Betnijah Laney grabs a miss off the glass and immediately pushes upcourt. She looks for a teammate, but the defensive lanes have been filled; instead, she kicks to the right wing for a trailing Sami Whitcomb. Having been burned by her three-point shooting several times already, the practice player closes out hard to Whitcomb, who pump-fakes and drives past him. Two more defenders await her in the paint, so she spins and passes back out to Laney at the top of the key. Almost before the 2021 All-Star catches the pass, Laney is swinging it again, right back to the three-point notch on the elbow that Whitcomb has just vacated. AD (formerly Asia Durr), who has returned to basketball after two years of battling the effects of long Covid, is waiting in triple threat. Without hesitation, they rise and fire, holding the left-hand follow through. Swish.
It’s day two of training camp, and the New York Liberty are already looking smooth in transition, running the floor, attacking and replacing. Along the baseline, Jocelyn Willoughby cheers the basket, following the scrimmage intensely.
The 2022 training camp has shed some of the roster bloat of years past. For comparison, this year began with just 14 names competing for a dozen spots, as opposed to the 19 listed a year ago. Some of that is due to the aforementioned male practice players, who were worked back in midway through last season after vaccine distribution had become more prevalent and cases were ticking down. Their presence allows the coaching staff to rotate players in and out, while also giving them the opportunity to watch offensive sets develop without needing to play defense.
Another contributing factor—and this is significant—is that this roster is deeper than it has been in a long time. With the exception of second-round pick Lorela Cubaj, everyone competing to make the cut has WNBA experience.
That includes both AD (illness) and Willoughby (torn Achilles), both of whom are working back from extended absences.
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) April 27, 2022
Winsidr spoke with both AD and Willoughby about their recovery processes and how it felt to return to WNBA basketball.
AD’s road back to basketball has been anything but smooth. Since announcing they’d been cleared to return to play, AD has been in the gym upwards of five times a week. “I’m taking it one day at a time,” they said. “Some days, I feel great. Some days, I push hard, and then I feel it at nighttime, but I’ve definitely made a lot of progress from November 2021. So I just take that and it continues to push me. I don’t get too high or too low, because this is really a process. One day, I will be on it… so I just keep on going.”
Lots has changed since AD last played with New York in 2019. They missed the two-year Hopkins-era rebuild, along with the first season of Brooklyn basketball. The roster has nearly turned over completely, with Han Xu (who also hasn’t been with the team since 2019) and Bec Allen being their only remaining W teammates. Kylee Shook, a teammate during AD’s time at Louisville, is another familiar face; AD said that she talked to Shook “quite a bit” during the bubble season, “just to make sure that she knew that I was there for anything that she needed.”
How, after two years away from the court, can AD complete their comeback and earn a coveted spot on New York’s roster? “Just being myself, knowing what I do best and doing it well. Being a team player, making plays, whatever [Coach Brondello] needs me to do. I love transition. We all love to run and we love to play.”
The coaching staff has taken notice. Any concerns about conditioning have already been squashed. “For someone that’s been out for two years, [AD’s] got it,” said Brondello a few days into training camp. “They’re in great shape, they’re aggressive. AD doesn’t look like they have any fear.”
“AD is a phenomenal person,” assistant coach Zach O’Brien said in a clip released by the team. “They are someone who wants to get better. AD is constantly asking questions and engaging with the coaches to see where they can learn more and progress in their journey.”
“[AD’s] a freaking great story,” teammate DiDi Richards said. “It’s insane to see them back on the court, and I was one of the people that didn’t believe they’d be able to make it back. So, seeing AD out here is just humbling for me.”
There’s much more to AD’s game than just the inspirational comeback story, of course. The former second overall pick is a dynamic scorer that can help the Liberty capitalize in transition. Despite playing with the second-fastest pace in the league last year, the Liberty ranked just 10th in fast break points. In their rookie season, according to Synergy, AD ranked in the 79th percentile in transition scoring, averaging 1.239 points per possession (PPP).
New York’s lack of size down low was a major reason why they rarely leaked out for easy baskets last season, as their guards needed to help crash the boards as the undersized Liberty bigs boxed out. The signing of Stef Dolson this offseason, coupled with Xu’s return and the draft addition of Cubaj, will likely help New York end possessions more conventionally in 2022.
“We have a great balance,” AD said. “We have people that can make plays. We have people that can make shots. We have people that can drive and kick. We have people that can score great in the post. So, I think it all balances out.”
The last time Willoughby took the court in an official WNBA game, the Liberty were finishing up their 2-20 season down in the Bradenton bubble. “[Even back in 2020,] there was intention behind the roster,” Willoughby said of that team’s struggles. “It was just more of a learning curve. There was a lot of newness, and so we needed to learn and work through that.” Despite inconsistent minutes, the 10th pick out of Virginia showed flashes that excited the Liberty front office. That enthusiasm grew as, following her rookie season, Willoughby continued to build out her skill set with Israel’s Petah Tikva. There, she averaged 20.9 points per game (PPG) and 8.1 rebounds per game (RPG), finding a balance between her physical attacking style (which earned her 6.3 free throws per game) and long-range accuracy (an impressive 43.3 percent on a hefty 5.0 three-point attempts per game).
Willoughby’s constant composure, coupled with her strength and coachability, had her in line for a larger role in 2021, especially with Allen’s late arrival opening up minutes for a stretch-four. Then, suddenly, her sophomore season was over before it began. In a closed preseason scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun, Willoughby tore her Achilles tendon, sidelining her for the entirety of New York’s debut campaign in Brooklyn. That starting forward position, likely earmarked for Willoughby, instead went to Michaela Onyenwere, who took full advantage of the opportunity and ran away with the Rookie of the Year award.
Now, Willoughby is back and ready to impress this new coaching staff. “The biggest thing for me was getting healthy this offseason. Now that I am healthy, I’ll continue to work and grow and expand my game,” Willoughby said. “I did have a lot of growth over the offseason, [but]I didn’t get to show that to everyone because I was injured. Now it’s just a matter of getting back to that and getting beyond that.”
Richards, who has had to work back from her fair share of injuries, is happy to have her back in the huddle. She believes Willoughby has had a strong understanding of the recovery process. “Jocelyn’s been using the word patience. That’s the biggest word whenever you’re coming back from an injury. It’s having patience and understanding your body: it’s not the same and you have to work for it to be the same. Everybody gets their wake-up call, and the wake-up call [for me]was getting on the court and seeing that you just have to work at it and you’re not the same off rip. So honestly, the only advice I would give to people is be willing to build back up. Be willing to be on the ground to go back up.”
On Tuesday evening, the Liberty traveled back up to Uncasville for this year’s preseason scrimmage against the Sun, nearly a year after Willoughby’s devastating injury. This time, she got through unscathed. There’s power in that: in facing WNBA competition again where you last went down, in walking off the court you couldn’t last time. For Willoughby, there have been many steps in this recovery, and Tuesday night may have been the biggest one yet.
This level of competition in camp is already paying dividends, Whitcomb told reporters last week. “There’s something really special about bringing in the core group you really need and maybe having only one or two competing for the final spots. It keeps it close-knit, so we’re really building those relationships we’ll need throughout the year.”
With healthy reserves extending Brondello’s bench, New York Liberty fans should prepare themselves for a roster that will truly run a dozen deep.
Note: This offseason, AD adjusted their pronouns on social media to they/them. All quotes have been updated to reflect that change.