.

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