5 ways the New York Liberty can return to the playoffs

Professional sports teams in New York City have endured trying times over the past decade. Last season, the Big Apple’s premiere women’s franchise fell victim to the epidemic of defeat.

The New York Liberty went through the worst season in franchise history, doomed to a 7-27 mark. The ugly ledger was made all the more shocking by the fact the Liberty boasted one of the most prolific records in the WNBA’s recent standings (66-36 over from 2015-17).

Despite the drudgery of 2018, there’s reason for hope in the immediate future for one of the WNBA’s character franchises. Here’s how they can ensure a return to their customary postseason spot….

1. Let the kids play

The Liberty had one of the more eventful draft days. Unlike their male counterparts, they enjoyed a jump up the draft board during the lottery, granted the second overall pick. They used that choice on guard Asia Durr and then the 14th choice on center Han Xu.

Durr has struggled in her first professional experiences as she has shot 4-of-17 from the field over the Liberty’s preseason trio. Smith has been pleased with her defensive efforts so far, but was honest in her first assessments of the Louisville alumna.

“I need to her constantly think: my first option is me. She’ll always make the right read. But I need her to have that mindset,” Smith said after the Liberty’s pair of preseason games at Mohegan Sun Arena earlier this week. “If it’s one-on-one, we need her to go. That’s her job, to be a scorer. We need her to look to score, that needs to be her mindset. Overall, she’s a smart defender, isn’t a liability, but I know we can challenge her a little bit.”

Smith’s blunt comments show a form of tough love toward Durr and potentially foreshadows the big role she’ll hold in the Liberty’s lineup this season. If she becomes the weapon the Liberty envision her to be, they’ll be back on the rise in a hurry. Durr certainly rose to the occasion in the first opportunity after Smith’s words. In the Liberty’s Albany-based preseason finale, she earned 14 points, her first unofficial double-figure effort.

The bigger addition, literally and figuratively, could well be Han, the WNBA’s first Chinese-born draftee since 1997. Over her first weeks as a professional, the 19-year-old has dealt with the type of attention and pressure some players see over their entire careers. She has handled it with charm off the court and performance on it. One could say she’s carrying the basketball future of an entire country on her shoulders. After she helped the Liberty top her former comrades from the Chinese national squad at Barclays Center last week, Han was pleased to report she’s not making the journey alone.

“I definitely have a lot of fun playing basketball with them,” Han said after scoring 19 points in the 89-71 win. “It’s been such a cool experience and they’ve all been so supportive and so helpful to any of the questions that I have.”

If Smith’s comments during training camp are any indication, she’s pleased with the way her rookie crop is looking and expects them to play a big role in the Liberty’s redemption.

“I think (the rookies) know how to play basketball,” she said. “Nothing is overwhelming to them.”

2. Call the Nurse

Rookies may be stealing the headlines, but the true energizer could come from the arms and legs of a sophomore. Kia Nurse had a bit of a roller coaster debut campaign. Her professional career began with double figure scoring in six of her first seven games (including a 34-point showing in a win at Indiana). Afterwards, however, she struggled to gain true traction in the lineup. During an eight-game stretch in July, Nurse averaged only 13 minutes a game. She began to take center stage once all was truly lost by August. To end the season, Nurse played all 40 minutes in the finale at Phoenix (scoring 28 on 9-of-16 shooting). She ended the year fifth in rookie scoring averages (9.1 PPG).

Signs of a bigger prescience have been on display this preseason. Nurse was in the starting lineup and reached double figures in each of New York’s four contests. Her scoring average of 17.3 per game ranked fourth among all WNBA scorers. The departure of Shavonte Zellous likely catapults her to the starting lineup, and she’s taking full advantage thus far. If she keeps it up, she can become a new face of New York basketball.

