The 2021 WNBA season is set to resume following the month-long Olympic break. What are three big questions facing the New York Liberty in the second half?
Is Sabrina Ionescu healthy?
Sabrina Ionescu got off to the kind of start you’d want to see from your 23-year old No. 1 Overall Pick. Through the first six games of the 2021 WNBA season, Ionescu averaged 17.8 points, 7.8 assists, and 6.0 rebounds. She accomplished the youngest Triple-Double in WNBA history (her sixth CAREER game) and was demonstrating her prodigious talent on a successful 5-1 New York Liberty team. Sabrina Ionescu was living up to the hype and quickly becoming a star in the league.
Despite Ionescu’s hot start, an ongoing ankle injury has cooled her down. In the last ten games before the Olympic break, she’s been restricted to an average of only 22.7 minutes a night. In that time she’s scored 6.6 points, 5.0 assists, and 5.0 rebounds per contest. Sabrina has been unable to consistently flex her muscles with the nagging injury slowing her down.
When Sabrina is on the floor, she excels with her elite court vision and precision passing. On that bad wheel, she can still facilitate the offense, but she has backed off from scoring and driving to the basket herself. After attempting 11.2 shots per game in her first nine games of the season, that number has dropped to 6.1 shots per game since. With Sabrina taking less shots and scoring less points, the Liberty have struggled.
Ionescu’s health is the Liberty’s single most important factor in their push for the playoffs. Will Sabrina be back at full strength to begin the second half of the season? Has the month off rested and strengthened that ankle to the point where she is no longer on a minutes restriction?
If Sabrina is healthy enough to return to the player she was during the first six games of the season, the Liberty should have no problem making the playoffs. But, if her ankle injury continues to linger and she doesn’t play at full capacity, the Liberty may run into some problems.
Can Betnijah Laney lead the WNBA in scoring?
Betnijah Laney won the 2020 Most Improved Player Award and somehow has improved even more in 2021. Without Laney this season, the playoffs wouldn’t even be an option for New York. Laney has taken her scoring to another level, currently averaging 19.0 points per game which is enough to rank 7th league-wide. She’s also 4th in the WNBA in total points behind Tina Charles, Breanna Stewart, and A’ja Wilson. Laney has 398 points compared to Tina Charles’ league leading 447 points.
It’s not outrageous to suggest that quite possibly, maybe, Betnijah Laney could overtake Charles in the race for the WNBA scoring title. Charles has scored only 49 more total points than Laney so far. If Ionescu continues to take a backseat on offense, the majority of the scoring output will continue to fall onto Laney.
Laney opened up the 2021 season with eight straight games of 20+ scoring. She has scored in double digits every game this season except one, where she scored 8 points. Laney is wicked efficient, shooting .541 from 2PT and an overall .485 FG%. Laney averages 14.7 shot attempts per game and somehow makes 7.1 of them. To the eye, it seems like she makes practically every shot she takes.
Tina Charles has been having one of the best individual seasons in WNBA history, but with 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne making her return to the Mystics, Charles will have to share the scoring output. Charles will most likely have to take less shots and her scoring may decrease when she starts sharing the rock with Delle Donne. This gives Laney a decent chance to lead the WNBA in scoring in 2021.
Are the Liberty a playoff team in 2021?
Since Sabrina’s injury, the Liberty have hit a wall. After starting the season 5-1, the team has gone 5-10 and now sit with a record of 10-11. After their 2-20 record last season, the Liberty have clearly demonstrated some massive growth in 2021. But, it’s hard to feel certain about the overall quality and strength of this Liberty team. The way the Liberty were playing before the Olympic break, they look like an easy first round opponent for any playoff team.
The Liberty enter the second half of the season occupying the 6th seed in the league. However, the 9th place Dallas Wings are only a game behind the Liberty. The makeup of the standings can change drastically in only a week or two of playing. The playoffs are certainly not a lock for the Liberty, who’ll need to play better down the stretch to hold on to their spot.
The Liberty begin their second half with three games against playoff teams- a game against the Minnesota Lynx and back-to-back games against the Seattle Storm. If the Liberty drop all three games (which is extremely realistic), they’ll sit at 10-14 and making the playoffs will begin to feel like a stretch goal.
In their final eleven games of the season, the Liberty will play only two games against teams not currently holding playoff seeding. It’s a rough road, but the Liberty will need to win some games against playoff-caliber teams if they want a shot at the postseason.
Fortunately, the Liberty will have 2019 Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard back to full strength. The Liberty have struggled with their lack of size, currently last in the WNBA in offensive rebounds and 10th in total rebounds. Howard should provide some muscle down low in the paint and give the Liberty one of the best centers in the WNBA. Howard is a massive addition to the roster and is a huge determining factor in how viable New York can be in the second half.
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Photo Credit: New York Liberty Twitter