Hi! The WNBA season is almost here, and if you haven’t been keeping a close eye on the league since last season ended, then you’ve got a lot of catching up to do, especially when it comes to the New York Liberty.
So, let’s do that catching up. What’s new. What’s old. What should we expect from this season? Why should you, reader, care about the Liberty?
Let’s get right to it.
What’s The Same For The Liberty?
Essentially, nothing is the same for New York. With Asia Durr sitting out the season for medical reasons after contracting COVID-19, the Liberty will enter 2020 with just two players on the active roster who played for the team in 2019: Kia Nurse and Amanda Zahui B.
Everything else is new. New head coach. New rookies. New logo. There would have been a new arena as well as the team was set to play in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, but the entire league will be playing games in Florida this year in an attempt to reduce player exposure to COVID.
Luckily for the Liberty, the two players who are back from last season are vitally important ones to the team’s success.
With the trading of Tina Charles, Kia Nurse is now the leader of this team. While she’s only entering her third WNBA season, Nurse has already made an All-Star appearance.
Nurse will look to build on a 2019 season in which she averaged 13.7 points per game, then followed that up by winning the MVP in Australia’s WNBL. Nurse will likely spend the 2020 season at shooting guard like she did last year, and while Nurse is a bit of a defensive liability in that role, she more than makes up for it on the offensive end.
The other returning face is Amanda Zahui B. Zahui B. — who I wrote about earlier this offseason and took the potentially controversial stance that she was the team’s best player in 2019 — continues to develop on both ends of the floor and last season emerged as a strong shot-blocking presence for the first time in her WNBA career. Add to that the fact that her ability to stretch out to the three-point line offensively and you can see why there’s a lot of optimism around Zahui B, who is being marketed as one of the three key players on this team.
The only other player who can be construed as “returning” is Kiah Stokes, who sat out 2019 and returns to the team in 2020. The team’s all-time leader blocks should form a dangerous defensive frontcourt with Zahui B, and Stokes talked on Media Day about working on her shooting. The veteran center has never been much of a shooter, but in Walt Hopkins’s uptempo, three-heavy offense, Stokes will likely be asked to stretch out more than she ever has before.
The Liberty’s Rookie Class
The New York Liberty are going to be very reliant on rookies this season. Like, very, very reliant.
That’s because the roster currently has seven of them on it. There’s No. 1 overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu — who’ll get most of the attention this season — but there’s also Joyner Holmes, Jazmine Jones, Leaonna Odom, Kylee Shook, Jocelyn Willoughby, and Megan Walker, who isn’t with the team right now after testing positive for COVID-19 but who head coach Walt Hopkins says he’s expecting to join the club in Florida at some point.
So, let’s talk rookies.
Ionescu really doesn’t need an introduction. The most popular player in college basketball during her final season at Oregon, Ionescu’s a triple-double machine who can do it all on a basketball court, from shooting to playmaking to getting into the paint to grab rebounds.
The assumed frontrunner for Rookie of the Year — though former Oregon teammate and current Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally might have something to say about that — is going to have to shoulder a lot for the Liberty this year.
Ionescu will get plenty of time in the spotlight this season, so let’s not spend too much time on her. She’s a potentially transcendent talent who has to prove two major things as she enters the league: that she has the quickness to be a lead guard at this level and that her scoring will translate. Her rookie season might not answer either of those questions, but it should put us on a path towards answering them.
Beyond Ionescu, the Liberty are stocked with rookies.
Some quick thoughts on all of them, in order of draft position:
Megan Walker: We don’t know yet when Walker — the UConn junior who a lot of people in the WNBA analysis world expected to be the team’s starting four this year — will join the team as she recovers from COVID-19, but what we do know about Walker is that she averaged 19.7 points per game on 47.7/45.1/82.1 shooting last season and that she seems like a perfect fit in this positionless approach that the team is taking.
Jocelyn Willoughby: Another 6’0” player who’ll play out on the wing for the Liberty, Willoughby showed similar scoring prowess to Walker but with slightly worse efficiency. A 98th percentile scorer on spot up possessions for Virginia last year, Willoughby does have a lot of work to do on other parts of her games, but she can shoot and she can get to the foul line, as she ranked 19th in Division I in trips to the line this past season.
Jazmine Jones: Jones was the first really shocking pick of the draft, but I’ve grown to understand what the Liberty were doing when they took her at 12 and college teammate Kylee Shook at 13. Jones is a really solid defender who shot 37.8% from three last year and can play multiple positions. That’s exactly what Hopkins wants from players on this team, and in a year where a lot of players who we expected to be in this guard rotation aren’t here, Jones will get a chance to show that her college production on both ends of the floor can translate to the W.
