A rare remnant from the New York Liberty’s last glory days, Rebecca Allen, who made her 2021 debut this week, could be the key toward unlocking more.
Detractors of the New York Liberty’s “hybrid rebuild” could argue that the team appears to be cashing in on the tropes and cliches of great sports movies.
The project is overseen by a first-time head coach in Walt Hopkins Jr., who brought over an experienced mentor in WNBA staple Shelly Patterson when he took the Liberty job after three years with a winning program in Minnesota. A team of youngsters found moral victories through camaraderie and spirit. When things hit rock bottom in the form of a two-win season in the Bradenton bubble, they went out and convinced some high-profile names—namely Natasha Howard, and Sami Whitcomb, with their five championship rings, in addition to Betnijah Laney, Florida’s Most Improved Player—to come play with them.
Rebecca Allen’s arrival signifies another sports movie staple: the weapon and tools to succeed were with them the whole time.
On Sunday afternoon, Allen stepped onto a WNBA court for the first time in 616 days, playing 15 minutes in the Liberty’s 73-65 victory over the Indiana Fever. By all accounts, it was as if the “Spida” from a Land Down Under had never left, picking up where she left off during her most recent American campaign in 2019 with her fearless shooting and tenacious defense.
For Walt Hopkins, a head coach whose system relies on those two tenets, one word floated through his mind in the aftermath: finally.
“It was so odd to see her warming up, moving around, being a part of it, because it’s something we’ve thought about and talked about for so long,” Hopkins said. “Having Bec even, even a Bec who doesn’t really know the offensive or defensive system yet because she really, she shouldn’t, how could she, it was really fun. It was really fun to see her out there and you can absolutely see even early on the effect that she’ll have on this team.”
Allen has carried the lack of hesitation over from a 2019 season that saw her set a new career-best in scoring (7.2 a game). Though she hit only 1-of-6 shots in Indianapolis, her tenacity was on full display through rebounding. She established herself in the paint to haul in five boards and help the Liberty almost completely erase a drastic rebounding disparity that somewhat marred their opening night victory. New York needed Betnijah Laney/Sabrina Ionescu heroics to escape from New York with a 90-87 victory after the Fever earned a 22-5 advantage on the offensive glass. Indiana also won the overall battle of the boards by a 48-25 margin.
With Allen in the lineup, the Fever were limited to nine offensive rebounds and only won the overall battle by two (40-38). The process was duplicated when the Liberty returned home to take on the Minnesota Lynx on Tuesday night. Allen is still working on finding her shooting touch (going 1-for-6 from the floor), but her physicality was on display through three more rebounds, a block, a steal, and five trips to the foul line in the 86-75 triumph. It was part of a Liberty effort that outrebounded Minnesota 40-36, which included 11 tallies from the legendary Sylvia Fowles.
“For her to come in off the plane and have the impact that she did was huge,” Laney, the Liberty’s leading scorer, said on Sunday. “Once she gets her legs under her and everything and gets comfortable in the system she’ll be really great for us.”
“It’s great to have like-minded players on the court because we can do a lot of different things, mix things up,” Laney continued. “I’m excited to have her as a part of the team now for her to get back in.”
One should perhaps never boil the current exploits of the Liberty (3-0) down to the efforts of a single player. The casual fan/observer gravitates toward Ionescu, but Laney (25 PPG over the first three) is doing her part to change the middle initial to V in her Most Improved Player award from Bradenton. Jazmine Jones could perhaps power all of Brooklyn and Tribeca with her energy, while Michaela Onyenwere and DiDi Richards have become fan favorites. This is all before defensive standout and three-time champion Natasha Howard makes her debut in seafoam.
But Allen could be the one who truly gets this Hopkins system rolling and taking legitimate steps toward what he and his staff are trying to build.
At first glance, some could view Allen (and fellow sixth-year Kiah Stokes) as a relic, a painful reminder of both the Liberty’s last glory days and the nomad experience that led them to Westchester County. The Liberty eradicated most of these nostalgic pieces—such as Tina Charles and Amanda Zahui B—in steps on the “hybrid rebuild” plan, leading to the seven-rookie lineup in the Bradenton bubble, whose affairs Allen watched from afar while at home in Australia.
Yet, despite the promise of the young newcomers, Allen kept a space in the minds of the staff and roster. Hopkins, in particular, would never hesitate to drop her name in Bradenton and Allen confirmed that the head coach would text her after games to gain her perspective.
“We miss her. Her length, her energy, her shooting ability, everything about her,” Hopkins said prior to a 30-point loss at the hands of the Lynx last August. “Her 43 percent from three would be welcome in this system.”
Allen says her experiences in Manhattan, Westchester, and now Brooklyn will come up huge as she plans to utilize a healthy mix of what she learned in each of her professional stops in her efforts to help fully realize the Hopkins system, primarily through her defensive play.
“Defense is something that I’ve worked on very hard over the years, as I’ve sort of been gifted with long arms and being athletic,” Allen said in a self-assessment. “So I’ve got to play to my strengths as well, and I feel like within the defensive structure of this team it’s perfect [for]playing to your strengths and absorbing what I’ve learned from past years and then bringing it to the table here.”
A few conversations with Hopkins more than adequately explain why he counted down the days until Allen made her metropolitan return: she feels like a player who was specifically trained to play in the system he and his assistants are trying to build.
Allen had positive reviews for her first go-around in Hopkins’ sets. Not only was she pleased with what the system could do for her, but she was also excited for the new teammates around her.
“The offense is a really fun one to play in,” she said. “The ball is moving around, we’re learning to read from each other rather than playing such strict sets. It’s definitely the sort of offense that I enjoy to play, with the ball moving a lot. Defensively, we’re seeing how interchangeable we can all be so it’s very good.”
In her most recent American season, Allen displayed the type of fearless shooting that Hopkins cherished in Florida, an endeavor that culminated in a jaw-dropping 20 points in a single quarter. The opt-out from WNBA play was anything but a full-time absence for Allen, who has made a name for herself internationally through victorious stops in Poland and Spain, recently re-upping with her Valencia squad after leading the team in scoring.
“To resign there was sort of a no-brainer for me but it also really helped me,” Allen said of her Spanish experience. “Playing off the on ball, not just settling for the three-point shot, you’re getting to the rim doing floaters. It’s been a place where I’ve been able to advance my game for sure.”
Things are drastically different from the last time Allen adorned herself in seafoam. After the release of Reshanda Gray, not a single player remains from Allen’s last full-time roster of teammates (Stokes sat out the 2019 season for personal reasons). Even the mascot is someone new, with Ellie the Elephant replacing long-time Liberty staple Maddie.
But one thing that hasn’t changed is Allen’s work ethic. Armed with a system that she could’ve designed herself, the change of venue and personnel has done nothing to deter her infectious personality and work ethic.
“There’s a lot that we had to cope with, with changes, but then ultimately you’re an athlete, your job is to perform on the court,” she said. “Regardless if you’re playing at Westchester, whether you’re playing here in Barclays, you still got to show up, and I found that was a really big thing about everyone that I played with. We’ve been showing that level of professionalism every single time.”
“It has been a journey for me and I’m pretty proud to say that I’ve been with New York for that long and it’s a club that I’m very very proud of.”
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags