WNBA: New York Liberty unveil 2021 season schedule

Jazmine Jones, New York Liberty

Just over a month remains before the New York Liberty make their full-time Brooklyn debut, as they’ll battle the Indiana Fever.

The New York Liberty received their schedule for the 2021 WNBA season, which will begin with four games on May 14. New York will battle the Indiana Fever in a Friday night showdown, tipping off at 7 p.m. ET. TV information will be released at a latter date.

This season marks the Liberty’s first campaign as full-time tenants at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, which they share with the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets. It also marks the 25th anniversary for the Liberty, one of the three charter franchises remaining in the league that likewise celebrates its silver season (the others being the Los Angeles Sparks and Phoenix Mercury).

After a tough two-win season in the WNBA’s Bradenton bubble, the Liberty made several offseason moves that have positioned them as one of the more intriguing teams in the Association. A trade involving the top overall pick in Thursday’s WNBA Draft (7 p.m. ET, ESPN) saw them net former WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, additions that followed the signing of former Rutgers star and reigning Most Improved Player Betnijah Laney. New York will also welcome back several rookie-turned-sophomores from their Floridian endeavor, including 2020’s top overall choice Sabrina Ionescu and WNBA All-Rookie team nominee Jazmine Jones.

The 2021 WNBA regular season will run through Sunday, September 19. A break for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo will commence on July 15 and run through August 11. Each of the league’s dozen teams will play 32 games and partake in the inaugural Commissioner’s Cup, an in-season tournament that will conclude with a championship game immediately after the Olympic pause, setting up the final push to the playoffs. Further details about the Commissioner’s Cup and a planned 2021 All-Star Game will be released at a further date.

Among the notable matchups on the Liberty ledger…

  • The Liberty will open their season with a home-and-home series against the Indiana Fever. New York undoubtedly will be seeking revenge for the 2019 opener, when Teaira McCowan’s buzzer-beater allowed the Fever to escape Westchester Counter Center with an 81-80 triumph. The teams will then meet at Bankers Life Field house for a 2 p.m. matinee matchup two days later.

 

  • Youth in revolt will be on full display on May 25, as the Liberty welcome the Dallas Wings to Brooklyn for a battle between the league’s two youngest squads. It will likely feature the first matchup between Oregon standouts Ionescu and Satou Sabally, a get-together delayed by Ionescu’s injury sustained in the early stages of last season.

 

  • The Liberty’s visit to Los Angeles is the only game scheduled for June 20 and it will likely pay tribute to the 25th anniversary of the WNBA’s first game, a 67-57 New York triumph at the Great Western Forum. It will also mark the Liberty’s first meeting with former fan favorite Amanda Zahui B, who signed with the Sparks after five metropolitan seasons.

 

  • Howard and Whitcomb will have to wait to weather the Storm, as the defending champions will visit Brooklyn for a two-part series on August 18 and 20.

 

  • In another happy return, Kia Nurse will return to New York on August 25 in the new colors of the Phoenix Mercury. Nurse, a first-round pick and All-Star in seafoam, was part of the three-team deal that sent Howard and Whitcomb out east.

 

  • The Liberty will conclude the 2021 regular season with a four-game road trip through Minnesota, Seattle, Dallas, and Connecticut before returning home to Brooklyn for their finale on September 17.

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

BREAKING: Three-time champion Natasha Howard headed to New York Liberty

Former Seattle All-Star Natasha Howard is coming to the New York Liberty in exchange for the top overall pick.

Following the signing of Betnijah Laney, New York Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb played coy when asked if the team was finished making moves. He gave a more concrete answer on Wednesday afternoon.

The Liberty announced on Wednesday afternoon that they have acquired Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb from the Seattle Storm in a three-team deal. Howard is a three-time WNBA champion and the 2019 WNBA Defensive Player of the Year.

“We have the privilege of welcoming multiple-time WNBA champions Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb to Brooklyn,” Kolb said in a team statement. “The magnitude of Natasha choosing to be in New York cannot be overstated. She is an All-WNBA talent who has worked for and earned everything that she has achieved, who has contributed to championship runs on multiple teams, and who will fit seamlessly into Walt Hopkins’ system.”

New York bids farewell to the top pick in April’s draft, which went to Seattle, as well as former All-Star Kia Nurse and 2020 first-round pick Megan Walker, who were each dealt to the Phoenix Mercury. The Liberty also sent over a 2022 first-round choice (acquired from Phoenix) to Seattle. They get back the sixth overall pick in 2021 from the Mercury, who also get the rights to Stephanie Talbot from New York. Talbot opted out of the 2020 season after coming over in a draft day trade with Minnesota.

Howard, 29, played a major role in three of the last four WNBA championships with the Storm, who took home the most recent title from the Bradenton bubble last fall. She also captured the 2017 championship with the Minnesota Lynx, working alongside then-Minnesota assistant Walt Hopkins, now the head coach of the Liberty.

After winning the Most Improved Player Award in 2018, Howard earned All-WNBA First Team honors in the following year and also picked up the Defensive Player of the Year title. She has averaged 9.1 points and 4.7 rebounds in her WNBA career, which began as the fifth overall pick in the 2014 draft with Indiana.

“I am very excited to be a part of the New York Liberty organization,” said Howard in a statement. “I’m also excited to meet my new teammates and the fans. I’m so pumped about the 2021 season.”

Howard was previously cored by the Storm, giving the team exclusive free agency rights, but now heads to New York as part of a sign-and-trade.

Also joining the Liberty is sharpshooter Sami Whitcomb. At 32, she is now the oldest member on the Liberty roster. Whitcomb has earned numerous accolades in Australia’s WNBL and was part of the Storm’s last two championship treks. Though born in California, Whitcomb holds Australian citizenship and has earned numerous accolades at the WNBL level. She led Seattle reserves with 8.1 points per game off the bench last season and sank all 22 of her free throw attempts.

“Sami Whitcomb will be an instant fan favorite, not only for her elite shot-making ability, but also for her tenacity and drive,” Kolb said. “A two-time champion in her own right, Sami knows what it takes to win in this league, and is exactly the kind of tough, talented, culture-first player we covet in New York.”

In the process, the Liberty will part ways with Nurse and Walker, each of whom partook in the Liberty’s 22-game endeavor in Florida last year. Nurse was one of the so-called “baby vets” on a New York squad that dressed seven rookies last season, alongside Amanda Zahui B. and Kiah Stokes. Nurse tallied 11.6 points per game last season after appearing in her first All-Star game in 2019. One of the aforementioned rookies was Walker, a fellow University of Connecticut alumna who was chosen ninth in last year’s draft. After missing the first four games due to a positive test for COVID-19, Walker partook in 18 games in the bubble, averaging 3.3 points.

“I would like to thank Kia Nurse and Megan Walker for their contributions to our organization,” added Kolb. “The unfortunate part of transactions such as these is that you have to say goodbye to people who have contributed to the team in so many ways. Kia shone particularly brightly in New York, becoming an All-Star in just her second season in the league. Megan’s rookie season was undoubtedly stunted by a preseason COVID diagnosis, but I have no doubt that she will return to top form in the coming years, and that both players will continue to flourish in Phoenix.”

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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