ESM’s New York Liberty free agency preview 2021

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…

Resolved

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.

Core/Unrestricted

The Liberty have no players with the core or unrestricted designations.

Reserved

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

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.

Suspended/Expired

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

 

Joyner Holmes history not enough for New York Liberty

Joyner Holmes led a stellar day off the bench for the New York Liberty, but another tough loss awaited nonetheless.

Rookie history wasn’t enough to keep the New York Liberty away from another tough loss as their WNBA bubble experience comes close to popping.

Joyner Holmes became the first New York rookie to register a double-double with at least 13 points and 13 rebounds, but the Phoenix Mercury countered with a season-best 30 points from Skylar Diggins-Smith en route to an 83-67 victory in Bradenton. Phoenix also enjoyed 15 points from Shatori Walker-Kimbrough and 13 rebounds from Brianna Turner.

“I knew I had to show up for my teammates in general. I think I did a pretty good job of that tonight,” Holmes said. “I really enjoy (the coach’s system). We just got to find our spots and keep moving. We can’t become stagnant, because that’s when we take possessions off. But, in general, I think the system is really good, especially with the players that we have. We can get good shots.”

The theme of growth continued in another loss for the Liberty (2-16). New York shot 4-of-32 from three-point range but Hopkins was pleased with the team’s lack of resistance to shoot with open looks. He made it clear that he was unwilling to trade instant wins for future development through his offensive gameplan.

“We’re generating so many good looks. There’s so many good looks from three,” Hopkins said. “Our percentage wasn’t stellar, and it’s gotten worse. But the thing we’re trying to get to here is a way to determine how to get those looks when we do have our fresh legs and shooters in there. They’re really doing a great job creating these shots. They’re just not dropping.”

“The fact they’re staying confident and continuing to shoot those shots is great. It’s frustrating to not make them. I’m as frustrated as anybody that they’re not going down. But I’m also probably more proud than most people because they’re sticking with it. That says a lot. They’re sticking with the system on both ends.”

Saturday’s effort was helped by the bench. The Liberty scored 42 off the bench with Holmes reaching double figures with Kia Nurse (11) and Jazmine Jones (10). New York’s bench efforts became necessary after further tough injury breaks. Starter Paris Kea was forced to leave the game in the first quarter after

Holmes took center stage in the fight, making team history in the process. By the end of the third quarter, Holmes’ rebound tally of 13 tied a New York rookie record previously set by DeTrina White back in 2004. Her matching point and rebound tallies were good for career-highs. Holmes was originally drafted by Seattle in the second round of April’s draft and joined with the Liberty after her release.

The historic rebounding effort headlined a strong night on the boards overall. New York had a season-high 21 rebounds, led by six from Jocelyn Willoughby (who had a career-high nine rebounds total. Yet another rookie, Leaonna Odom, had seven rebounds and earned strong reviews for the defensive job she did on Phoenix’s legendary shooter Diana Taurasi. With Odom covering her, the WNBA’s all-time leading scorer had only nine points, her first game under 10 since July 29.

Phoenix (12-7) used efforts from former Liberty representatives to their advantage. Walker-Kimbrough was originally part of the Liberty’s haul from Washington in the trade that sent Tina Charles to the nation’s capital but she was later dealt on draft night for the rights to Willoughby. Bronx native and former Liberty first-round choice Kia Vaughn had 12 points to go with eight rebounds. The Mercury are currently fighting for one of the WNBA’s top playoff spots and currently sit a game-and-a-half out of fourth place, which would net them a first-round bye. Saturday’s loss officially eliminated the Liberty from playoff contention.

The Liberty begin their final stages of the bubble endeavor on Tuesday night against the Los Angeles Sparks (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports Go/CBSSN). Los Angeles previously took a 93-78 decision on August 11.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty: Walt Hopkins speaks after first day of practice

From the courts at IMG Academy, New York Liberty head coach Walt Hopkins and two of his proteges spoke after the first day of workouts.

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Back in the lab #LibertyLoud🗽

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Most New Yorkers abscond to Florida to relax, maybe even retire. The New York Liberty are doing the exact opposite.

Two weeks from Saturday, the WNBA will commence its 24th season of operation at IMG Academy in Bradenton. By the end of this weekend, each of the league’s dozen teams will have made the trip south and the Liberty officially got things rolling with their first organized workouts.

Hopkins spoke with the media afterward, enthused by the first on-court happenings. Counting Hopkins himself, the Liberty feature seven rookies on their roster, not counting ninth overall pick Megan Walker (who has not reported to Florida after testing positive for COVID-19). That group is headlined by top overall selection and queen of the NCAA triple-double Sabrina Ionescu. If videos shared by the Liberty’s official accounts are any indication, it appears that Ionescu is already forming a rapport with All-Star teammate Kia Nurse.

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@kianurse x @sabrina_i, get used to it 💥🗽

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Day 1 done. 🎤 🔥

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“It was a really good first day,” Hopkins remarked in a Zoom teleconference. “Having young legs, having people who aren’t used to what the WNBA normally looks like, this is an experience for them no matter where we’re playing or what the conditions are. It’s been nice. The energy has just been so positive and the older players on the team have really been good in terms of bringing them along and really being supportive. We have a great group.”

Hopkins takes over the Liberty duties after three seasons as an assistant with the Minnesota Lynx (ironically, former Liberty head coach and Naismith Memorial Hall of Famer Katie Smith took Hopkins’ seat on the Lynx bench). He hails from Brooklyn, where the Liberty were set to christen Barclays Center as their new home arena before the pandemic forced the league to form the bubble at IMG.

