The Liberty, who entered the night with a 44 percent chance at the top slot, won the WNBA Draft Lottery Tuesday and the right to draft Sabrina Ionescu, the all-time collegiate triple-double leader.
The 5’11” point guard has the potential to be a franchise changer, a fiery teammate and natural leader that could bring the Liberty back into playoff contention. If all goes perfectly, she could even help New York to its first WNBA title.
In this terrific profile, Bleacher Report’s Mirin Fader gets at Ionescu’s day-to-day, chronicling a hard-nosed work ethic that promises this superstar will carry her success to the pros. Coach Kelly Graves of Oregon is a terrific Twitter follow for Liberty fans looking for more behind-the-scenes looks at Ionescu’s preparation. There’s a long college basketball season ahead, though, and many decisions to make before New York is officially on the clock.
LET’S GOOOOO!!!!!???? pic.twitter.com/rInD9Ov3ah
— New York Liberty (@nyliberty) September 17, 2019
According to sportsrac, the Liberty will have six contracts expire this offseason. Four are unrestricted free agents Tina Charles, Reshanda Gray, Bria Hartley and Marine Johannès. There is also one restricted free agent (Nayo Raincock-Ekunwe) and one retirement (14-year vet Tanisha Wright), though hopefully, she can stick around in some capacity.
It’s hard to imagine Charles leaving town: She is the heart of the team and a Queens native who has spent her last six years with the Liberty. While she made her seventh All-Star Game this season, her 16.9 points were the lowest since her rookie year and came while shooting beneath 40 percent for the first time ever. Taking some of the scoring load off her shoulders (or getting her easier looks) will go a long way towards making the 2020 campaign a bounce-back one.
Operating as a high-energy big off the bench, Gray posted a career high 5.2 rebounds to go with her 5.2 points (and 3.3 fouls) in just over 15 minutes a game. She led the team in offensive rebound percentage (13.5 percent) and total rebounding percentage, securing 19.3percent of all boards while she was on the floor.
Although her season started late after the EuroBasket tournament, Hartley finished the year strong and secured a career-high 9.8 points per game. While she had stretches of tenacious 94-foot defensive pressure, opponents capitalized on her in the half court too often.
A flashy rookie who made her way over after Euros ended, Johannès is a walking highlight reel, showing off flashy passes and buzzer-beating stepback threes while also scoring over twenty points in two of her final four games. She had two “perfect games,” going 6 of 6 from the field with four threes in each game.
Raincock-Ekunwe also took advantage of extra minutes down the stretch, hitting double figures only twice, though that occurred in back-to-back games towards the end of the season. She played stronger in said second half, converting more of her paint attempts into buckets.
Six players remain under contract for New York: Rebecca Allen, Brittany Boyd, Asia Durr, Kia Nurse, Han Xu and Amanda Zahui B. Additionally, Kiah Stokes, who missed all of 2019, has already signed a deal to return in 2020 and shore up their defense down low.
After missing over a month in the middle of the season with a broken hand, Allen improved her career averages across the board. She was a lot more aggressive in looking for her shot, and everything clicked on August 13 when she set New York’s franchise record by scoring 20 points in the second quarter.
Boyd struggled, however, losing her starting spot at the midway point. Her win shares balanced out to 0.0, as she was largely a non-factor offensively, though she’s still one of the Liberty’s strongest perimeter defenders. Per 36 minutes, she led the team in turnovers at 4.5 per game, so ball security will probably dictate her role next season.
Durr will hope for a healthier sophomore campaign when the 2020 season starts after playing in just over half of this season’s games before a groin injury hampered and eventually shut her down. At her best, she was able to take defenders off the dribble for mid-range jumpers and run the floor in transition. She shot 55 percent from two, but under 30 percent from three—a number she’ll need to raise next season.
