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New York Liberty Notebook, Volume 1: “Any win is a 10 out of 10”
New York gets back in the win column, but questions still remain
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This season hasn’t exactly gotten off to the best start for the Liberty. In fact, that’s putting things pretty lightly. With a 2-7 record, they’ve found themselves near the bottom of the WNBA standings, tied for the fewest wins in the league with the Minnesota Lynx and Phoenix Mercury (!!). After a victory against the Fever on Wednesday to snap a lengthy losing streak, New York somehow still has the seventh-worst net rating in league history (second-worst ever before the win so there’s progress!).
With injuries to Betnijah Laney and DiDi Richards among others, New York’s been forced to make adjustments on the fly. Also, they’ve had to adjust to a new head coach on the sidelines in Sandy Brondello. Other teams across the league are missing players so we can’t take the Liberty’s rough start with a grain of salt, but they haven’t exactly been dealt the best hand.
Nevertheless, the team hasn’t thrown in the towel. They’ve competed endlessly, learning what works and what doesn’t and attempting to establish an identity on the court. As the calendar turns to June, the Liberty find themselves with some ground to make up and another obstacle in their path. So, in the debut of my new series, I’ve identified a few storylines of note as we reach one-fourth of the season’s completion. Let’s get started!
Betnijah Laney’s surgery marks yet another setback
On June 1, the Liberty announced that Laney underwent surgery to repair her meniscus, an operation that will sideline her for eight weeks as she works to get back on the court. As one of only five players in league history to average 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists in a season, she was phenomenal last year. I mentioned in my season preview for the Liberty that Laney is “the offensive fulcrum that powers the Liberty attack”, and her absence has been glaring since she’s been out.
Entering Wednesday, through eight games, the Liberty had the fifth-worst offensive rating in league history at 84.3 points per 100 possessions (only thirteenth-worst now after the win, again, progress!). For reference, that’s worse than their offensive rating in the Wubble during the 2020 season, when the team finished 2-20. With Laney out for the next two months or so, it’s gonna take all hands on deck for New York to right the ship. Wednesday night’s game was a great start. Well wishes to Betnijah and I’m hoping for a speedy recovery.
Crystal Dangerfield to the rescue?
With New York suffering a rash of injuries to start the season, they went out and signed 2020 Rookie of the Year Crystal Dangerfield to a hardship contract on May 21. Dangerfield took the league by storm in her first season, averaging over 16 points and three assists a game as she became the first player to win the aforementioned award after not being drafted in the first round.
After being released by Minnesota and having a cup of coffee with the Fever earlier in the season, Dangerfield’s been a solid piece for the Liberty as another initiator in the lineup. After New York’s lopsided loss to Seattle on Sunday, Coach Brondello mentioned that there might be a change in the starting five. Wednesday, Brondello followed through, inserting Dangerfield in for Sami Whitcomb and moving Sabrina Ionescu to shooting guard. Almost immediately, the changes were noticeable as the Liberty opened the game on an 11-0 run.
The offense went on a lull in the second quarter, but after halftime New York looked like a team tired of losing. Crisp rotations, communication, and capitalizing on offense: this was a completely different team compared to the listless version of the Liberty we’ve gotten these past few weeks. Brian Fleurantin of Nets Daily pointed out how New York even managed to flip the script on the glass compared to the first Indiana matchup, as the Seafoam squad won the rebound battle this time around after getting crushed 57 to 33 back on May 13.
The most interesting feature from Wednesday’s win? Dangerfield running point down the stretch in the fourth quarter. While Ionescu noted postgame how her preparation didn’t really change with the move, she also mentioned how it’s a huge weight lifted off of her shoulders. Dangerfield stuffed the stat sheet with four points, five assists and five rebounds, and Ionescu was able to roam around off-ball, slashing to the basket and getting to the free throw line down the stretch to ice the game.
With Laney and others sidelined, everybody in the Liberty rotation will have to step up, and on Wednesday, Dangerfield showcased that she’s ready for an increased role. I mentioned in my season preview how turnovers were a key stat to watch out for, and how playmaking was a need for the Liberty. Dangerfield is a decent option now, and in the future, it’ll be interesting to see how Ionescu performs with other playmakers next to her (cough, Marine Johannes, cough).
Han Xu: certified hooper
One shining positive to the Liberty’s tumultuous start this season has been the development of Han Xu. As the second Chinese-born draft pick in WNBA history, she played with the Liberty during the 2019 season as a 19-year-old rookie. Xu appeared in 18 games, but the highlight of her first year in the W was a 19-point performance in a preseason scrimmage against the Chinese national team.
Xu missed the 2020 and 2021 WNBA seasons due to the coronavirus pandemic, but continued to develop her game overseas. She played in the 2020 Olympics for Team China, secured a silver medal in the 2021 FIBA Asia Cup, and reached the 2022 WCBA Finals with the Shichuan Yuanda. Now, she’s back in the WNBA and has been a bright light within this struggling Liberty offense.
After only scoring in double figures once in her first season, Xu has done it in five of her six games this year. She currently leads the league in player efficiency rating and ranks sixth in points per play, averaging the second-most points per game among the players above her (hello, Jackie Young). Xu has been a model of efficiency and has paired with Stefanie Dolson to form a formidable frontcourt for the present and future. Despite not scoring in double figures on Wednesday, Xu still had two blocks, six rebounds and a huge triple in the third quarter as New York battled back against Indiana. Look for her to continue blossoming as the season rolls on.
Also, sidebar: whoever’s idea it was to play French Montana’s “HAAN” adlib or the chorus to BlocBoy JB’s hit song “Shoot” in Barclays Center every time Xu does something, give that person a raise. I was chuckling to myself over in media row.
The Liberty take the court later tonight on the road against the Washington Mystics. Let’s see if they can build on this newfound momentum!