Kylee Shook was taken next. If you want to read more about her, you can read this piece I wrote after rewatching the Oregon/Louisville game from this past college season in which I talked a lot about why I was excited about Shook. Basically, Shook is a young Amanda Zahui B, a stretch five with good shot blocking instincts who’ll fit into an offense that’s likely to operate in a five-out style a lot of the time. Shook can also slide down to the four to play next to Kiah Stokes or form a really fun front court with Zahui B.
Leaonna Odom: Here’s where I start to lose the sense of how this will go. Odom seems to have all the talent in the world, but she also seems like much less of a finished product than the other rookies. She’s incredibly athletic and should excel in transition, and she flashed some solid shooting this past season. Odom will need to improve her pick-and-roll game.
Joyner Holmes: Not picked by New York, Holmes ended up signing here after Seattle moved on from her. I spent a lot of time watching Holmes last year for one of my other writing gigs and was incredibly excited when she signed with the Liberty. Holmes is a bit raw as a shooter, but she can run the floor and crash the boards, and she offers some interesting playmaking upside from the four position.
The New Veteran
There’s also one veteran addition to this team in point guard Layshia Clarendon.
First, before talking about Clarendon’s on-court abilities, let’s take a second to talk about their work with social justice. Clarendon is one of the players on the league’s Social Justice Council and plays a key role in helping the league dedicate the 2020 season to the Black Lives Matter movement.
And Clarendon’s a leader on the floor as well. As the team’s oldest player — and “oldest” is pretty relative here, as every member of the 2020 New York Liberty is younger than me — Clarendon brings her veteran know-how and ability to control the offense to the WNBA bubble.
Ideally, you want veteran players at every position to help the young players learn the ropes, but it’s even more important to have someone to help out your No. 1 overall pick. That’s one big thing Clarendon brings: the ability to help Sabrina Ionescu learn how to be a WNBA point guard.
Clarendon’s also a great passer, finishing second in the league in assists per game and assist rate in 2017 with Atlanta. That was the last year where we saw Clarendon getting the kind of minutes they’ll get in 2020, and that year saw them average 10.7 points and 6.6 assists per game, as well as 3.8 rebounds. Clarendon struggled as a shooter that year, though, hitting on under 40% of their field goals and just 18% of threes.
Still, even if the stylistic fit isn’t perfect, this team needs a player like Clarendon.
So, what should we expect from this team in 2020?
Honestly, I don’t know.
I’ve been trying for months to answer this question. I know what I think the team will look like on the floor — five-out offense, lots of running, lots of threes, positionless approach, and probably a good bit of switching on the defensive end — but in terms of how that translates to actual wins and losses, I don’t know.
It’s complicated for a few reasons.
First, the 22 game season and the bubble situation — including how many players have opted not to play — make it tough to get a read on the league as a whole. Most teams aren’t going to be the version of that team that we thought we’d see before COVID. That’s likely going to lead to some real strangeness around the league. At least one team that we all think is a playoff team is going to fall out of the postseason. At least one team we’re low on is going to have a shockingly good year.
Next, this team is young. Very, very young. It’s unprecedented how young they are. No matter how talented young players are, there’s always something that goes wrong. Someone doesn’t progress like we expected. But the mystery of these unknown players also means that, well, anything can happen. Look at the 2019 WNBA Draft. The two players who competed for Rookie of the Year, Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier, were drafted fifth and sixth. New York’s non-Ionescu first rounders could struggle to be WNBA players. They could also come out on fire and ahead of the curve.
The third complication is this offensive system. While it might not be as extreme as it could have been after some of the opt outs, this team is still eschewing basketball norms to play a lineup that’ll be incredibly small at times. The WNBA is still a league where dominant posts can make an oversized impact on the game; New York, though, doesn’t have a post-bound big on the roster (if you believe the talk about Kiah Stokes stretching out to the perimeter, that is.)
How will the small ball approach work on a full-time basis? Will New York get killed on the defensive end? Until we see Walt Hopkins’s system for at least a handful of games, it’s really hard to pinpoint how it will or won’t work. You have to admire the team’s dedication to building the team around his vision, but can that vision work for an entire season?
With all of these questions in mind, I ultimately settled on picking New York to finish 12th in the league in my predicted standings. I think the youth movement could pay dividends down the line, but there’s going to be a lot of struggles as players adjust to the pros.
That said, I do think New York’s ceiling is higher than some teams like Atlanta and Minnesota. If everything goes right, this team could win 12-14 games, putting them solidly into a playoff spot. The youth could pay off, allowing them to run the floor and stay fresh.
This is a rebuilding year with Tina Charles gone. It’s a chance for a lot of players to audition for roles on a future version of the Liberty, one that would have an additional lottery pick from 2021 plus promising players like Asia Durr and Marine Johannes back in the fold. Personally, I view winning as an ancillary thing this year — if it happens, great, but if it doesn’t, there’s still a lot of growth to watch for on the court.