The WNBA is — as of now — forging ahead with a 2020 season, but the season isn’t going to look like it would have in a normal, non-COVID-19 year. The season will only be 22 games. It’s all going to take place in one location, at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida. And for a variety of reasons — some health related and some social justice related — the league will be without a handful of players.
It looked like the New York Liberty might have been showing up with their full post roster cutdown team — remember, Marine Johannes, Han Xu, and Stephanie Talbot already had their contracts suspended before the latest plan developed — but news broke on Thursday that Rebecca Allen was staying in Australia, and on Friday morning, the team announced her replacement on the roster, signing former Texas Longhorn forward Joyner Holmes, which brings New York to a grand total of seven rookies on the 2020 roster.
This team is going to be young. They’re going to be very, very young. And while I want to wait to see exactly how the WNBA landscape looks before I extrapolate any projected win totals from that youth, it’s not too early to assess how much losing Rebecca Allen hurts this team and to ponder what Holmes will bring.
Losing Rebecca Allen is huge
I don’t know how to really say this in a way that isn’t just brutally honest: not having Rebecca Allen in 2020 is going to be a significant loss for the New York Liberty and makes their path to a surprise playoff appearance even tougher.
By my estimate, Allen was likely going to be the starting four on this Liberty team due to her experience and the way she closed out the 2019 season. Allen isn’t a traditional power forward by any stretch of the imagination — heck, she’s still listed as a guard by the league, I think — but the 2019 Liberty really blossomed when Allen was in as the nominal power forward, and head coach Walt Hopkins seems to be trending toward a lineup construction where the three and four are interchangable.
Anyway, Allen’s raw numbers were solid last year, as she scored a career-high 7.2 points per game on an impressive 41.7/42.6/81.3 shooting split and also added 2.5 rebounds per contest.
But where Allen seemed to make a real difference was in what her presence on the floor did for New York:
The team had a -0.7 net rating with Rebecca Allen on the floor. They had a -12.0 net rating with Rebecca Allen off the floor. That’s an insane split, especially when you look at how the defense changed with her on and off the floor.
What Allen added defensively was something that wasn’t talked about enough. She has the length to play the four and the speed to guard multiple positions. That versatility just wasn’t there when the team was running more traditional front courts. For instance, the team had a defensive rating of 106.4 when Tina Charles and Amanda Zahui B.shared the floor, while the Charles/Allen had a 105.1 defensive rating and the Zahui B/Allen minutes had a 98.7 net rating. I think it’s pretty easy to argue that a front court of Zahui B and Allen has more versatility on defense than the other combinations, and that showed up in the advanced numbers.
And offensively, Allen brings something that you can’t necessarily guarantee from any of the young rookies: high level three-point shooting. Per Synergy, Allen’s three-pointers ranked in the 87th percentile in points per possession among all player’s three-pointers, and on all unguarded catch-and-shoot looks, she scored in the 77th percentile.
One of the biggest concerns with Allen gone is that she was a key contributor on both ends of the floor. This team hopes to have a lot of 3-and-D contributors on the wing, but none of the potential Allen replacements are guaranteed to be nearly the kind of 3-and-D player that Allen was going to be.
I’d guess Megan Walker is going to be thrown into the starting lineup at the four. I have hope that Walker can be a Rebecca Allen-esque contributor in the future, but it’s a lot to ask her to do that immediately as a rookie, especially when you factor in that Walker’s an early entrant, putting her a season behind other rookies in terms of basketball experience. I’ll have a longer breakdown of what to expect from Walker in her new role coming next week, but a preview is this: yes, I’m optimistic that Walker will be the second-best rookie on this team, but things are undoubtedly “worse” for New York from a “how many games can they win” perspective now.
Beyond Walker, I expect to see more of Jocelyn Willoughby and Leaonna Odom playing at the four. Again, both players have a lot of potential, but it’s hard to know if that potential will manifest as WNBA-level production until we see them on the floor.
If the team wants to play a more traditional lineup, there’s also rookie Kylee Shook, who’s kind of like a 3-and-D center who can play the four in bigger lineups.
Oh, and there’s always the most traditional four on this team: their newest addition, Joyner Holmes.
What Joyner Holmes Brings
Holmes was one of my favorite second-round prospects during WNBA Draft season, and I’m not just saying that because of my Texas bias.
I wrote about Holmes back in February for Dave Campbell’s Texas Basketball, analyzing what I thought at the time about her WNBA potential. A lot of my current thoughts mirror those, so I’ll just briefly summarize them for anyone who doesn’t have time to read that whole piece:
Holmes showed some struggles on post ups from the right side, but has the explosiveness to make plays at the basket and a high motor that leads to offensive rebounds. There are valid concerns about her shot selection and there were too many times when she shot under 30% from the floor this past season, but she’s also a good player in transition, has flashed some jump shooting ability, and is a very underrated playmaker and passer.
I’m not sure how much Holmes will play this season, though, as she’s still a fairly raw prospect, and she doesn’t exactly fit the style of play that Hopkins seems intent on playing. Maybe she has some value as a small ball center, someone who can help push the tempo offensively and guard inside and outside on the other end of the floor.
More likely, though, is that this signing is less about what Holmes can do in 2020 and more about seeing if this coaching staff can develop Holmes into a player who can be a factor in the future. There’s a lot of things Holmes could be good at in the WNBA, but like with Odom, it’s going to take some time to draw those things out.
Long term, if Holmes sticks on this roster, it will be for two reasons: first, her athleticism will help New York push the pace and score in transition on one end while also allowing her to be a switchable defender on the other, and second, she’ll develop more as a shooter, work on her shot selection, and while she might not become a lethal three-point shooter, she could become someone who consistently knocks down midrange shots.
New York’s seven rookie approach is going to be strange. Losing Rebecca Allen is going to hurt. But this coaching staff gets the chance to try out players like Holmes who have all this untapped potential, something that WNBA teams never get to do because the size of rosters around the league just doesn’t allow you to develop more than one or two rookies at a time. This is a fascinating approach that Hopkins and GM Jonathan Kolb are taking, and now Joyner Holmes gets the kind of chance that she wouldn’t have gotten in a normal year or with a team that was built more like WNBA teams are usually built. It’s exciting, even if it all feels highly unorthodox.