A surprising streak has the New York Liberty thinking about big 2019 things. But, with EuroBasket competitors set to return, who will stick around?
With great (potential) power, comes great responsibility.
One of the more pleasant surprises of this developing WNBA season has been the New York Liberty. Coming off a franchise-worst 7-27 mark in 2018, the young 2019 edition got off to an 0-4 start. New York, perhaps stabilized under new ownership led by Brooklyn Nets minority owner Joseph Tsai, have won four in a row, evening their slate to 7-7. If the season ended today, the Liberty would be hosting a playoff game in the fifth seed of the first round. Of course, the league’s roller-coaster, tight-packed nature could have them in 10th by the time the weekend ends, but it’s certainly a positive development for a team many saw as rebuilding.
The most shocking part about the recent victories is that the Liberty have earned their way back to respectability with a severely undermanned roster. Four players have absconded to Europe to compete in FIBA’s EuroBasket Women’s competition and another is out indefinitely. Half of the European group (Kiah Stokes and rookie Marine Johannes) is set to return and make their WNBA season-debuts. The others (Amanda Zahui B and Bria Hartley) were well-established veterans contributing to the early-season efforts.
The Liberty’s new issues are certainly ones other teams wouldn’t mind having. EuroBasket ends with its championship final on July 7. Two questions remain: can the Liberty keep this up, and who will be around to help the cause?
15 women are currently listed on the Liberty roster. The EuroBasket quartet and injury to Rebecca Allen (hand fracture) allowed them a hardship addition. They would use that slot on Avery Warley-Talbert. Smith has acknowledged that the hardship slot would be temporary, so Warley-Talbert will likely be the first to go. Even with Allen’s injury, two spots would need to be cleared up.
There are some obvious women who are safe on the roster. Potential All-Stars Tina Charles and Kia Nurse are obviously not going anywhere, nor is second overall pick Asia Durr. Starter Brittany Boyd is also good to go, while the EuroBasket group and Allen more than likely won’t lose their jobs due to unforced absences.
The Unthinkable Interior Situation
Let’s get the hardest scenarios out of the way first.
With Stokes and Zahui B returning, the biggest questions may lay in the Liberty paint. One of the biggest energizers of the Liberty resurgence has been Reshanda Gray, who took over Zahui B’s spot in the starting five. Described by head coach Katie Smith as the “last” woman to make the roster, Gray hadn’t partaken in a regular season game since 2016. She went on to reach double-figures in scoring in each of her first three games off the bench. She has used Zahui B’s departure to her benefit. She has earned 44 rebounds over the past New York quartet, coinciding with this win streak.
A spectator during this stretch has been Han Xu, the touted second-round pick from China. Han has struggled to develop a role in the New York rotation, having been held out of the past three games entirely. Save for 16 minutes in a lopsided loss in Las Vegas, she has yet to play more than 11 minutes in a game this season. The coaching staff remains committed to finding her place, but it’s still a bit of a disappointment for the player labeled as the possible “Yao Ming of the WNBA”.
Releasing either is not ideal. Gray’s play has certainly earned her a right to stay, as her breakthrough has been a catalyst. Despite Han’s lack of time on the court, Liberty personnel on and off the court view her as a project. It seems unthinkable she would be released after the hype and excitement behind her drafting, but, then again, the same could perhaps be said about Megan Gustafson’s original Dallas fate.
If it comes down to releasing one of the interior threats, it’s possible they could try to wrangle a draft pick out of a board-hungry contender. Their most recent opponent from Phoenix perhaps could inquire. Gray had 10 rebounds in Friday’s 80-76 win.
International Women of Mystery
Back in March, Smith was at least prepared for the possibility of the rookie Johannes spending the season in her native France. By the time opening night arrived, she was more confident that Johannes would join the team in July (and that camp roster winner Tiffany Bias was keeping her spot warm).
If Johannes’ French options open up, it’s possible she could spend the year there to make things a bit easier on the roster. The same option could present itself with Han in China. If that happens, the Liberty would have to place a player on the suspended list and allow the international slate to works itself out.
Veterans Being Difficult
An offseason trade for the aging Tanisha Wright (which essentially brought in Wright for the Vegas-bound Sugar Rodgers) raised a few eyebrows. But Wright has proved herself to be a strong bench commodity. After a few failures to enter due to coaching decisions in the early stages, she has since recovered to make her mark on the statsheet. She had a season-high five assists and sank the winning free throws in the Phoenix win after reaching double-figures two days prior in Seattle.
Second-year player Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe sat out all of last season to play internationally, but was re-signed this spring. Nurse’s fellow Canada native struggled to crack the lineup in the early stages, but has since helped picked up Zahui B’s rebounding slack. Notably, Raincock-Ekunwe was a +12 off the bench during the win in Seattle.
It was easy to see Wright and Raincock-Ekunwe as expendable after early no-shows. But, like the women in front of them, they’ve played their part in this mini-resurgence. Trade options could once again hold true. To again bring up the Mercury, they could use the services of Raincock-Ekunwe, she of several Canadian college rebounding records.
On Twitter @GeoffMags5490