The 2019 FIBA Women’s EuroBasket tournament shouldered its way into the first third of the WNBA season, borrowing players with national commitments from June 27 to July 7 (with some, like the Mystics’ Emma Meesseman and Kim Mestdagh, leaving earlier to prep with their squad, or others delaying their season’s start entirely).
The top six teams punched tickets into one of four qualified tournaments for the 2020 Olympics. Mercifully, the Euros are in the rearview now, and teams are returning to full strength.
No team was hit harder than the New York Liberty, who had four contracted players overseas.
Washington was the only other team missing more than one (the two aforementioned), and four teams—Connecticut, Indiana, Las Vegas, and Seattle—had no participants. With this impending return, the Liberty had to trim the roster, cutting guard Tiffany Bias and big Avery Warley-Talbert.
Image courtesy of High Post Hoops, graphic by Kimberly Geswein
Additionally, returning Kiah Stokes actually, well, is not returning, choosing instead to sit out the season for personal reasons. Each of the three can make an impact for the 7-8 Liberty, who currently sit a half-game out of the playoffs, behind four teams with .500 records.
Amanda Zahui B
I have to admit, I was terrified about what would happen during the six games Zahui B missed while she was repping Sweden overseas. She had just been hitting her stride, with the highlight being her 37-point performance in a thrilling back-and-forth game against the Sparks. She continued that roll, nearly averaging a double-double during the tourney.
In her absence, the Liberty secured their first four-game win streak in years (bookended by losses), even though they were outscored 75.8 to 74.7 during that stretch. Zahui B’s return (after an arduous journey back home) is huge for the Liberty’s depth, as it allows Reshanda Gray (7.5 points and 8.8 boards during her absence) to return to the bench and bully opposing second-teamers in short spurts.
The team’s spacing will also get a boost, with Zahui B’s prolific three-point shooting allowing the team to better spread the floor.
Speaking of spacing, French rookie Marine Johannes has the potential to help the Liberty in that area. Her EuroBasket highlight reel boasts athletic finishes, confident shooting and a pretty no-look pass.
The Liberty are currently in a three-way second-place tie for pace, courtesy of basketball-reference.com, with both Kia Nurse and Asia Durr excelling in the open court.
Too often, the half-court offense gets stagnant, with large stretches ending in a Tina Charles isolation: shooting a jumper or fadeaway hook over a double team. Johannès’ ability to create and attack, while also having a jumper that demands respect, could bring more fluidity to the offense.
Also making her return, Hartley logged only five games before playing alongside Johannès for France. The sixth-year pro has been solid throughout her first two-plus seasons with the Liberty, but might find her minutes more limited.
Nurse, as a sophomore, has emerged as the team’s second best player and potential all-star at 16.0 PPG—TBW’s Ben Dull is doing a deeper dive into her recent exploits soon—and Durr has acclimated well to the W, proving herself to be an efficient scorer. Hartley is a steady veteran, though, and her presence only deepens the team.
These additions are coming at a good time for the Liberty, as they ready for a Friday night trip to Chicago to take on the Sky, one of the four teams holding a half-game lead on New York. he road has been kind to the Liberty, who boast a 5-3 record away from the tiny Westchester County Center.
Chicago has been slumping of late, losing four of five, but beat the Liberty 91-83 on June 19 in their only meeting so far this season. However, Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot is again leading the league in assists and will try to repeat her 25/8/6 performance from the last head-to-head with New York. She’ll push the ball in transition and attack the rim, alongside Diamond DeShields and her 14.4 PPG. Much of the Sky’s half-court success comes from sets in which Vandersloot breaks down the defense and kicks out to their shooters.
The primary beneficiary is perennial three-point champ Allie Quigley. She’s adept at coming off screens or sneaking away from weak-side defense, as evidenced by her absurd catch-and-shoot numbers. She’s currently shooting 48.6 percent from the field on three-point attempts while taking five shots per game, and her previous game is the first in the past nine where she hasn’t hit double figures.
The Liberty will need to make their presence felt on the boards, as they lead the league in offensive ‘bounds and are second overall. The Sky are middle of the pack, but Stef Dolson and Jantel Lavender both clean the glass for the starting five, and Gray will have her hands full boxing out second-unit Cheyenne Parker and her 17.7 total rebound percentage.
Following that game is another road contest versus another .500 team: the injury-riddled Seattle Storm. Despite losing 2018 MVP Breanna Stewart for the season to an offseason Achilles injury and missing Sue Bird as she recovers from knee surgery, that team has kept its head above water behind Natasha Howard. However, they’ve also lost four of five since losing Jewell Lloyd to an ankle injury (including a nail-biting 84-83 loss to New York last Wednesday).
Lastly, voting for the All-Star game finished up Tuesday night. The Liberty hope to send two players to Vegas to represent this season: Tina Charles and Kia Nurse.
Charles, a six-time All-Star, is currently second in scoring (18.8 PPG) and fifth in rebounding (8.4 RPG). Nurse, looking for her first selection in her second season, is seventh in scoring (16.0 PPG), tied for third in made threes (34), and third in free throw percentage (91.8%). Once ballots are counted, I’m optimistic these two will bring some seafoam green to Sin City.
Myles Ehrlich is a TBW staff writer from Brooklyn, NY. He has been writing since childhood when it passed the time better than rolling scenery and folk CDs on family road trips. He legitimized his passion at New York University and The Writer’s Foundry MFA. His work has been published with Castings, MASH Stories, and flashfictionmagazine.com. When not writing, Myles is usually playing, watching or reading about sports. His east coast WNBA fandom resides with the New York Liberty; his west coast with the Las Vegas Aces.