(Image courtesy of NetsRepublic.com)
Now that they’ve officially beaten their win total from last year, the New York Liberty are off to a hot start. They’ve gone 3-0 in their first three games of the regular season, each game as tantalizing as the last. We’ve seen a game winner, incredible ball movement, and elite leadership from the more experienced players on the team. Last year’s MIP might be this year’s MVP, and the star in Brooklyn is not your usual rookie. Let’s take a look at three prime takeaways from the exciting start for this gritty New York team.
The offense on this team has been a team effort, with the ball making the rounds through different players throughout each game. Betnijah Laney has been the top scorer, averaging 23.3 PPG over these first three games, according to Basketball-Reference.com. The Liberty have been doing a good job of getting her those looks, as seen in the tweet below by Evin Gualberto.
My first @WNBA SLOB breakdown of the season:— Evin Gualberto (@evin_gual) May 14, 2021
The Liberty ran rip action (a back screen normally angled toward the rim) for the inbounder into screen the screener action (STS) to spring Betnijah Laney open. pic.twitter.com/vhbfQHjB46
They also love running the pick and roll, which makes their offence so dangerous. The fluidity and versatility means that Laney is able to get shots in many different situations. Just take a look at her possessions in their second game against Indiana below.
Something to note is that Sabrina Ionescu and Betnijah Laney have been a great pairing, constantly building on their chemistry and playing off of each other.
With a player that attracts as many bodies as Ionescu does, it means a lot that Laney is able to catch those extra passes and finish at the rim. This is also a nice segue into Sabrina Ionescu’s leadership running the offense. We’ve talked about her passing a little, but it is important to realize how crucial this awareness on the floor is.
She takes some time to dribble and run the floor, looking to create a shot. Her playmaking abilities are on display, as she’s currently averaging 6.5 AST per game. Ionescu recorded her first triple double in the WNBA just last night, becoming the youngest player in the league to record one (and in just six total WNBA games played)! Her vision is going to be imperative for this team’s success, and she’s still learning as she goes along. I asked her about this part of her game, and she spoke to still finding the balance between those passes and taking the shot that she gets.
Asked Ionescu about those brilliant passes you see in each game: pic.twitter.com/j3uSyknuTD— Crina Mustafa (@crinamm) May 16, 2021
Ionescu might still feel like a rookie, but she’s quickly gaining traction as one of the most important offensive players on this team. As she plays in more WNBA games and goes up against other teams and matchups, she will start to gain that experience that she missed last year due to injury.
Speaking of experience, let’s talk about Sami Whitcomb. Coach Hopkins called her the “unsung hero” of the group, and she’s been instrumental for this team. Coming off a championship with the Seattle Storm last season, Whitcomb’s been able to bring that veteran presence on both ends of the floor.
Coach Hopkins on Sami Whitcomb: “I think the emotion of hitting the threes, she was more demonstrative [tonight]. I thought she was locked in tonight on both ends. Her effort, energy, and leadership… we really got a good one there.” (Q: @ClassicJpow) #OwnTheCrown #WNBA— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) May 19, 2021
She’s been knocking down shots and getting rebounds, but her defensive effort has been that of a champion. With that, we move on to the second takeaway.
Defensive Identity – It’s There?
Even before games began, during training camp, one thing was emphasized: defense. The Liberty are still waiting for 2019 DPOY Natasha Howard to join their squad, but the mentality has been the same. The addition of DiDi Richards from the draft also contributes to the defensive identity of the team, since she can guard pretty much any position and has a list of defensive accolades herself. DiDi’s minutes have been productive, generating stops and finishing at the rim on the other end of the floor. However, the defensive engagement has not been just one or two players, but a whole team effort.
Kylee Shook is probably the tallest player on the Liberty, standing at 6’4”. This team isn’t very big, but their defensive effort is. Shook has been impressive as a big, finishing with +23 against the Lynx and doing her best to contain her matchups.
Coach Hopkins: “Kylee [Shook] ended +23. She was phenomenal. Syl was vintage Syl tonight. Kylee’s had her hands full for three straight wins. [Sylvia Fowles] had a really nice night, [but] it could have been a massacre.” (Q: @howardmegdal) #OwnTheCrown #WNBA— Myles (@MylesEhrlich) May 19, 2021
The praise for Shook is loud and clear. Her rebounding has certainly helped at times, in addition to her three-point shooting on the other end of the floor.
Another staple on defence has been Sami Whitcomb. Like I mentioned before, she has that championship mentality and awareness, which helps add to the “grittiness” of this team.
So some observations from the first half where the Lynx lead the Liberty 45-43:— Jackie Powell (@ClassicJpow) May 19, 2021
-Sami Whitcomb is an underrated defender. She had 2 steals in the first alone and was a nightmare for Banham.
-The Liberty are outrebounding the Lynx 20-17. That’s wild.
She always makes sure to come and help on a defensive matchup, staying low and with a hand in the face on those three-point attempts. This has proven to be important, especially during shooting droughts. On nights when the offence isn’t what it normally is, that is when the defensive identity shines through to keep them in the game.
Even with this hot start, the Liberty haven’t finalized their roster yet. Becca Allen and Kiah Stokes joined the team recently and they’re still waiting on Natasha Howard. They will most likely need to free up another roster spot to accommodate Howard (see the solution to roster cuts here) after a couple of hardship contracts here and there. There is no doubt that Howard will elevate the level of the team when she gets here, but who do you cut? Several people have pointed out that Layshia Clarendon hasn’t played much yet this year, but they are a valuable backup point guard, and it would be surprising to see them cut loose.
Becca Allen has had a solid start with the team, fitting best on the floor with a combination of Sabrina-Sami-and her.
The options that this team has to score increase exponentially with her on the floor, and that helps when the other team’s defense doesn’t quite know how to stop you.
This has been a solid start for the New York Liberty, and they are really going to be put to the test as they start to face harder matchups. Bright lights, big city, but the Liberty are up to the task. It’s a good time to be a fan and to #OwnTheCrown.
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For more thoughts and opinions from Crina, check out her Twitter.