Save for losing his voice in crowded surroundings, as the Liberty’s competition is likewise preparing, Hopkins is pleased with what he’s seen in the so-called “Wubble”.

“It could be a consequence of having more than half the team be rookies, but they don’t look like rookies,” Hopkins said. “They don’t like scared or have the blank look on their face when you’re trying to explain an action or they don’t understand terminology. I think (thanks to) the lead-up that we had, discussions with our quarterback club and Zoom meetings, and things like that, the familiarity with what we’re doing has been really high. We’ve been able to dive right in.”

The feeling was mutual amongst Hopkins’ freshest newcomer, Joyner Holmes. A Texas alumna, Holmes was added to the team after reserve forward Rebecca Allen opted out of the 2020 proceedings.

Holmes explained that Hopkins and his rapid approach to the game was one of the biggest things that attracted her to New York. She was originally chosen in the second round of April’s draft by Seattle (19th overall) but was let go in the first series of roster cuts to ensure players would receive their full salaries.

“The coaching staff, for me, was a really big plus,” Holmes said. “I like Walt a lot. He’s really free-range and willing to let us do whatever, try to follow his system. That was a really big target for me.”

“I wouldn’t say I’m surprised by Joyner’s skillset because she got to show it off a bit at Texas,” Hopkins added. “She’s really skilled. She really does have guard skills for her size (6’3), she can play multiple positions, guard multiple positions. She’s an eager learner, has totally bought in and responded to anything we’ve needed. We’re really excited about her.”

Along for the ride is a select handful of veterans, including center/forward Kiah Stokes. Things are just a little bit different since Stokes last wore the Liberty’s brand of seafoam green. Stokes is returning to WNBA action after taking a year off from New York exploits for personal reasons. Having last donned the Liberty colors in 2018, Stokes will be joined by only two comrades from that squad. She’s particularly close to both, as she’ll be reuniting with Nurse, a fellow champion from the University of Connecticut. Stokes will also be manning the interior with center/forward Amanda Zahui B.

The all-time leading blocker in WNBA history only turned 27 in March but is the second-oldest member of the modern Liberty behind free agent addition Layshia Clarendon (29). Stokes said she will be embracing her role as a new team leader.

“I’m looking forward to it. Me, Zahui, and Kia kind of joke about it, we’re the vets now, though we’re pretty young,” Stokes said with a smile. “It’s crazy to think how much our team has changed already. But I’m really looking forward to it. I think it will help push me to become a better player, a better leader.”

Along with Clarendon, Stokes is also a rare member of the Liberty who has experienced the joy of the WNBA Playoffs. In her rookie campaign of 2015, Stokes was the heroine of an Eastern semifinal, win-or-go-home matchup with Washington, sinking the layup that put the Liberty ahead for good and blocking the Mystics’ attempt at tying the game on their final possession.

“I think this is going to be a fresh start. When I came into the league, we were pretty good and then we kind of had a falling off. But I think this is just a brand new start. We have the opportunity to make a statement. Such a young team can grow together, build together and I think that if we all just buy in and work really hard, we can become something really, really special.”

The WNBA season is scheduled to open on July 25.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

New York Liberty add rookie Joyner Holmes to complete roster

The New York Liberty added the Texas alumna Holmes to cap off their 2020 roster after Rebecca Allen opted out earlier this week.

In a shocking twist, the New York Liberty somehow got younger.

New York’s WNBA squad added their seventh rookie to their roster on Friday in the form of Joyner Holmes, The move comes less than 24 hours after veteran Rebecca Allen announced she would not partake in the league’s potential “bubble”-based season at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida.

Holmes was chosen by the Seattle Storm in the second round (19th overall) of April’s WNBA Draft. Hailing from Texas, Holmes averaged 11.1 points and 7.5 rebounds over four years in Austin. She opened her final season in Austin with seven consecutive double-doubles (earning 27 overall during her four seasons as a Longhorn) and appeared in three consecutive NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournaments. Holmes appeared on the Big 12’s First Team in her freshman season (where she also took home the conference’s top freshman honor) and later earned honorable mentions in her junior and senior campaigns.

Holmes’ most notable Austin moment perhaps came in the second round of the 2017 NCAA Tournament. In the late stages of a one-point game against North Carolina State, Holmes drew an offensive foul before putting in a missed rebound to clinch the Longhorns’ ticket to the Sweet 16 via an 84-80 win.

Prior to her Austin arrival, Holmes made a name for herself as a McDonald’s All-American and as a member of the 2014 FIBA Under-17 Women’s Basketball World Cup’s All-Tournament team, representing the United States. Among her teammates in that endeavor in the Czech Republic were new Liberty teammates Asia Durr and Sabrina Ionescu.

Holmes was available after getting cut by Seattle when WNBA rosters were required to cut down to 12 players last month. She joins the young New York stable that includes each of their six draft picks, a group headlined by Ionescu, the top overall selection. Standing at 6’3, Holmes can provide some of the length and defensive prowess that Allen took with her back to Australia. New York was relatively low on interior help after sophomore center/forward Han Xu opted to stay overseas during the May cutdowns, joining fellow international representatives Marine Johannes and Stephanie Talbot.

The WNBA is currently planning for a 22-game season to be held in Bradenton. Their 24th season of play was originally slated to begin in May but was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. An uptick in cases in the Sunshine State have played a role in several other notable names opting to sit out, including All-Star Jonquel Jones of the Connecticut Sun and LaToya Sanders of the defending champion Washington Mystics. The season’s delay likely prevents the Liberty from making their full-time debut at Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags