The New York Liberty have considered a lot of factors in the formation of their hybrid rebuild roster. But one vital tool in their search can’t be found in any box score or analytical chart.
The macabre gift of a two-win season in any professional sports endeavor is that there’s no place to go but up. Decisions on draft night won’t be as tightly scrutinized because any little bit helps in the grand scheme of things.
But the New York Liberty, winners of the aforementioned couple in the Bradenton bubble, obviously had a plan going into the 2021 WNBA Draft. Things were a bit more complicated in the New York war room this time around, after all. Unlike the past two drafts, where a different kind of bounce pass—those of ping-pong balls—paid dividends in the form of Asia Durr and Sabrina Ionescu, the Liberty had to carefully navigate an already unpredictable selection process that kept springing surprises.
New York didn’t control their draft destiny this time around, having dealt their third straight top-two pick (and second straight top overall choice) to Seattle for the accoladed Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb. Unlike the drafting of Ionescu—a move that raised jersey sales, morale, and social media clicks—the blockbuster trade is a move made to immediately impact the most important statistic of all: wins.
Even if Liberty leadership won’t use the word “playoffs” or its synonyms, it’s fair to say that there are at least some expectations packed onto the modern squad and general manager Jonathan Kolb’s “hybrid rebuild” that weren’t there when the bubble was inflated.
Nonetheless, the Liberty’s leadership triumvirate—Kolb, head coach Walt Hopkins, and CEO Keia Clarke—had their work cut out for them in the sixth slot of the 2021 draft board. The luxurious comfort of having Ionescu go number one was gone, replaced by the unpredictability of the modern selections.
But the Liberty had a plan to work with moving forward. Their primary goal was to find defensive assistance after allowing 85.3 points per game over the last two seasons, continuing a journey that started when they traded for multi-champion Natasha Howard and signed Betnijah Laney, the bubble’s Most Improved Player. That further was realized through the sixth overall selection of UCLA’s Michaela Onyenwere, a rebounding machine who held top overall pick Charli Collier in check during round of 32 action of the NCAA Tournament last month.
Along for the ride is DiDi Richards, a Baylor alumna and second round choice who hauls Defensive Player of the Year honors from the Naismith Society and the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association. With the status of the Liberty’s international friends (Namely Marine Johannes and Han Xu, while Rebecca Allen is expected back but not officially re-signed) still in doubt, it’s possible they could both appear on May 14’s roster, when they open against Indiana, a game that will make Brooklyn’s Barclays Center their full-time home.
But the other quality that the Liberty’s leadership has sought in their return to respectability is something that can’t be numerically measured or plotted on an analytical chart. That’s the quality of character, something that’s been spoken about ad nauseum by Kolb since he took the thankless job of Liberty GM as the team’s Brooklyn dreams were only starting to manifest, and there was no foreseeable end to the most drastic rebuilding project in franchise history.
“There’s a lot of talent out there. For us, it always comes down to character…We want really good people playing really good basketball coming in,” Kolb said after the Liberty hit the jackpot at the most recent draft lottery in December. Asked if he would go with a fit or a best player approach, Kolb reiterated that “we draft for fit when it comes to character.”
Hopkins concurred the day before the draft.
“I think that there are a lot of things that we consider, (but) character is really big for us. I think, culturally, the level of competitiveness is huge. We like people that like to get after it on the defensive end,” the second-year head coach said. He further indicated that high character is an essential in the brand of positionless basketball he’s looking to further implement. “Our system, being five out for the most part, (we want) people that can shoot and defend. If they can put the ball on the floor and create a little something, that’s great.”
One look at the Liberty’s character gambit is apparent through a casual glance at the WNBA’s modern endeavors. New York stars have been more than willing to speak their minds and voice their concerns on the modern landscape. Layshia Clarendon was one of the most vocal voices in the league’s “Say Her Name” campaign, while rookie Jocelyn Willoughby has sought a new avenue of education and enlightenment through a book club.
The search for character has applied through on-court work as well. When the team drafted Ionescu with the top overall pick in 2020, the powers that be were most pleased by not her endless list of Eugene-based college basketball records and accolades. Rather, the primary reason Ionescu was brought into the fold was her endless desire to win and her ability to make her teammates better, both vital foundations of the Liberty’s character-driven process.
“I’ve never seen a more engaged, locked-in person, let alone player,” Kolb said. “It’s a pillar, a pillar of what we’re building here.”
“Sabrina is always going to do what it takes to win,” Hopkins added. “I think there are a lot of players who have been really, really good that don’t have the same awareness of that as she does and the same willingness (to say) ‘coach, what do you need me to do? Do you need me to take six charges today? Okay, cool. You need me to play in the post, great.’ She doesn’t care.”
“If you have one of your pillars being that willing and malleable in terms of role on the court, in leadership, in the locker room, you’re going to be in a pretty good place.”
The trend carried on in the 2021 draft. Richards’ status as a grinder isn’t limited to the hardwood; she overcame a potentially career-ending injury in October in a freak practice accident to contribute to Baylor’s tournament run, a sense of perseverance and inspiration that both rookie and veteran can draw from. Onyenwere perhaps officially became a member of the Liberty mere minutes after her drafting when she herself commented on the character caveat in her opening statements as a New Yorker.
New York has laid down and been transparent about many on-court cornerstones and landmarks when it comes to the qualities they’re looking for when it comes to getting back on the right track: they want defensive help, and they want a sense of fearlessness when it comes to shooting, both of which Onyenwere can bring to help her stand out in a roster packed to the brim with young potential.
“I think I got a good glimpse of what the culture was when speaking with Walt in LA a few weeks ago,” Onyenwere said. “When I heard it, I said this is something I can do, to be able to have a communication with Walt. Being a family is what I got from the conversations that we had. I think coming from UCLA, that was also kind of what we focused on. That was our culture, our character, our mission. I think that’s definitely something that attracted me to New York.”
But character has woven its way into Hopkins’ game plan. The comments of Onyenwere, whom Hopkins characterized as “confident but really humble” and others have made it clear that if the Liberty are going to drag themselves out of the basketball netherworld, they’re literally going to do it the right way.
The term has been quoted so often by Kolb and Co. that it could wind up becoming a satirical buzzword beyond New York, fodder for those making memes about just how dire the metropolitan sports landscape has become, and newspeak for a modern basketball society. Some would even argue that it’s almost cliché, even puritanical, to build an entire team around the concept of character. But it’s no longer just a word for Liberty basketball…it’s a way of life.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags