What We Learned About The New York Liberty In 2020
Even though the 2020 WNBA season was only 22 games long, it was a long year for the New York Liberty, who finished their first season under head coach Walt Hopkins with a 2-20 record. The Liberty won the fewest games in a season of any team in WNBA history, though the shortened schedule meant they didn’t wind up with the worst winning percentage of all-time.
Even amidst those struggles, though, there are lessons to take away from what this team did on the basketball court. Let’s look at what some of those lessons are.
Nurse ended 2020 with a 27.3 field goal percentage and 23.8 three-point field goal percentage on 6.2 three-point attempts per game.
Let’s put this into perspective.
Nurse averaged 11.9 shot attempts per game. Nurse is the only player in league history to average 10 shot attempts per game and shoot under 28%. And she joins 1998 Ruthie Bolton as the only players in league history to shoot under 25% from three on five threes per game.
Nurse’s historical inefficiency is a concern, but I’m not ready to say her career is derailed or that this proves she can’t be a valuable player in the WNBA. I think these numbers suggest that Nurse is best as a second or third option, someone who can thrive when the defense isn’t keying in on her as much.
It’s also worth noting that while the Liberty had a -15.9 net rating with Kia Nurse on the floor, they had a -21.5 net rating with her off the floor. Surrounded by the right pieces, I think Nurse will be fine. You just…probably don’t want to go into 2021 with her as your No. 1 scoring option.
Sabrina Ionescu Looked Like The Real Deal
We did not get to see very much of Sabrina Ionescu this season. The No. 1 overall pick in this year’s draft, Ionescu exited with a season-ending ankle injury in her third game.
But in that second game, we got a glimpse of what Ionescu could do, and the WNBA community should be very excited. Against the Wings, Ionescu was 11-for-20 for 33 points, plus she added seven rebounds and seven assists. She was 6-for-10 from deep.
That’s why New York took her first. She can lead an offense and make all the passes you need from a point guard. She can play off the ball and function as a really good spot up threat. She can get into the paint and grab some rebounds, which can then help start up the fast break and allow the Liberty to get into their offense quickly.
The caveat here is that a 79-minute sample is not enough to make firm judgments off of. Ionescu looked great in that second game. She looked great in the first 12 minutes of the Atlanta game before she exited. And she looked like a rookie at times in the season-opener against Seattle. There’s no guarantee that Ionescu is as a good as she looked over that final one and a quarter games.
But it’s all we have to go on for a WNBA sample, and it was a good sample.
The Defense Was Better Than People Think
The Liberty defense wasn’t good, but it also wasn’t the league’s worst defense like some seem to think. Their 104.5 defensive rating was better than three other teams (who also all missed the playoffs.) They were second in the league in blocked shots, fourth in defensive rebounding percentage, and sixth in opponent second-chance points. For a team that got a lot of attention for playing small at times, they still managed to control the defensive glass a good bit of the time, limiting chances for other teams to score easy buckets in the paint.
Things were far from perfect on that end, but the defense wasn’t a disaster. Considering how many new faces were around this year, it definitely could have been.
At Least Some Of These Rookies Have A Future In New York
We all know that the numbers don’t add up. Seven rookies, a lottery pick next year, all of the players who opted out this year…things will change with how this roster is built, and one of the big changes will be determining which of this year’s rookies are here again in 2021.
One player who definitely earned the chance to be back is Jazmine Jones. I’ll be honest here — Jones was the pick that I was most confused about on draft night. I had her as a fringe third rounder on my draft board. But I didn’t watch a ton of ACC basketball last year, and the Liberty front office apparently had, as Jones, Louisville teammate Kylee Shook, Virginia’s Jocelyn Willoughby, and Duke’s Leaonna Odom all came from the conference.
Jones was named to the AP’s All-Rookie team on Tuesday. For the year, she averaged 10.8 points on 40.4% shooting, and added 4.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 1.4 steals per game.
She also had to be an emergency point guard after the Ionescu injury, and then again after Layshia Clarendon’s season ended early. Jones picked up the position well considering she hadn’t played it since high school, and her versatility will be very useful when this team is at full strength. She can play a lot of different roles on the 2021 version of this team.
Shooting A Lot Of Threes Can Work. It Can Also Be A Disaster
The offensive system that Hopkins brought to New York emphasizes shooting the three ball. Kiah Stokes took 85 threes after entering 2020 with three career attempts from deep. The Liberty finished the season with the second-highest three-point attempts per game mark in league history, just behind the 2020 Dallas Wings. This team shoots a lot.
And that can be a good thing. Shooting more threes than the rest of the league introduces a level of variance that can take a team with disadvantages — like, perhaps, a team who is missing most of their best players in a COVID-19 shortened season — and give them a chance to eke out wins that they otherwise wouldn’t have gotten.
But without the right shooters, this strategy is also a recipe for shooting your way out of a basketball game.
New York didn’t have the right personnel for this in 2020. There were too many rookies who were trying to adapt to playing in this league and too many of the team’s better shooters weren’t in the bubble. It remains to be seen how this strategy will work in 2021. But if the Liberty have a healthy Sabrina Ionescu plus Asia Durr, Marine Johannès, and Rebecca Allen, you suddenly have a lot more consistent shooting on this team, and this offensive approach can look a lot more viable.
Maybe Don’t Call For Walt Hopkins To Be Fired
You know how fanbases are, right? Things go a little awry and they start saying “fire the coach!”
This team implemented a whole new system with limited time and with a roster that only vaguely resembles the roster that will be on the floor next year. Maybe Walt Hopkins will turn out to be a bad WNBA head coach and the fans who already want a change will be right, but to make that argument at this particular moment in time is just asinine. You can’t judge Hopkins on the win/loss record for this Liberty team in an extreme rebuilding year. Stop, y’all.
Some Various Lineup Data
Not to get too number heavy here, but I dug through a lot of lineup data for a piece I was never able to finish, so I thought I’d end with some quick notes on some lineup things:
New York had one lineup play over 100 minutes, which was the 145 minutes from the Stokes/Zahui B./Odom/Nurse/Clarendon lineup. That grouping had a net rating of -8.5, which seems pretty good compared to some other lineups.
Replace Clarendon with Jones and you get the second-most used lineup, which struggled more offensively but posted an 89.9 defensive rating in 50 minutes. Again, this defense doesn’t get enough positive attention.
The most-used lineup with a positive net rating: Stokes/Zahui B/Nurse/Clarendon/Ionescu at +3.3. Again, defense fueled that, though a 17-minute sample is really small.
All of these lineup samples are small, which underlines just how hard it is to make judgments from a 22-game season in which multiple key players on this team missed time. This front office has a lot of decisions to make soon and I can’t imagine having to make them with such a small sample to work with.