NYL Weekly: Welcome to Brooklyn! The New York Liberty Open Play Friday

A look at the season-opening series, the current state of the roster, and a nugget of wisdom from Layshia Clarendon

The New York Liberty open their 2021 season tonight at Barclays Center, a welcome more than a year in the making. It’s been nearly 500 days since Joe Tsai bought the team, a purchase that came with the promise of moving the Liberty from far-flung White Plains, N.Y. back to the big city—albeit in Brooklyn, rather than their original home across the East River.

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Tonight also marks the start of the WNBA’s 25th anniversary season! As one of three teams that have remained in their original markets since the league’s inception, the Liberty are looking forward to a season-long celebration.

But before the Liberty’s official three-game 25th anniversary observance in August, we’ve got to start the games. That begins with this weekend’s home-and-home series with the Indiana Fever. Let’s first survey the chaos that was yesterday’s roster-cut deadline.

New York Liberty: 2021 Remix

Here’s what the active roster looks like as of presstime (pertinent offseason info in parentheses):

  • Layshia Clarendon
  • Sabrina Ionescu
  • Jazmine Jones
  • Betnijah Laney (traded from Atlanta)
  • Leaonna Odom
  • Michaela Onyenwere (No. 6 draft pick)
  • DiDi Richards (No. 17 draft pick)
  • Kylee Shook
  • Sami Whitcomb (traded from Seattle)

And a few extras:

  • Out for season: Jocelyn Willoughby (injury)
  • Temporary suspension: Rebecca Allen, Natasha Howard (traded from Seattle), Kiah Stokes
  • Full-season suspension: Asia Durr (personal), Han Xu (Olympics), Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe (Olympics), Marine Johannès (Olympics)
  • Waived during training camp: Valerie Higgins (No. 25 draft pick), Janelle Bailey, Joyner Holmes, Jasmine Bailey, Asia Taylor

What does all this mean? The opening weekend squad is set … with the possible addition of temporary hardship waiver players like the recently waived Joyner Holmes or Valerie Higgins. (Editor’s note: The Liberty added Reshanda Gray, who played for the Liberty in 2019, to Friday’s roster as a hardship waiver. A few hours later, they added Joyner Holmes as a second hardship player.) But with players returning from overseas, that could all change in the next week.

The Liberty also have many players who are preparing for the upcoming EuroBasket tournament and the Summer Olympics. Clarendon, Whitcomb, Allen, Stokes, and Johannès all look to be among that group for one or both events. Those changes could see some familiar faces — see “Waived,” above — rejoin the team as hardship exemptions. Or they could scour the waiver wire, once everyone else’s cuts clear and they become free agents.

And, oh yeah, roughly half these players weren’t on the Liberty last season. For a team entering its second season of being a “new-look” program—and still a young one at that—the expectations are high, but manageable. As Jazmine Jones said earlier this week, “We won two games last year, so what’s the pressure, to win three this year? Whoo-o-o!”

This Weekend

  • Friday, May 14: Liberty vs. Fever, 7 p.m. ET, NBA TV/YES Network
  • Sunday, May 16: Liberty at Fever, 2 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network

Both of this weekend’s games are Commissioner’s Cup games. To learn more about the Commissioner’s Cup, visit the WNBA’s website.

Per the Liberty, the probable starting five tonight is Betnijah Laney, Michaela Onyenwere, Kylee Shook, Sami Whitcomb, and Sabrina Ionescu. Despite appearing in just three games last season, Ionescu is the only player here who’s started for New York. Laney and Whitcomb are new to the team, Onyenwere is a rookie, and Shook came off the bench in all 20 of her appearances last season.

After an injury robbed her of most of her rookie season, the spotlight will be on Ionescu as she ushers in the Liberty’s Brooklyn era. She told reporters yesterday that she aims to come back “better” than she was before, which is a potentially terrifying prospect for opponents. But Ionescu can’t win games alone. With a more even ratio of veterans to early-career players than last season, on paper, things look to be on the up-and-up.

But first, an early snag: We won’t see Leaonna Odom for the opening series, as she’s out with an Achilles injury. According to The Next’s Jackie Powell, an MRI showed no structural damage and Odom will miss “around two weeks,” so it’s not as severe as the Achilles tear that took out Jocelyn Willoughby for the season earlier this month.

The Liberty didn’t beat the Fever in either try last season. In true 2020 fashion, their wins came against two future playoff entrants, the Washington Mystics and Chicago Sky. This season, like the Liberty, the Fever signed some veteran free agents and are balancing those acquisitions with a new class of rookies, aiming for a better season than last. The two are alike in many ways, in substance if not in their quest to not ride the bottom of the standings. As such, despite the expectations for each heading into the summer, these first two games will say a lot about how each made it out of the offseason—and if they’re ready for stronger competition down the line.

Back to the court: New York opened its 2019 season against the Fever, a Teaira McCowan buzzer-beater the difference in the heartbreaking loss. The Liberty haven’t defeated Indiana at home since 2018, and they haven’t won a season opener since 2017. Will a new arena be the difference?

Odds and Ends

As roster cuts got particularly brutal, Clarendon had some (correct) thoughts on Thursday about the state of the league:

And Onyenwere shared some late breaking news about the season opener:

My family will be in the building, my grandma will be in the building—a fan favorite—so yeah, I’m excited!

Onyenwere to reporters on Wednesday

We are all so lucky.