3. Trust what’s familiar 

New York renovations were primarily made through the draft. Save for the puzzling move of essentially swapping Sugar Rogers for the aging Tanisha Wright, the Liberty’s offseason plans in terms of veteran help centered on retaining familiar faces. Amanda Zahui B. was brought back after setting new personal bests in scoring (7.7 PPG), shooting (50 percent), and three-pointers (21). Fellow returnee Rebecca Allen saw major minutes when injuries decimated the roster and was brought back finishing second in scoring (8.8 PPG) to Liz Cambage for an Australian Opals squad that placed second in World Cup play. Brittany Boyd recovered from a 2017 injury to rank fourth in the league in assists per game (5.3). Interior prescience Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe was invited back after time in France.

In particular, Zahui B. has turned herself into an invaluable versatile weapon off the bench. It’s possible she could be in the starting five with Kia Vaughn not returning.

The artists formerly known as the Tulsa Shock dealt the to the Liberty during the infancy of the Dallas Wings moniker in 2016. A second overall pick out of Minnesota through Stockholm, thrust into a tenuous Tulsa situation, began to rewrite the narratives behind her WNBA career. She believes that a championship trek in Hungary will help her take the next step.

“(I’ve been) playing my game that I’ve been playing overseas and what I’ve been working towards,” Zahui B. said of her preseason. “It’s finally coming together.” She would further mentioned that her “conditioning and speed” improved while in Europe, which comes after she averaged a career-high 16 minutes last season. After missing the Liberty’s victory over China, she went on to play 34 minutes in a preseason tilt against Atlanta, scoring 20 points and earning eight rebounds.

One day prior, Allen led the team with 18 points in a struggle against Connecticut. The Victoria native, described as a tenacious defender by her coach and opponents, was rewarded with appearances in the starting five over the final two preparation games.

That group was each part of the Liberty’s aforementioned regular season monopoly on the Eastern Conference. Clearly, they’re capable of good things.

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4. Board to death

A big problem for the Liberty in their preseason slate has been an inability to gain rebounds off missed free throws. That quandary was prominently on display during last week’s 92-87 preseason loss to Atlanta. The Dream mustered a late comeback thanks to a 13-5 advantage in offensive boards. Missing Kiah Stokes doesn’t help, as the veteran missed the preseason quartet finishing off her commitments in Turkey (alongside Vaughn and active roster member Bria Hartley).

These swings in the rebound margin could quickly turn five-point deficits into insurmountable endeavors. The return of Stokes and arrival of Han could certainly help, as could the return of Raincock-Ekunwe, who set several Canadian college records with his work in the paint.

The Liberty also must learn how to take care of the ball, a task that’s harder than it sounds for a young team. Last season’s experienced squad was charged with 14.7 turnovers per game, the second-worst mark in the league. There will be some growing pains for sure, but if they work things out, the Liberty could be one of the league’s upstart squads.

5. Don’t get distracted

As they settled into their new Brooklyn surroundings, the Liberty insisted that the ownership limbo had no bearing on their historically scary ledger. There are, however, plenty of reasons to be excited under new ownership, especially because a plan is apparently in place to re-establish women’s basketball in the city itself.

But, as a famous NYC icon was once told, with great power comes great responsibility. It’s easy to get swept up in the hullabaloo of the Brooklyn era. That shouldn’t distract the Liberty from the fact they have a job to do.

“(It’s) great for the people in Brooklyn to come and see us for the first time, for the Liberty loyal who are always around,” Nurse said in the build-up to the China showcase. “It’ll be great to put on a show for the first one and then have them come back and see a lot more.”

When it comes to New York sports, nothing draws a crowd quicker than homegrown talent, hyped newcomers, and, most importantly, wins. There’s a chance to generate some early momentum. The Liberty open with a home-and-home against the tough, but rebuilding Indiana Fever. Five of their first six contests are at home, including an 11 AM tip-off against Los Angeles. If they can emerge from that opening stretch with a .500 mark, it can open a new realm of possibilities for a team eager to hit refresh.

on Twitter @GeoffMags5490

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