As the New York Liberty prepare to make their Brooklyn debut, ESM has everything you need to know about their opening day lineup.
New York City-branded basketball being played in New York City…groundbreaking concept, isn’t it?
Following two years of Westchester County exile and a pandemic-induced trip to Florida to compete in the WNBA’s Bradenton bubble, the New York Liberty return to action within city limits on Friday night against the Indiana Fever (7 p.m. ET, YES/NBA TV). With the WNBA celebrating its 25th anniversary, the Liberty likewise celebrate theirs as one of three original franchises that remain in the markets in which they began. Aligned with the Brooklyn Nets ownership group, the Liberty will now call Barclays Center their full-home after two previous decades at Madison Square Garden.
Though the Liberty have yet to capture an elusive WNBA title, they remain one of the league’s most storied franchises, with Tina Charles, Teresa Weatherspoon, Becky Hammon, and Rebecca Lobo being among the legendary faces of basketball to traverse the New York hardwood. The team entered a period of rebuilding, its most recent edition in Florida coming under first-year head coach Walt Hopkins Jr.
The rebuild cratered last season to the tune of a Floridian ledger of 2-20, but New York management was enthused by the moral victories they took with them. Hopkins has established a new order focused on defense and fearless shooting, with the proceedings set to center around 2020’s top overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. The touted Oregon Duck was limited to only three games due to an ankle injury, but positives emerged through other rookies like Jazmine Jones and Leanna Odom.
This offseason, the Liberty made several moves that are set to add to the team’s win total. They signed 2020’s Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney from Atlanta and acquired Natasha Howard, Sami Whitcomb, and their five championship rings among them from Seattle. Such moves caused nearly half of the WNBA’s dozen general manager to label the Liberty as the most improved team heading into Friday’s tip-off events.
The preseason accolades, however, mean little, if anything, to Hopkins:
â€œHow can we be the most improved team when we havenâ€™t played a game?â€ Hopkins rhetorically asked on Thursday. â€œWe still have a lot to prove to ourselves in terms of our capacity now to apply what weâ€™ve been working on the last couple of weeks…â€œYou’re going to hear me as a broken record all year talk about focusing on our day to day and our controllable. You wonâ€™t hear me too often acknowledge expectations as being something that weâ€™re focused on here.â€
Meet the 2021 New York Liberty below…
(*-Unavailable until further notice)
F Rebecca Allen*
Experience:Â 6th season
2019 Stats:Â 7.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG
Allen seems tailor-made to play in Walt Hopkins’ system: she’s a tenacious defender with a sense of fearless shooting, a trait well on display in her most recent campaign in New York. Prior to opting out of the 2020 season, Allen set a record by putting up 20 points in a single quarter en route to a career-best in scoring. She kept up the good work through overseas action in Spain, where she averaged a team-best 11.5 points for Valencia BC.
Hopkins will have to be a little patient for Allen to make her debut, as her extended international endeavors made her a late arrival to the prep for an American title. With the departure of close friend Amanda Zahui B, Allen is now the longest-tenured member of the Liberty, having arrived as a free agent in 2015.
G Layshia Clarendon
Experience: 9th season (2nd in New York)
2020 Stats: 11.5 PPG, 3.9 APG
One of the WNBA’s most outspoken players in off-court issues (sitting on the WNBA’s Social Justice Council), Clarendon was a rarity on last year’s Liberty roster as a player with at least a half-decade of professional experience. Their services in the Bradenton bubble went far beyond simple veteran mentorship, as they put up a career-best in scoring and played a major role in the New York offense when Sabrina Ionescu went down with an injury. It marked a strong return to the court for Clarendon, who was limited to nine games in 2019 due to an ankle injury of their own.
With several new veterans in two, Clarendon will likely serve as a spark and de facto fifth coach off the bench.
F Natasha Howard*
College:Â Florida State
Experience:Â 8th season (1st in New York)
2020 Stats:Â 9.5 PPG, 7.1 RPG
With the Liberty eager to clog up their porous defense (allowing over 85 points per game over the last two seasons), there was perhaps no one better to call than Howard, one of the most fearsome defenders in the Association since her 2014 entry. It cost a hefty price…the Liberty shipped off the top overall pick of April’s WNBA Draft and All-Star Kia Nurse in the three-team deal to obtain her…but Howard, a Hopkins protege during a championship trek in 2017 with the Minnesota Lynx, promises to be well worth it.
Among the accolades in Howard’s packed trophy closet are three championship rings (including one from the bubble as a member of the Seattle Storm), the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year title, and a pair of All-Defensive First Team nods. She’s been a part of three of the last four WNBA championship efforts. It might take a little longer to get back to those levels in New York, but the Liberty’s investments make it clear they want her to play a huge part in that.
G Sabrina Ionescu
Experience:Â 2nd season
2020 Stats:Â 18.3 PPG, 4.7 RPG
It’s a little early to crown Ionescu the face of the WNBA…after all, she only has three games under her belt, having suffered an ankle injury in only her third professional excursion. But the walking college basketball record book is back for what basically amounts to a second rookie season and is dangerously motivated.
While Ionescu’s impact on a national level can’t be fully assessed just yet, there were plenty of tantalizing glimpses of her hardwood heroics on display in her brevity. Notably, she put 33 points in just her second career contest against Dallas (squaring up against fellow Eugene standout Satou Sabally). Time will tell how long it takes for her to regain her elite form, but there’s no doubt that the journey will be watched by anyone with a passing interest in what lies ahead for a league celebrating its silver anniversary.
