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WNBA Season Preview: New York Liberty add veterans to youthful roster

The additions of Natasha Howard and Betnijah Laney to an extremely young roster featuring 2020 No. 1 pick Sabrina Ionescu make the New York Liberty an intriguing team in 2021. Is it enough to make the playoffs?

New York Liberty v Atlanta Dream
Sabrina Ionescu (with ball) looks to have an impact in 2021 after a season-ending injury early in 2020.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

The 2020 season certainly did not go as planned for the New York Liberty. The Liberty lost Tina Charles, their star player for the past six seasons, to free agency and 2019 first round pick Asia Durr opted out after contracting COVID-19. However, there was quite the buzz surrounding the Liberty as they selected Sabrina Ionescu as the top pick in the 2020 WNBA draft. In her second game Ionescu contributed 33 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists. Her rookie season was cut short after just three games due to grade three ankle sprain. The Liberty never really got on track and finished with the worst record in franchise history, 2-20.

Potential promise of the Liberty

Veteran experience added to promising youth

The Liberty had an impressive free agency period, signing Betnijah Laney after her phenomenal 2020 campaign where she averaged 17.2 points (up from 5.6 points in 2019). Laney was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player and made the All-Defensive Team.

The blockbuster trade of the offseason saw the Liberty acquire forward Natasha Howard and guard Sami Whitcomb from the Seattle Storm. Howard blossomed into a superb offensive threat and defensive stopper for the Storm. However in 2020, her role changed significantly with the return of Breanna Stewart. Howard’s usage rate fell from 29 percent in 2019 to 21 percent in 2020 and she saw her scoring production halve. Howard should be a top option for the Liberty, giving her ample opportunity to show the league what she is capable of on the court.

Whitcomb was a solid role player for the Storm and will provide some veteran depth to an extremely youthful roster for the Liberty.

New York Liberty v Seattle Storm
Natasha Howard brings championship experience to the New York Liberty.
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Youth development

In addition to Ionescu, the Liberty’s current roster features another nine players who have one year of experience or are rookies this season. Four of those nine (Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook, Jocelyn Willoughby and Leaonna Odom) featured for the Liberty last season. Jones was the bright spot of last year’s rookies as she played around 21 minutes per contest and averaged 10.8 points.

Improvement from those four players along with the development of the 2021 class of Michaela Onyenwere, DiDi Richards, and Valerie Higgins could give life to a team that has just 19 wins over the last three seasons. The Liberty’s second third-round pick, Marine Fauthoux, is not expected to join the team this year but is expected to be a part of its long-term plans.

Onyenwere is a stretch four who could feature as a backup in the No. 3 or No. 4 spots on the floor. Richards proved to be a great defender in college and those skills are be expected to transfer to the WNBA with ease. Higgins is not a threat from beyond the arc but is a consistent scorer from the mid-range and inside the paint. She is in a fierce competition to make a roster that will look to shoot the 3-ball.

New York Liberty v Indiana Fever
Can Jazmine Jones take her game to a new level in her second year?
Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Potential problems for the Liberty


Youth can be a double-edged sword. If players blossom early and show continued development then the team can reach new heights. However, it could take time for head coach Walt Hopkins to find the right mix of players as well as for the young team to figure out how to play against the tough competition of veteran-led teams in the WNBA.

The Liberty’s combination of second-year and rookie players have questions surrounding them concerning their development and ability to fit into the offensive system that took 602 threes last season.

The learning curve in the WNBA is quite sharp as the league is filled with some of the best basketball players in the world. Despite the new veteran faces, the returning players were a part of a team that went 2-20. An optimistic view is that the young talent of the Liberty could make the jump while pessimism may say that the Liberty are in the basement yet again. The answer depends almost wholly on the development of the talented but inexperienced players on the Liberty’s roster.

3-point shooting

The Liberty took the second most 3-point shots in 2020 at 602. However, they were just sixth in made 3-point shots and last in 3-point shooting percentage at 27.7 percent. Looking at just the 3-point shooters, the return of Sabrina Ionescu should help significantly in the Liberty’s ability to consistently make shots from beyond the arc.

Outside of that, the arrival of Natasha Howard should help to create space for New York’s shooters.

The Liberty do not currently have any bonafide 3-point shooters who played the full 2020 season for them but will be hoping that their returners show improvement from last season and that their rookies bring in improved long-ball shooting from their college careers.

Playoff prospects

The Liberty are a long shot to make the playoffs. Their goals this season should be focused on player development and improved execution on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor. If the Liberty can win 8 to 12 games this season, they could be favored to make a playoff push in 2022.