New York Liberty: Seven Quotes from Monday’s Scrimmage (and What They Could Mean)

Walt Hopkins and Jazmine Jones each spoke about the New York Liberty’s exhibition endeavor in Uncasville on Monday night.

New York Liberty basketball unofficially returned Monday night! The seafoam-clad metropolitan shooters took the court at Mohegan Sun Arena for an exhibition game with the Connecticut Sun. 

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Connecticut prevailed 55-42 in the three-period showdown, per the box score shared by The Next‘s Jackie Powell. However, the Liberty had their share of positives emerge from the numbers. Jazmine Jones led all scorers with 12 points, while Sami Whitcomb sank 2 of her 3 attempts from three-point range. 

While Liberty fans weren’t able to view the polished product, Jones and head coach Walt Hopkins painted a vivid picture during postgame availability. Nets Republic attempts to add a few more strokes in Monday’s aftermath…

Our defense was really good, [but] we gave up a lot of offensive rebounds … it wasn’t a case of us getting buried under the rim, it was long offensive rebounds. We were getting out-hustled for the ball … We did a great job, not fouling that was one of the things we’ve been focused on. I thought they did a great job of that.

Hopkins on the defense

Like “character” before it, Hopkins’ new favorite buzzword, “defense,” has been mentioned quite a bit during training camp proceedings. 

Monday was the first time it was on display—at least privately—in front of another team, and he sounded pleased with the team’s work in that regard. The Sun shot 25-of-58 from the floor, though Hopkins appeared to imply that the opponent made the most out of second-chance opportunities. Connecticut outrebounded the New York 15-4 on the offensive glass, and Kaila Charles led the way with seven total. 

As for Hopkins’ satisfaction with the fouls, no one on the Liberty had more than two personals. They totaled 11 and let the Sun get to the line just five times. 

We got a really, really good training camp. I’ve been really happy with the consistent energy and effort and attention to detail and we’re seeing them grow every single day … they’re by no means a finished product. But it’s been heartening to see how they grow. I thought that at times we lacked that same swagger that we’ve had in practice, … that same intensity and energy and I think it was really good to get those first-game jitters out for a lot of these players.

Hopkins on the team’s overall Monday effort

Even without highlights, it’s easy to see where the Liberty might’ve lacked some of Hopkins’ desired intensity. They were outscored 38-25 over the latter two sessions, including 16-9 in the middle period. 

But the Liberty appeared to take advantage of the opportunities granted to them. Hopkins mentioned that third-round pick Valerie Higgins had strong energy. Plus, the Liberty made it to the foul line 14 times and sank all but two attempts. New York also showcased some of its newcomers, including Whitcomb and first-round pick Michaela Onyenwere. But several of their presumed staples for 2021 and beyond—including Sabrina Ionescu, Betnijah Laney, and Natasha Howard—did not dress.

Monday appeared to be a slight continuation of the bubble proceedings, finding moral victories while star attractions hibernated. The comments from Hopkins and Jones imply they left Uncasville with a few of those proverbial triumphs. 

Michaela, once you see the box score, it won’t blow you away. But I thought she did a really good job getting into the paint consistently offensively. She’s a really tough matchup for opposing bigs if we play at the big spots, so we’re playing her at the four and she did a great job … exploiting that. I think we’re gonna see continued growth from her too. The early stages have looked great.

Hopkins on Michaela Onyenwere

Onyenwere’s performance was another continuation of the bubble process: a rookie quickly adapting to the new-look Liberty’s sense of positionless, fearless basketball. Starting along with three of last year’s rookies (Leaonna Odom, Kylee Shook, and Jocelyn Willoughby), Onyenwere’s only point came from the foul line. However, she tore away two steals—part of 16 Connecticut turnovers—and Hopkins was pleased with her performance in her first action on the east coast. 

Editor’s note: The Liberty announced Wednesday that Willoughby injured her Achilles during Monday’s scrimmage. She had surgery Wednesday morning and will miss the 2021 season.

Kylee [had] some really, really great highs, and then a few lows. Like she’d run the floor, get a wide-open fast break layup and miss it … In the past, she wouldn’t catch the pass and finish. And defensively she had some really, really great things. It’s that she’s so solid, she generally does the right thing, but I think she’s still getting used to playing more physically in the post.

Hopkins on Kylee Shook

Shook also made an impact beyond the box score. But this perhaps only displayed her physicality—she was one of three Liberty players, including Odom and Joyner Holmes, with two fouls. 

However, this has been a monumental training camp for Shook. She’s been frequently name-dropped by newcomers and veterans alike for her mentorship and support during the process. Her presence in Monday’s starting lineup (especially after she ended last season with a late ankle injury) and her continued camp work show that despite their big acquisitions, they still have some big plans for her. 

I have the utmost respect for Sami’s game. She’s so intelligent, her basketball IQ is off the charts, and knowing that she came from a championship team. So [I’m] just picking her brain every single day in training camp and just learning from her because she’s so intelligent, and a hard worker, and she has that championship mindset DNA, so she’s bringing that to us. And we learned a lot from her this year.

Jazmine Jones on Sami Whitcomb

Whitcomb almost feels like the forgotten piece of the Liberty’s offseason haul, after Howard and Laney. But her résumé brings some strong accolades, and Jones sang her on-court praises after collaborating with her on Monday.

It goes to show just how much Whitcomb, 32, figures into the Liberty’s present and future plans. With the camp arrival of some longer-tenured veterans delayed, Whitcomb has established a leadership presence early on. A two-time WNBA champion and winner of countless Australian basketball accolades, there are few better mentors for the Liberty’s freshmen and sophomores. 

She might say she was nervous, but out there, she didn’t look nervous to me. I played against her in college, watched her play and stuff like that. So she looked good getting to the rim, getting open shots. She looks like herself. She looks good and she says she’s still learning. She asks us a lot of questions, which I think is good. Because that was me last year, asking a lot of questions if I don’t understand something. So that’s exactly what she was doing.

Jones on Onyenwere

Further praise for Onyenwere came from Jones, who can take on an elder statesman role in her own right. She’s a veteran of this system and what Hopkins and Co. are trying to build.

Jones also overcame her own share of adversity her rookie season, which featured controversies that even the most seasoned veterans go their entire careers avoiding. She played in the bubble, of course, but also made the team as a final first-round pick and played out of position after Ionescu went down. After Monday, she may see some of herself in Onyenwere. That relationship might be something to keep an eye on as this season progresses.

I get a lot of credit to Neah today. Every time we play Connecticut, Coach puts Neah on [DeWanna Bonner] and Neah does a phenomenal job on her. DeWanna Bonner is one of the greatest in our league right now. For Neah to step up to that challenge every time we play Connecticut, she does a great job.

Jones on Leaonna Odom

In due time, Leaonna “Neah” Odom could become one of the best secrets to emerge out of the Bradenton bubble. 

From humble beginnings (picked No. 15 overall last spring), Odom has developed a reputation as a tenacious defender. She rudely reintroduced herself to the three-time All-Star on Monday, holding her to 2-of-9 shooting over 14 minutes. Bonner previously got acquainted with Odom in the bubble, shooting 13-of-41 (31 percent) over two meetings in Florida. Even with some newcomers, Odom has made it clear that she’s not going anywhere.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags.