On Friday night, the New York Liberty won the WNBA’s draft lottery, handing them the No. 1 overall pick in the 2021 WNBA Draft. It’s the second consecutive season that New York has won the lottery. Last year, they used the first overall pick on Oregon guard Sabrina Ionescu, a decision that seemed clear-cut from the moment the Liberty were awarded the pick.
This year, there’s not a clear-cut No. 1 pick, so things will be a lot more complicated. Let’s see what questions are facing New York this offseason now that they know where they’ll be picking.
The Key Questions Facing Liberty This Offseason
New York might have more offseason decisions to make than anyone else. Per Her Hoop Stats, the following players are free agents:
Unrestricted: Amanda Zahui B.
Reserved: Joyner Holmes, Paris Kea
Suspended – Contract Expired: Rebecca Allen, Stephanie Talbot
They also have the following players who are set to return after opting out last year: Asia Durr, Marine Johannès, Han Xu
As I said, lots of questions, and we don’t know the status of New York’s international players to know if they’ll come over this year, though hopefully they do, as both Johannès and Han are exciting young players who bring some fascinating things to the floor.
In addition to all of this, the team will have to figure out which rookies from last year are going to be on the 2021 roster. New York had seven rookies last year; simple math says that there’s no way you fit all those players plus the returning players onto this team and also add whoever you draft first overall.
I think the biggest question facing the team will be the status of Amanda Zahui B. and Rebecca Allen. As Jackie Powell wrote about for The Next, bringing the duo back should be a key for New York. The two play well together, and in 2019 New York’s offense and defense took a step up when Allen and Zahui B. shared the floor. Allen’s a perfect small four for this team in Walt Hopkins’s system. Zahui B. is a perfect stretch five.
But while Allen’s contract is suspended and the Liberty have exclusive negotiating rights with her, Zahui B. is unrestricted, and the Liberty were playing her less at the end of 2020, so I have to say I’m officially worried about Zahui B. returning. If she leaves, the team would really, really need to find a five that fits this system, whether through free agency or their draft pick.
Which brings us to the next point for this offseason: signing a big name big. This is a free agency class with a lot of frontcourt talent. As Owen Pence highlighted in his free agency rankings, players like Candace Parker, Liz Cambage, and Nneka Ogwumike are available. Parker in particular would be a perfect fit, though it remains tough to imagine her actually leaving Los Angeles.
Beyond those three, versatile players who could play the five in this Liberty system like Natasha Howard and Emma Meesseman are out there too. If New York wants to make a big move in free agency, it would probably be for a player who can play that four/five role. (Unless they do something completely unexpected like sign Chelsea Gray and form a Gray/Ionescu backcourt with Layshia Clarendon coming off the bench, which would definitely rule.)
So, yeah — there are lots of questions surrounding the Liberty. Almost more than we have time for in an article geared towards discussing the 2021 WNBA Draft, so let’s move on with the knowledge that a lot of things are up in the air with the Liberty.
The 2021 Draft: A Quick Overview
Before we focus on what the Liberty should do with the first pick, let’s talk about this draft on the macro level.
It’s a weird draft!
Aside from the fact that this draft lacks a clear best player — even if it seems like many are trending towards anointing one particular center as the top option, including me — there’s also the fact that the NCAA’s response to COVID-19 was to give every player an additional year of eligibility, so we may not even know who is in this class until the last second. We think, for example, that Arizona guard Aari McDonald is a lottery pick, but what if she chooses to stay at Arizona for another year in pursuit of a national title? That throws some things into disarray. And then there’s also been some speculation that Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard could graduate early and be part of this class, which would throw even more things into disarray, as she would instantly rocket to the top of draft boards.
But if we take this draft at face value and add in Texas junior Charli Collier as an early-entry candidate, we’re left with a fairly interesting class.
For one, this is a draft that has a lot of solid point guards, but none of them at this moment feel like they could go with the first pick. Aari McDonald leads the way at point guard, though a valid concern with her game is her jump shot. Dana Evans and Tiana Mangakahia are also first round point guards, but none of them really scream “New York should pick her.” This is a good draft for a team in the middle of the first round to need a point guard, though, so if Phoenix is looking for their future at the position in this draft, they can get a solid player.
I know some people around these parts — hi, Ben Dull — are high on Arella Guirantes from Rutgers as a potential option for the Liberty at one, and fellow wing Rennia Davis will be near the top of the draft as well, though she might not bring the shooting New York will want. Both are deserving early picks.
But when it comes to New York, I keep coming back to bigs. I think there are some really intriguing bigs in this draft.
Of course, Collier’s the first name. In one of my other gigs, I cover college basketball in the state of Texas, so I’ve watched a lot of Collier play and have been a fan of her at the next level for a while. She’s had trouble with fouling, but if that can get controlled, her ability as a stretch five who can operate inside and outside makes her a perfect fit for what New York does.
Finland’s Awak Kuier is another option. Maybe more of a four than a five on most teams, she could easily play the five in this system, and while I haven’t really watched her outside of some highlights, she looks like she can be the three-and-D big that Walt Hopkins needs to run his system.
Even beyond those two names, though, there are talented bigs in this class, even if they don’t necessarily seem like players who’ll wind up going at one. Oklahoma State’s Natasha Mack has been all over the place on early rankings I’ve seen — I believe I’ve seen her as high as second and as low as 15th — and she has a great interior game and can be a versatile defender, but she’s not good enough of a shooter to make it all the way up to one unless things change over the course of the season.
But that’s also the weird beauty of this season! We don’t know who’ll actually be in this draft, so even if we’re exclusively looking at the first pick, we have to expand our field of vision more than usual. If everyone declares, Mack probably isn’t in play for New York. But if lots of top players go back for a second senior year, a talented player like Mack or Arkansas guard Destiny Slocum could declare and wind up going much higher than we expect.
So, A Quick Rundown Of Your Favorite Targets For New York
If all things were equal, here’s how I’d rank the prospects if my focus is exclusively on the Liberty and if I assume Rhyne Howard can’t be in play:
- Charli Collier (junior)
- Awak Kuier
- Arella Guirantes
- Rennia Davis
- Aari McDonald
- Natasha Mack
- Michaela Onyenwere
But hey, it’s early. Onyenwere might work her way into being my favorite of these players, or Dana Evans might supplant McDonald as the “well, New York loaded up on the frontcourt in free agency so they’re going to draft a guard” option. Lots will change when free agency arrives. We’ll see what my Liberty draft board looks like in a few months.