New York Liberty: Three Takeaways from the Opening Night Win over Indiana (5/14/2021)

Well, that was fun. The 2021 WNBA season tipped off on Friday night, with the New York Liberty hosting the Indiana Fever in the first game of the year. And after a back-and-forth affair in which the Liberty kept threatening to run away with it and the Fever kept closing the gap, Indiana seemingly took control late.

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And then, Sabrina Ionescu took over. The 2020 No. 1 overall pick scored the final eight points for New York, including the game winner.

We’ll talk about that more in just a moment. Below are three key takeaways from Friday’s 90-87 victory.

Sabrina Ionescu is Back!

Sabrina Ionescu did that. She just completely did that:

First, this was just a great play design. You’ve got multiple offensive players putting their bodies between defenders and Ionescu, which allows her to get the space to get this shot off.

This was one of multiple times in this game that Ionescu took one of these threes where she wasn’t really positioned perfectly and she was off-balance and it looked like the ball couldn’t possibly have gone in, but then it did.

Let’s also not forget that Ionescu was returning from an ankle sprain that limited her to three games last season. She didn’t play overseas either, so this was her first meaningful basketball in a long time. There was a little shakiness early on with her shot, but by the end of the night she’d posted an incredibly impressive stat line: 25 points, 11 assists, and 6 rebounds.

One thing that should really help Ionescu grow her game this year is space. With players like Betnijah Laney and Sami Whitcomb in the backcourt, defenses can’t just throw a ton of bodies at her. Ionescu is such a gifted passer that she’ll immediately make you pay when you try to apply too much pressure to her:

That’s what makes Ionescu so dangerous: you can’t stop her completely. Limit her paths to drive and she pulls up from deep. Double her and she finds the cutter. Just play her one-on-one and, well, she’ll take over the game offensively.

And hey, this was just her fourth professional game! I can’t even imagine how she’ll look when this team is at full strength and she has even more options to work with.

Signing Betnijah Laney Was #Good

I wasn’t sure what to think about the Laney signing. When I wrote about her right after the signing, I was optimistic, because she was coming off a really strong 2020 season that saw her win Most Improved Player and make the All-Defensive Team. She shot 40.5 percent from deep, and it seemed like she was going to be a great fit for what Walt Hopkins wants to do with this team.

But, one-year leaps like Laney had last season worry me. Was it a product of her role in Atlanta? Surely the Fever couldn’t have cut a player as good as Laney, right?

Well, maybe the Fever could have. Because one game into Laney’s Liberty career, it appears that she’s just building on that strong 2020 campaign.

Laney finished with a team-high 30 points on 11-for-18 shooting, plus added 5 rebounds and 2 assists.

Laney really fits with this team. Sure, she can shoot and defend, but she’s also able to do some creation of her own, which helps things. Her points per possession on dribble jumpers last year ranked in the 66th percentile, per Synergy. That makes her tough to guard and is going to lead to some more strong nights this season.

The Liberty Need Some Interior Help

New York got a lot of great contributions from out on the perimeter, but things didn’t go as well inside. With Natasha Howard and Kiah Stokes still not with the team, the center rotation was a combination of Kylee Shook, Joyner Holmes, and Reshanda Gray.

Gray played 12 minutes. She also wasn’t with the team in training camp and was just signed on Friday.

Indiana had 19 offensive rebounds. Center Teaira McCowan went off against New York’s undersized frontcourt, scoring 22 points on 10-for-17 shooting and grabbing 16 rebounds. She blocked a pair of shots as well.

Help is coming, but until that help gets here, the Liberty will be fighting an uphill battle on the inside every single night. And sure, they won’t have to play someone with McCowan’s size every game, but they will have to play McCowan again on Sunday. They’ll need to adjust somehow. Maybe that adjustment just means getting Gray more minutes, as she seems to be a better defensive matchup against a physical big like McCowan?

Some Other Interesting Things

  • I haven’t even talked about Michaela Onyenwere yet! She set the team record for points in a rookie debut, scoring 18 of them and going 3-for-6 from deep. Hopkins started Onyenwere at the four, which is something I was wondering about leading into the season. There’s been a lot of talk about her being a tweener: too small to play the four, but maybe not a good enough shooter to play at the three. Well … she shot well AND she played the four in this one. Obviously just one game, but if Onyenwere can be an above-average shooter in the W, she’ll add a lot to this team.
  • DiDi Richards scored two points. I am very happy for DiDi Richards!
  • Sami Whitcomb did what she’s supposed to do, which was shoot threes. She was 2-for-5 on them.
  • Jazmine Jones was quiet. New York seems like it’ll be running Laney and Ionescu for virtually the entire game most nights, so there are limited perimeter minutes available. Jones had a solid rookie campaign and provides some good defense, but if this team has playoff aspirations, Jones might not see more than 15 minutes per game.
  • Layshia Clarendon played just three minutes in this game. I’m not sure why she wasn’t on the floor much, but part of it might be that she doesn’t really fit what this team is trying to do right now. Clarendon’s never really been a great shooter, and while his veteran leadership is great, it makes sense to get other players on the floor at the guard spots. They will get more minutes in other games, but it was disappointing to only see them on the floor for such a short time.

Next up: The Liberty and Fever match up again on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET, only this time they’ll do it in Indiana and it’ll air on CBS Sports Network.