G Jazmine Jones
Experience:Â 2nd season
2020 Stats:Â 10.8 PPG, 4.1 RPG
Last season, a New York Liberty rookie, chosen at one of the bookends of the all-virtual draft made a major difference in one of the guard roles. She saw her efforts rewarded with a spot on the league’s official All-Rookie team. Unpredictably, however, the player in question was not Ionescu but Jones, the 12th and final pick of 2020’s opening round.
Jones was another player who filled Ionescu’s sneakers, taking over a point guard role she hadn’t played since her high school days at Florida A&M Developmental. She wound up leading all rookies in steals (1.4 a game) and was one of six to earn double figures in scoring. Her energy, constantly captured through the team’s social media accounts, would likely top charts if there was a number able to be attached to it.
F Betnijah Laney
Experience:Â 6th season (1st with New York)
2020 Stats:Â 17.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG
Laney knows a thing or two about making an impact through basketball in the tri-state area. She previously a hoops heroine in Piscataway, where she played under the legendary C. Vivian Stringer, setting Scarlet Knight records in the process.
“Character” has been one of the most prominent buzzwords during the training camp process. Laney more than fulfills that trait through her work in the bubble. Having survived transfers to three different WNBA squads over her first four seasons, Laney broke out as a member of the Atlanta Dream in Bradenton, more than tripling her previous career-best output in scoring. The Liberty would certainly know about her breakout: Laney’s trek toward Most Improved Player honors began when she earned her first career 30-point game in a July win against New York.
F Leaonna Odom
Experience:Â 2nd season
2020 Stats:Â 5.5 PPG, 2.3 RPG
Time will tell, but Odom could wind up becoming one of the most valuable diamonds in the rough to emerge from the bubble. The Liberty’s latest draft pick from last year’s sizable haul (15th overall) developed a notorious reputation as a strong defender, frustrating some of the league’s most notable names, including Diana Taurasi and DeWanna Bonner.
Alas for the Liberty, they’ll have to wait a little bit to see Odom resume her defensive prowess. The team announced on Thursday that she’ll miss tonight’s opener with an Achilles injury.
F Michaela Onyenwere
2020 Stats:Â 19.1 PPG, 7.2 RPG
The Liberty’s 2021 draft class isn’t as plentiful as last year’s group, but talent was certainly not sacrificed in the smaller settings. Their first pick was the former Bruin Onyenwere (pronounced On-yen-way-day) with the sixth overall choice.
Onyenwere has a prime opportunity to contribute immediately to Liberty’s hopeful surge. She fulfills the team’s requirement for fearless shooting, as she departed UCLA as the fourth-leading scorer in program history and tried nearly 200 three-pointers over her final three seasons. But with Howard and Stokes’ debuts unscheduled, Onyenwere could be called upon to make a difference in the interior, as she put up over eight rebounds a game during her sophomore and junior seasons.
G/F DiDi Richards
2020 Stats:Â 6.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG
By every stretch of the basketball imagination, Richards shouldn’t be suiting up for her WNBA debut in Brooklyn. A freak accident in an early practice at Baylor nearly left her paralyzed and she was medically advised to realistically start thinking of career options beyond the hardwood.
However, Richards went to check off another box on the Liberty’s shopping list for character, working her way back and resuming her role as a strong defender. She brings a national championship ring from her sophomore season and three Defensive Player of the Year titles from 2020. Richards more than made up for lost time once the season began, finishing second in the nation with 189 total assists.
F Kylee Shook
Experience:Â 2nd season
2020 Stats:Â 4.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG
Immediately after picking Jones (as well as COVID-sidelined second overall choice Asia Durr in 2019), the Liberty continued to treat UL as a de facto farm team by taking Shook with the first pick of the second round.
Shook deal with a late injury, but has taken on a larger role in her second season. Several of the younger players, and even some veteran newcomers, have praised Shook for helping them get used to the system. With Stokes and Howard’s debut in question and Amanda Zahui B off to Los Angeles, Shook is expected to take on a major role in the interior.
C Kiah Stokes*
Experience:Â 6th season
2020 Stats:Â 6.7 RPG, 1.2 BPG
The only leftover from the Liberty’s “baby vet” dwelling in Bradenton (Zahui and Kia Nurse being the others), Stokes’ status will fluctuate throughout the season, as she’s finishing her international duties while also preparing to partake in Turkey’s EuroBasket plans. However, it’s clear that the Liberty have high hopes for her, signing the long-tenured interior prescience to a new contract before last season ended.
Though Stokes’ should return to being a strong paint presicence with Zahui B now out west, the New York coaching staff was very enthused by her newfound liking for outside shooting. No one embraced the Liberty’s new tenet of fearless shooting like Stokes, who did not partake in any 2019 action for personal reasons. She put up 85 attempts from deep last year after trying only three in the four years prior.
G Sami Whitcomb
Experience:Â 5th season (1st in New York)
2020 Stats: 8.1 PPG, 2.3 RPG
It’s almost somewhat easy for Whitcomb to get lost in the Liberty’s stellar transaction log, but she provides accomplished veteran intangibles through both American and Australian endeavors. Whitcomb was another member of the defending champion Storm (though she did not partake in the championship round due to the birth of her first child) and came over with Howard, with whom she likewise collaborated on a 2018 triumph in the Finals.
Whitcomb is on the shortlist of WNBA stars that already know how to make a difference at Barclays Center: she sank a career-best seven field when Seattle came to visit in the building lone regular season game in 2019.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags