Determined to finally rise from the ashes of the WNBA cellar, the New York Liberty now face a most interesting free agency period.
The New York Liberty have sowed their post-Madison Square Garden rebuild for three years now. But after three years at or near the bottom of the WNBA standings, they’re really to start reaping.
Three months after the Bradenton bubble was deflated for the last time, the Association’s free agency period unofficially opened on Friday, with its twelve teams now permitted to negotiate with their own free agents, as well as Restricted and Unrestricted Free Agents. Deals and offer sheets can officially be signed on February 1.
Trapped in the midst of a three-year playoff drought, the longest in franchise history, the Liberty have picked some strong-long term contributors during their stay in hardwood purgatory. These additions go far beyond the high-profile arrival of Sabrina Ionescu, as the team has also welcomed in All-Star Kia Nurse and 2020 All-Rookie team representative Jazmine Jones through the draft, while veteran leader Layshia Clarendon arrived through free agency last season. More recently, the Liberty hit the jackpot at the WNBA Draft Lottery for the second straight season, as they earned an early Christmas gift in the form of the top overall pick at this spring’s upcoming draft. Additionally, the Liberty gained franchise stability through new management. Brooklyn Nets owner Joseph Tsai purchased the team in 2019 and was ready to move the team into Brooklyn’s Barclays Center before current events enforced a delay.
These decisions and steps forward have done little to atone for the fact that the Liberty have endured some brutal seasons in recent years, with things more or less plummeting in a 2-20 record inside the bubble. The Liberty went through most of last season without Ionescu and veteran contributors like Rebecca Allen, Asia Durr, and Marine Johannes, using seven rookies over the course of the enclosed season. With the veterans set to return, the Liberty will have some major decisions to make when it comes to these young players.
In the lottery aftermath, Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb made it clear that the 2021 season would be one that could at least begin to right the ship while developing some of their younger talents. Kolb labeled this modern endeavor a “hybrid rebuild”.
“We have a really exciting opportunity to kind of have a hybrid rebuild if you will,” Kolb said. “We can be super competitive right now while bringing along the future of the Liberty down the road. So that’s what we’re going to try to do. We have a plan, and we’ll see how it goes. Time will tell.”
“I think the most exciting thing is, we’re in position to do something. We’re positioned cap-wise, flexibility-wise, that if they’re interested in coming to New York, we’re in a position to capitalize on it.”
Based on numbers from Spotrac, the Liberty have just over $467,000 to spend through free agency.
ESM has you covered with what you need to know about the Liberty’s transactional future as the process gets underway…
The Liberty have re-upped with one of their free agents thus far.
C/F Kiah Stokes
Stokes was set to become a free agent but inked a one-year contract extension just before the Liberty’s season finale in September. After sitting out the entire 2019 WNBA season due to personal issues, Stokes returned to America with a newfound propensity for shooting the three, putting up 85 attempts after only three in her first four seasons. She sank only 20, but her newfound confidence from beyond the arc was inspiring to head coach Walt Hopkins.
“Stokes has been a rock for this group in a lot of ways,” Hopkins said in September. “In spite of her going through what has to have been the most difficult mental season in terms of being uncomfortable, when you’re uncomfortable, you’re able to grow.”
“As this season went on, it was quite clear Kiah Stokes needed to be a part of what we’re doing,” Kolb said after her re-upping. “She enables us what we want to be and helps us be what we want to be.”
As a first-round pick from 2015, Stokes also presents a rare form of experience on the current New York roster.
The Liberty have no players with the core or unrestricted designations.
Reserved players are those that have three years or less of WNBA service. Their current teams have exclusive negotiation rights.
F Joyner Holmes
After the Liberty endured their veteran opt-outs, they brought in Holmes, a 2020 second-round pick from Seattle. Holmes averaged 2.9 points and 2.7 rebounds in 19 games off the bench but left her mark on New York history by tying a Liberty rookie record with 13 rebounds in a September tilt against Phoenix.
G Paris Kea
A former draft pick in Indiana, Kea was signed midseason once it became clear that Ionescu was out with a long-term issue. She made the most of her opportunity, averaging 6.9 points over 11 contests (five of which she started). The Liberty recently announced that Kea underwent knee surgery for an injury she sustained while playing overseas in Israel. Her 2021 status is uncertain, but she is expected to make a full recovery.
Unrestricted free agents are permitted to sign with any team, except if they been bestowed core status
C Amanda Zahui B
Another New York veteran, coming over in a 2016 trade with the defunct Tulsa Shock, Zahui B emerged as a leader on and off the court last season. The rookie surplus looked up to her as an inspiration, while she used her platform to bring attention to social causes away from the hardwood.
Zahui B set career highs in nearly every major category this season, including averages of 9.0 points and 8.5 rebounds, but with Stokes’ return confirmed and collegiate interior threat Charli Collier potentially up for the top pick, it’ll be interesting to see what becomes of the Stockholm native’s future.
Players with expired contracts but opted out of the 2020 season can negotiate exclusively with their current team
F/G Rebecca Allen
Allen opted out of the 2020 season in the wake of the ongoing health crisis, but was routinely mentioned by Liberty representatives over the season. Hopkins, for example, never hesitated to mention just how much he missed having Allen in his debut lineup.
“She’s got a tremendous skill set and she’s got a rare mix of characteristics in that she’s about 6’2 and she’s really long and she’s deceptively athletic to go with her ability to put the ball on the floor and get fouled and shoot the three at such a high level,” Hopkins said earlier last spring. “That’s really the type of player we absolutely need for this system to work and we’ve got one built-in already. On top of that, she’s a phenomenal person.”
F Stephanie Talbot
Talbot has yet to make her New York debut, having arrived through a draft night trade with Minnesota. Allen’s fellow Opal (a member of Australia’s national squad) likewise opted out but kept busy in her homeland’s top women’s league, earning first-team all-WNBL honors alongside WNBA All-Star Liz Cambage. Talbot previously worked with Hopkins when the latter was an assistant with the Lynx in 2019.
Outside Names to Watch
F Natasha Howard, Seattle
In her brief WNBA time, Ionescu found her shooting prowess rather quickly, scoring 33 points in only her second contest. If the Liberty were able to get another experienced interior threat, similar to what Ionescu had at Oregon with fellow 2020 draftees Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard, it could help her get even more comfortable with the WNBA game.
Howard has had her experience working with game-changing point guards in Seattle, namely Sue Bird. With a pair of All-Defensive First Team nominations, she would also give the Liberty some much needed defensive pointers, as New York has finished no better than ninth in points allowed in each of the past three seasons (including a league-worst 84.3 per game in 2019). Hopkins (as well as assistant Shelley Patterson) has also worked with Howard in the past, as the two previously collaborated on the Lynx’s 2017 run to the WNBA Finals.
F Nneka Ogwumike, Los Angeles
Both Kolb and Hopkins have preached about the value of high-character players representing New York, and it’s hard to find anyone more accomplished on and off the court than Ogwumike. The current Spark and future Space Jam: A New Legacy star is current in the midst of her second term as the WNBA Players Association president, with Clarendon serving as the second-in-command. WIth WNBPA headquarters situated on Sixth Ave., New York could be an attractive option to Ogwumike from both a basketball and business standpoint.
Both Howard and Ogwumike have core designations, but something can still be accomplished through a sign-and-trade deal.
F Emma Meeseman, Washington
Stokes’ newfound propensity to shoot from deep perhaps best personified Hopkins’ vision of playing positionless basketball where participants are confident from any area of the floor.
That more or less has been the story of Meeseman over the past few seasons, as she has fulfilled a variety of roles under Mike Thibault. She played it to her advantage during the 2019 WNBA Finals, coming off the bench to swipe series MVP honors after skipping the previous 2018 season to represent her native Belgium in the FIBA World Cup. Though Washington struggled without Elena Delle Donne last season, Meeseman set a new career-best with 4.5 assists per game.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags