New York Liberty: There’s Plenty to Gain Without Sabrina Ionescu

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Fully recovering from an 0-4 start is a lot to ask for, but there are plenty of opportunities for growth and development for the fledgling New York Liberty as they begin the post-Ionescu era.

With nearly every form of newfound franchise stability denied to them in 2020, the New York Liberty at least had the assurance of rookie Sabrina Ionescu playing relatively consequence-free basketball. Such antics would come in the Bradenton bubble, rather than New York’s new full-time home of Barclays Center, but at least her on-court development would be a consistent source of positive news for a franchise desperately seeking one.

It’s unknown what the Liberty did to incur the wrath of the basketball goddesses, but it must’ve been quite the desecration.

In the wake of a hard battle with the Atlanta Dream last Friday, Ionescu was lost to a sprained ankle that’s going to keep her out of commission for the foreseeable future. The first taste of basketball sans Sabrina wasn’t pretty. New York had an admirable effort to finish off the tilt against the Dream but a listless loss to Phoenix was bookended by first and final quarters that saw the Liberty crushed by a 59-23 margin. 

Sitting at 0-4 and faced with a daunting schedule in the Bradenton bubble, some would a call a season that began with promise and hope, a bit of an “ahem” season that would let the WNBA know that they’d be a problem soon (similar to what we saw with A’ja Wilson and Las Vegas in 2018). Now, however, it feels like the season has lost its purpose and direction without the young leader.

However, those in charge on the New York bench aren’t going to let one player’s loss define their season. 

“It’s important to keep everything in perspective with this group,” head coach Walt Hopkins said earlier this week. “It’s important for us to remember how young we are. These moments are going to happen, speed bumps are going to happen. It’s so easy to get into the mindset that the only thing that matters are wins and losses. 

“Everybody needs to keep perspective about the situation that we’re in and understand it’s about more than that. It’s about developing something that’s lasting, it’s about not abandoning the principles that we need to have occur so maybe we can squeeze out a game or two here. It’s important that these young players do get to play in crunch time.” 

Winless and facing new challenges, including Wednesday night’s tilt with Minnesota (7 p.m. ET, CBSSN), the Liberty already face large odds to reinsert themselves into the postseason picture. It’s getting late early in this 22-game slate, but there are still plenty of opportunities for growth and development in a season where there’s nothing to lose.

Season over? Anything but.

Hop on Board

Much like his predecessor Katie Smith (who ironically took Hopkins’ vacant assistant coach seat in Minnesota), the first-year head coach has had to deal with circumstances that some franchises avoid for their entire existence. He’s now left with a roster of six rookies…seven if you count him…struggling to find their place and had to watch his star attraction go down with an injury. The fact he has to navigate this process in season unlike any other somehow faded to the background. 

But Liberty players have renewed their confidence in Hopkins during this unusual, if not interesting, process. 

“Walt’s awesome. We’re patient with him, he’s patient with us. We’re just learning each other,” rookie Jazmine Jones said earlier this month. “Everybody’s getting along great on and off the court. It’s only up from here.” 

Hopkins said during his Tuesday afternoon availability that he has already seen Liberty fans calling for his head and waxed historic poetic about the 2001 Charlotte Sting. The Dawn Staley/Andrea Stinson-led squad began their year with a 1-10 mark but wound up representing the Eastern Conference in the WNBA Finals. 

It might be a stretch for the Liberty to fully pull off the comparison, but Hopkins is looking forward to seeing how the team responds to this new challenge.

“I wasn’t brought in here to turn this team into a championship contender with seven rookies,” Hopkins said. “I was brought in here to develop a culture, develop a system that’s lasting. That’s been the main message to the team. We need to get back to teaching and winning.” 

New York, of course, is a city built on the concept of “if (you) can make it there, (you’ll) make it anywhere”. If Hopkins can make it through this season with relatively little damage, earn a surprise win or two, it could go a long way toward setting the pace for the rest of tenure in seafoam.

Guess Who’s Back

The Liberty will still be able to enjoy the resurgent antics of a first-round pick from a Pac-12 school, though Cal-Berkeley alumna and free agent newcomer Layshia Clarendon admittedly has a few years on Ionescu. 