Nurse will return for her third season, after an up-and-down year that saw her named an All-Star starter despite struggles with consistency. In the 19 games prior to the break, Nurse averaged 16.8 points. During the 15 post-ASG contests, she averaged just 11.5.
She did most of her damage on catch-and-shoots, with 75.4 percent of her makes coming off assists (67.5 percent on twos, 84.6 percent on threes). I believe an ankle sprain before the break affected her movement and aggressiveness in the second half, as her free throw attempts dropped from 4.6 to 3.1 per game, and all of her shooting percentages decreased.
Everyone knew the 19-year-old Xu was going to be a work-in-progress when she was drafted back in April. She flashed her potential during limited minutes, showcasing nifty footwork and a consistent jumper both from mid- and long-range. She’ll need to improve her lateral quickness and strength down low this offseason if she hopes for consistent minutes next season.
Her 6.0 total rebounding percentage won’t get the job done out of the center spot; Only guards Tiffany Bias, Durr, Nurse, and Johannès grabbed a lower percentage.
Zahui B had an exhausting year, starting the season in New York before leaving on June 20 to join Sweden for the Eurocup. After the tournament, nightmarish travel luck sapped her effectiveness for a while, coinciding with a west coast road trip that continued to mess with her sleep schedule. The highlight of her season came before all that when she dropped 37 in LA to lead the Liberty to an upset over the Sparks.
Other changes are sure to come, but, the team should look to build on its core of young wings and guards that pushed to the third-fastest pace of play in the W. The team’s largest issue was consistency on defense, as it finished last in defensive rating, nearly two full points ahead of (or behind) the Indiana Fever. (Four of the five lowest defensive rating teams missed the playoffs, with the exception being the Chicago Sky, who countered their poor defense with the league’s second best offense.)
New York’s other self-sabotaging statistic? Turnovers.
The team’s primary point guards—Boyd and Wright—both carried high turnover percentages, at 19.0 and 17.4, respectively. By comparison, according to Her Hoop Stats, in her junior season, Sabrina Ionescu’s turnover rate was 12.4 percent, complementing her 38.3 percent assist rate (ninth in the country) for a 3.18 assist-to-turnover ratio (also good for ninth in the country). Her 8.1 assists per game ranked third nationally.
On September 19, Joe Tsai officially completed his purchase of the Brooklyn Nets and their home, the Barclays Center. Back in May, as reported by Howard Megdal for Forbes, when asked about the team’s current home at Westchester County Center, Tsai said it is “not ideal because the size of the venue is limited by about three thousand seats.”
Tsai went on to say they “want to improve that situation and are exploring all possibilities.”
The Liberty played one regular season game in Brooklyn this season, an 84-69 loss to the Seattle Storm. After the game, Tina Charles was asked about the potential for the team to play there full-time in the future.
“It’s a legendary organization,” Charles said. “This is a professional team. It’s not a shot at Westchester. But this organization is deserving to be playing in an arena the likes of Madison Square Garden and Barclays. It’s more than my personal opinion. It’s what needs to happen.”
From attendance statistics gathered by Across the Timeline, the Liberty has averaged 2,531 fans per game these past two seasons since leaving Madison Square Garden. This season’s average would’ve been much lower if not for the Barclays Center game draw of 7,715, which more than tripled the year’s average attendance. During their 21 seasons at Madison Square Garden, the Liberty brought in 10,780 fans each game.
With a move to Brooklyn, especially touting a franchise-altering number one selection, the current attendance numbers will skyrocket.
Sabrina Ionescu is not the only exciting prospect coming out of college next season, and we’re still a half-year away from the draft, so much could change. Lauren Cox (Baylor), Beatrice Mompremier (Miami) and Crystal Dangerfield (UConn) are all pro-ready.
Whomever the Liberty pick next April will also be the first to ever shake hands with the league’s new Commissioner, Cathy Engelbert, who has enjoyed positive feedback throughout her first few months in charge.
The future is bright for the WNBA, as well as for one of its original franchises.
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.