The Liberty Are Showing Promise, Even in Their Struggle

The Liberty’s season wasn’t supposed to start with Sabrina Ionescu, the do-it-all No. 1 draft pick, spraining her ankle in the third game of her W.N.B.A. career. The injury was especially crushing after she had broken out for 33 points, seven rebounds and seven assists against the Dallas Wings just 48 hours earlier. The Liberty’s fans, after consecutive second-to-last-place seasons, had gotten a glimpse of what a potential franchise cornerstone running the offense could look like.

The injury left Walt Hopkins, the Liberty’s first-year head coach, and his team scrambling for answers — again. Ionescu, who left the W.N.B.A.’s bubble in Bradenton, Fla., to have her ankle examined by a specialist in New York, isn’t the only missing Liberty player.

For the 2020 season, the W.N.B.A. gave players the option to stay home because of the coronavirus pandemic, without pay unless they received a medical exemption for being high-risk. For the Liberty, that meant four key players didn’t travel to Florida, including last year’s No. 2 pick, guard Asia Durr, who received a medical exemption after she had Covid-19 in June, and the role players Marine Johannes, Rebecca Allen and Han Xu. As a result, the Liberty entered the season with seven rookies on their 12-player roster, and added the second-year guard Paris Kea after Ionescu was injured.

Through the first eight games of this 22-game season, the Liberty held a 1-7 record, the worst in the league. But there is more to this young team than wins and losses. Here’s why fans who hopped on the Liberty bandwagon after April’s draft might want to stay on board.

All statistics are from before Thursday’s games.

The Liberty haven’t finished in the top half of the league in offensive efficiency since 2010, but Hopkins’ scheme, aimed at spreading the floor, could fix that. It mirrors the offense of the two most recent champions, the Seattle Storm (2018) and the Washington Mystics (2019), who each finished with the most 3-point attempts per game of any team. Entering Thursday’s game, the Liberty were shooting more than both, leading the league at 28.3 per game. That was two more per game than the next-best team, the Wings, and almost nine more per game than the Liberty attempted last season.

Hopkins’ system isn’t for everyone, and he’s slowly figuring out who fits the franchise’s long-term plan. He expects players to shoot when they’re open, and that emphasis is evident. Even the 6-foot-3 center Kiah Stokes, who had attempted just three 3-pointers in the past four years, has taken 28 already this season.

The results aren’t there yet. The Liberty are shooting just 29 percent from 3-point range, last in the league. But that’s largely because of who is (or isn’t) available: Johannes, who’s sitting out this season, was a 38 percent shooter a year ago, Allen is a 39 percent career 3-point shooter, and Ionescu was a 42 percent three-point shooter in college. Six rotation players are still rookies, and Kia Nurse (21 percent from range) is battling through the worst slump of her career. Settling into a new system is going to take time, but the blueprint for success is in motion.

After averaging 8.6 points and 6.3 rebounds per game last year, Zahui B. is improving, averaging 13.4 points and 9.6 rebounds in her last five games. Since taking 2.9 3-pointers per game last season, the 6-foot-5 forward is launching 5.4 per game this season, knocking down 44 percent of them. And it isn’t just her shooting that’s improved. She’s become an asset in every facet of the game.

“We can run things through her when a play breaks down now,” Hopkins said. “Zahui’s going to find somebody or she’s going to create something. That’s a tremendous benefit for any offense to have their 4-player being able to create.”

Clarendon, who was with the Connecticut Sun last season, missed all but nine games in 2019 after a freak injury required ankle surgery. There was no guarantee that the 2017 All-Star, now in their first season with the Liberty, would be able to play this well so quickly.

But Clarendon has been stellar since Ionescu went down, averaging a career-high 13.3 points per game on 49 percent shooting from the field, and 40 percent shooting from 3. They’ve made eight 3-pointers this season already, 10 short of their season-best.

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Credit…Eve Edelheit for The New York Times

At 29 years old, Clarendon is also, somehow, the oldest player on the Liberty, tasked with teaching teammates even as Clarendon is just reaching the prime years of their own playing career. Clarendon has handled that role well, too, teammates said.

“Layshia’s always going to voice her opinion, and she’s always going to put us in the right spots,” forward Leaonna Odom said. “It’s amazing to work with her just because she’s going to tell me if I’m doing something wrong, or if there’s a better way to do it.”

Odom added, “Without that leadership, it could’ve easily gone any way for me.”

Before selecting six picks in the top 15 spots of the 2020 W.N.B.A. draft, Hopkins wrote a 30-to-40-page thesis on how he wanted his team’s offense and defense to work. He wanted players who could guard multiple positions, who were athletic, and who could shoot. Enter the Liberty’s pick at No. 15, Odom, a 6-foot-2, long-armed defensive-minded wing from Duke.

In just eight games, Odom looks like a W.N.B.A. contributor, and she can already check one thing off her bucket list: holding Angel McCoughtry, the veteran Las Vegas Aces star, to just 6 points on 3-of-7 shooting. Hopkins said he texted Odom after that game, saying: “I’ve never seen anybody do that. Let alone a rookie who’s in their fifth-ever game.”

Odom has made a name for herself as an elite cutter too, ranking in the 93rd percentile in points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. When a play breaks down, she knows where to be.

In the two games after Ionescu went down, the Liberty got crushed by the Phoenix Mercury, then lost to the Minnesota Lynx by 26 points. Hopkins and his group aired their frustrations in a four-hour meeting the following day.

Since then, the Liberty have made every game competitive. They beat the reigning champion Washington Mystics, 74-66, and, without a shot clock malfunction, they might have taken the Las Vegas Aces to overtime two days later.

These are all great signs for the Liberty, a team that shouldn’t be expected to rack up wins given its roster turnover and inexperience.

“Rome wasn’t built in one day, and neither were the Warriors,” Odom said, referring to the N.B.A.’s Golden State Warriors, who won three championships in the past five seasons. She added, “It’s going to take time, but I think we’re going to be good.”

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