Europe-bound Amanda Zahui B will be missed in New York

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Amanda Zahui B. can’t wait to represent her country in Europe. The responsibility comes in bittersweet fashion, as she’s hitting her stride in New York.

For over a decade, New Yorkers have watched Swedish superstar Henrik Lundqvist carry a local sports team to victory. Amanda Zahui B of the New York Liberty needs a few years to catch up to the New York Rangers goaltender, but she’s begun her reign in showstopping fashion.

The Stockholm native has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the young WNBA season. Thrust into a consistent prescience in the starting lineup for the first time in career, the 25-year-old center has likely played the best basketball of her career. As the young Liberty try to work their way back up to the WNBA’s loft, Zahui B has made the journey a little less arduous upon her entry into the primary five. Over her past five games, including New York’s first three wins of the season, Zahui B is averaging 16 points  and 8.3 rebounds. Among that tally is a 37-point output in a win over Los Angeles last weekend.

“I think Zahui, from last year to this year, she’s challenged herself to crash and be a rebounder every single possession,” head coach Katie Smith said earlier this season. “I think it takes an extreme amount of energy to crash on every possession…she’s creating a lot of havoc on both ends.”

Having started each of the Liberty’s nine games thus far, Zahui B has made herself a staple. Entering this year, she started only one in four prior seasons. None came last year, but Zahui B nonetheless enjoyed a breakout in becoming a silver lining in the Liberty’s franchise-worst 7-27 campaign. She set careers bests in scoring average (7.7) and three-pointers (21) in that season. Through the aforementioned nine, she’s shattering her career-bests in almost every major category.

Bringing Zahui B back through free agency was a no-brainer for a Liberty squad that many would describe as rebuilding. Smith mentioned prior to the team’s Wednesday matchup with the Chicago Sky that it wasn’t just for her on-court exploits.

The young Liberty locker room offers a wealth of personality, and Zahui B has one of the biggest minds and biggest hearts. For example, when Han Xu scored the first basket of the team’s Brooklyn exhibition against China at Barclays Center, Zahui was the first to celebrate.

“”It’s phenomenal, what she’s done on the court. (But) off the court, it’s her positivity, and always bringing everybody along,” Smith said. “So that, on top of the playing, will be missed. What she’s bought both on and off. She’s had a phenomenal year.”

Alas for New York, that phenomenal year will continue in Europe.

Zahui B is one of numerous WNBA stars traveling overseas to partake in the FIBA Women’s EuroBasket competition. She will represent the Swedish national squad and is one of four Liberty representatives that will appear in Serbia and Latvia.

Her discomfort with losing Zahui B aside, Smith is pleased that the tournament is getting a strong voice and competitor.

“”It’s not fun to lose her, but I’m happy that she’s able to go over there and be able to compete.”

Speaking after Wednesday’s game, Zahui B was feeling the same way. She can’t wait to don her homeland’s jersey, eager to change the narrative behind Swedish basketball. The national squad has yet to reach an Olympic tournament and this upcoming EuroBasket appearance is just their second since 1989.

“”I’m so tired of saying ‘we’re happy to be here’. No. We’ve earned the right to be here. We’re going to go out with a bang,” she said. “I’m trying to get a medal. I’m trying to get to the Olympics. I want to grow as a leader. My role is very different with the national team and I have to take on a larger leader role. Just represent my country in the best way possible.”

But, with this new power comes leaving familiarity behind. While Zahui B’s farewell is more of a “see you later” than a true farewell, her bon voyage “party” was still emotional.

Wednesday’s game failed to land in the Liberty’s favor. The visit from the red-hot Sky never truly got out of hand, but Chicago nonetheless took a 91-83 victory away from Westchester County Center. Zahui B was a silver lining  in defeat, earning a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds.

The personal triumph was of no consolation.

“(Leaving) sucks. I didn’t want to leave and I don’t want to leave with a loss,” she said. “I’m upset we didn’t get the win today and leave on a better note…but I know (the team) will keep pushing. We learn pretty quick and trust the process.”

After Zahui B moved on to her European goals, humorous antics from her teammates, ones Zahui B would likely engage in if she weren’t holding court with the media, ensued.

As Zahui B spoke with reporters, her locker neighbors Tiffany Bias and Rebecca Allen playfully argued over who she’d miss more. Two slots down, Brittany Boyd begged her not to go with a smile. Zahui B couldn’t help but do the same as the scene played out.

“I love them to death. Every single one of them. I really love this group,” Zahui B said of her teammates. “The people who came in this year, Tick (Bias), Han and Asia (Durr), they’re my babies and I just love them.”

Needless to say, Zahui B is very confident in her teammates’ chance of keeping up their relative momentum while she’s overseas. She’s set to depart on Thursday, as the Swedes open against Montenegro on June 27. The final is currently slated for July 7, the last of a six-game stretch for the Liberty back home. Reshanda Gray is expected to enter the starting lineup (an assignment where Zahui B predicts Gray will “bust butt”), while Han and Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe are expected to see an increase in minutes.

Making Zahui B’s departure all the more personal is the fact that she’s been able to reclaim her career’s narrative in New York and establish a professional basketball home. One of the last remnants of the Tulsa Shock, Zahui B seemed destined to never being able to fulfill her 2015 second overall pick billing. Thanks to New York, she’s slowly but surely on her way, with an dispensed to her loyal faith.

“God put me in this situation where I get to do what I actually love,” she said. “So I’ve got to glorify Him and be as positive as possible.”

In the unforgiving world of professional sports, ew can make two cities proud in the same season, never mind two whole countries. It’s a good thing she’s never been one to back down from a challenge.

“I’m starting and I have to take ownership of that role. I’m considered a vet, officially my 5th year, so I have to play like one,” she remarked earlier this month. “I haven’t been in the typical second pick role in this league. I dont shy away from it. I trust God through it all.”

on Twitter @GeoffMags5490

 

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