Rebecca Allen
Rebecca Allen

The Rise of Rebecca Allen

While the New York Liberty have struggled as of late and are currently on a six-game losing streak, one encouraging sign has been the play of forward Rebecca Allen. Allen opened the season as part of New York’s starting unit, but a hand injury cost her a month of the season, and she got off to a bit of a slow start once she was back with the team. But since the All-Star Break, Allen has arguably been New York’s best player, playing the role of a versatile scorer off the bench.

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Doubt from Liberty fans about how Allen’s future on a crowded Liberty team would look have been replaced by clamors for her to return to the starting five.

Before New York’s August 7th game against the Sky, Allen had never had a 20-point game during her WNBA career, which stretches back to 2015. In the last three games, she’s hit that mark twice.

So, how’s Allen become a spark plug for this Liberty team? Let’s dive into some tape and numbers and examine her game.

Three-Point Shooting

The easy place to start is to look at what Allen does as a shooter. The Liberty have the league’s third-worst three-point field goal percentage this season, in large part because three players who’ve played significant roles for the team this year — Tina Charles, Asia Durr, and Brittany Boyd — are shooting under 30% from three.

But while they’ve struggled from deep, Allen’s become a force from behind the arc. In 2016, Allen hit 56.7% of her 1.4 three-point attempts per game, but the next two years ended up being really uneven, and last season she shot just 26.3% from long distance.

2019’s been an entirely different story, though. Allen’s taking 3.4 threes per game and is sinking them at a 48.9% rate. Among players who’ve taken at least two threes per game, only Seattle’s Alysha Clarke has a higher percentage.

In Tuesday’s loss to the Minnesota Lynx, Allen was 6-for-7 from deep.

One thing you notice if you watch enough of the Liberty is that Allen hasn’t been consistently playing a certain position. She’s played a lot of the three, including 60 minutes so far sharing the floor with Amanda Zahui B and Tina Charles, but she’s also gotten run at the four.

Personally, I’m a big believer of power forward being the position where Allen can offer this team the most help, so it was good to see Liberty head coach Katie Smith say this after Tuesday’s loss:

“She did a nice job. We played her at the four to space the floor because Minnesota plays three quarters hard, and just lays a body on Tina, so at some point they have to go help. They would leave shooters open and we were able to find her to knock the shots down. We’ve been able to run some actions for her, she’s long enough to get her shot off and she’s always aggressive. On top of that, on defense she’s always in there battling and competing which is also something that she gives us”

If you go back and watch the clip above of the Allen three, you can start to see why playing her at the four makes the most sense for this team.

Tina Charles is the focal point of the Liberty offense. Opposing defenses double her constantly and even when they aren’t doubling her, they’ll keep a player close to give them the option of putting extra pressure on her.

When you play Charles with another traditional big, plays where Charles is down in the post with that big just creates a crowded situation that hampers scoring. Putting Allen at the four allows you to spread the court and keep your four non-Charles players further out, which either A) makes a team not double Charles or B) leaves someone more open than they should be.

On this play, Allen’s initially down in the paint, but she cuts out to the perimeter. Her defender hesitates a little here, just long enough that by the time the ball rotates over to Allen at the top of the arc, she’s got enough space built up to get the shot off. Swish. Bucket.

This was part of a 20-point second quarter for Allen. The WNBA record for points in a quarter is 22, set by Diana Taurasi back in 2006. Allen is now tied with five players for the second-highest scoring quarter.

As the tweet says, the three Allen lineups that have seen the most usage this season have had her as the three, but we need to see more of her at the four so things like this can happen. Allen’s able to release from her defender here at the top of the arc, and Tanisha Wright finds her out on the right wing. No one’s around. Ball is up. Ball is in. Three points for New York.

I think Allen’s current rate of making threes is a little high, but she should be able to sustain shooting at an above-average rate from deep if head coach Katie Smith can put her in good positions to create mismatches like she did on Tuesday.

When Amanda Zahui B returns, we’ll probably be back to seeing lineups with Allen at the three beside Zahui B and Charles. That’s fine. Zahui B has range. But because Reshanda Gray won’t have to start at the five, we’ll be seeing more of her at the four, and that means if Allen continues to demand more minutes with her play, she’ll end up spending a lot of time backing up Kia Nurse at small forward.

I don’t know exactly how to make sense of what the best move for the team is, but I do know that Allen at the four is a good thing. She opens the floor up for someone like Brittany Boyd, who doesn’t shoot much from deep, or Asia Durr, whose three-point game hasn’t arrived yet, to drive inside, opens up space for Charles, and provides some stellar shooting.

Other Offensive and Defensive Things

I went on for a long time about Allen’s three-point shooting, so let’s keep some other things short.

Allen’s done a good job scoring on non-threes lately too.

Allen getting more chances to score inside is good too, because it lets her use her great touch to get buckets. She’s also shown lately that she’s capable of putting the ball on the floor:

So, here’s another advantage of playing Allen at the four, which is that defenses have to match slower players up against her, which gives her space to drive. Look: Allen’s not the league’s best ball-handler or anything, but she’s more than capable of getting to the basket when she has space. She’s going to have more space in a lineup like this one than in one where there are two traditional post players inside to clog things.

The other part of Allen’s game that should be addressed is her work on the defensive end.

Allen has a Defensive Player Impact Plus/Minus of 0.56 this season. Zahui B is the only Liberty player whose D-PIPM is higher, and Brittany Boyd is the only other player whose is positive.

Per Positive Residual, the Liberty have a defensive rating of 94.9 when Allen is on the floor. That balloons to 106.4 when she’s off the floor or inactive.

Let’s put that into perspective:

The best defensive rating in the WNBA belongs to the Aces at 93.5. With Allen on the floor, the Liberty are playing like the league’s second-best defense by estimated points allowed per 100 possessions.

With her off the floor, 106.4 is the worst mark in the league.

Now, it’s not that simple obviously, but Allen has the size, strength, and skill to slow down opposing players in a way that some of the other players on this team don’t.

Look, playing Allen more isn’t going to suddenly make the Liberty flip a switch, win out, and make the postseason. But playing her more — especially at the four — will help make things easier for the rest of this team. I’m especially interested in how increased spacing can help the team’s two young wing players, Kia Nurse and Asia Durr. Talent-wise, Durr’s right there at the top of this rookie class, but she hasn’t had many chances to show it yet. More minutes with Allen once Durr’s healthy can help open the floor up for her, which can only be a good thing in the long run.