2020 has been a bit of a resurgent year for Clarendon. Their role at the front of the WNBA’s social justice initiatives should come as little surprise, as Clarendon was at the forefront of such efforts before they entered the mainstream. But if the Liberty earn a few wins, the 29-year-old and oldest member of the Liberty roster can warrant some Comeback Player of the Year consideration. 

Clarendon has reached double-figures in scoring in each of the Liberty’s four games thus far. They’ve also been a threat at the foul line, reaching 20 times over the opening quarter. A dozen attempts alone came in the opening loss to Seattle on tip-off weekend. These silver linings come after Clarendon, a 2017 All-Star, missed all but nine games from last season due to injury. She’s currently on pace for a new career-high in scoring. 

“She’s led us with her aggressiveness,” fellow veteran Amanda Zahui B said. “She’s vocal, she goes hard, and she pushes us. She’s always right there. I’m excited for her.”

Hopkins was planning to use Clarendon in tandem with Ionescu, but the latter’s injury has done little to throw off her balance. A second-quarter stretch in the fourth game against Phoenix was the first minute the Liberty played in 2020 without either Pac-12 star on the floor. Ionescu’s injury will only increase Clarendon’s impact and would strengthen her All-Star return case if we were having such a game. Hopkins said the team would continue to “lean on” Clarendon as the team presses forward in a curious August. 

“Doesn’t matter if shots don’t go in. At the end of the day, we won’t quit. That’s a character thing that we’re continuing to grow in.” Clarendon said after the trying weekend. “We’re not just tough enough. You have to find a way to win in this league. There’s no team in this league that’s successful that isn’t tough. That’s our message for the rest of the season. We got to be tougher.”

The Liberty Three

It’s hard to deny the merits of the Liberty. They’re a team full of high-character athletes working through a trying period. But it’s extremely fair to say…they’re not the Chicago Sky. They’re not ready for championship contention just yet and they can’t chuck three-point shots at their problems and expect them to go away.

The Liberty set a brand of unkind WNBA history on Sunday against the Mercury, missing an Association-record 30 attempts from deep (5-for-35). That came after they missed all 16 of their triple attempts in the first half. 

Hopkins made it clear from his New York arrival that he wanted to develop a strong reputation from the outside. Those plans took a bit of a hit when Rebecca Allen and Marine Johannes each understandably opted to stay overseas in the wake of the uncertainty of 2020. 

“I don’t think the shots we got were bad shots,” Hopkins said of the outside showing on Sunday. “We just didn’t make them…we just couldn’t buy one to start the game…we couldn’t knock them down. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a game where we hit our three’s and we see what that looks like.”

It appears that despite their lack of international flair from deep, the Liberty aren’t  stopping their plans to become an outside-shooting team. But they certainly better make some progress before the year lets out. With expectations perhaps at an all-time low, time’s on their side to right this wrong.

New York Vets

What Ionescu brought to New York was wisdom beyond her years, and that’s not going anywhere while she recovers. ESPN’s Holly Rowe noted that Ionescu was acting as a de facto assistant coach while sitting on the bench during the Phoenix game on Sunday. 

But a new opportunity awaits the Liberty’s core group of veterans, ones who have enthusiastically embraced the moniker of “baby vets”. Kia Nurse, Amanda Zahui B, and Kiah Stokes have struggled from the get. Zahui B has done a solid job gaining rebounds, while Nurse has barely had a chance to regain her 2019 All-Star form, suffering a sprained ankle of her own on opening day. Nurse was able to gain some increased opportunities on Sunday and sank three of the Liberty’s five triples in the defeat. The group knows that they’re going to be relied upon as anchors in what could become an arduous process and they’re looking forward to that challenge now more than ever.

“If someone goes down, it’s always a next woman up mentality,” Nurse said. “We just got to continue to fight…this is a tough league to play in. Every single night is going to be a grind.”

“I think there’s going to be a ton of opportunities for us to really grind out some wins here. That’s going to be a matter of battling and continuing to punch first. 

Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags

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