2022 WNBA Season Preview: New York Liberty
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The 2021 season was a roller coaster ride for Liberty fans, to say the least. Coming into the year with tempered expectations after a 2-20 record in the Wubble, they got off to a roaring 5-1 start. Ups and downs followed, but when the dust settled, New York managed to snag a coveted playoff spot at the conclusion of the season, its first postseason appearance since 2017. While the Liberty’s season ended in the first round, their overall performance showcased massive improvements and a foundation from which to build.
Now, the offseason is in the rearview, and New York looks to rise into serious contention. With the Liberty’s season set to tip off later today, here’s a quick primer on everything you need to know heading into the opener.
2021 record: 12-20
The Liberty started 5-1, teetered to a 10-11 record entering the Olympic break, then the wheels nearly came off the train towards the end of the year. It all added up to a 12-20 record, which marked a 10-win difference from the previous season and set a franchise record for yearly record improvement (the previous high was nine wins from 2009 to 2010).
Playoffs? Yes! (barely)
Despite an eight-game losing streak down the homestretch, New York knocked off the Mystics 91-80 in the last game of the regular season before needing some help to clinch the last spot in the postseason. There, they lost a heartbreaker to the eventual Finals runner-up Phoenix Mercury, 83-82.
Coach: Sandy Brondello
There’s a new face on the sidelines for the Liberty, as they replaced Walt Hopkins with WNBA champion and former Coach of the Year Sandy Brondello. The announcement last December that Brondello and the Mercury had mutually decided to part ways sent shockwaves through the women’s basketball community, especially considering Phoenix was fresh off a Finals appearance. New York leaped at the opportunity to get someone of her caliber, officially naming the legendary Opal as the head coach on January 7.
Four months into her tenure, Brondello’s impact on the squad is already noticeable. She’s identified areas of improvement for the rotation, namely fixing the defense that allowed the most points in the league last season. The Next’s Jackie Powell recently went into further detail on how Brondello has transformed the squad. She improved Phoenix’s win total by 10 in her first year there, so we’ll see how New York performs.
Key departures: Jazmine Jones, Kylee Shook
The Liberty have brought back virtually their entire core from last year’s roster, with the notable exceptions of Jazmine Jones and Kylee Shook. Jones was waived back in February along with Neah Odom, as New York moved on from two members of the 2020 draft class. Shook, on the other hand, has decided to sit out the 2022 WNBA season for personal reasons, which the Liberty announced on Monday.
Jones averaged almost 11 points per game in 2020 on her way to a WNBA All-Rookie Team spot. While her production dipped last year, the former Cardinal still had a litany of exciting moments in 2021. She was the spark plug behind a 20-point comeback victory against Washington in July and a 14-point fourth quarter performance to knock off the Mercury in June. Her infectious personality will surely be missed.
As for Shook, she started 19 games last season in the frontcourt, making huge strides as a perimeter shooter and playmaker. I was excited for her to learn from New York’s big offseason acquisition (more on her later), but it appears that will have to wait until next year.
Key returners: Natasha Howard, Betnijah Laney, DiDi Richards
There’s a couple of other players I could include in this section, like All-Defense snub Bec Allen, knockdown shooter Sami Whitcomb, or nightly triple-double threat Sabrina Ionescu, but I’d be here all day. So, I’ve identified three players who will be major catalysts to the Liberty’s success next season.
Firstly, we have three-time champion and former Defensive Player of the Year Natasha Howard. Howard’s first year in New York came with turmoil. After missing all of training camp along with the start of the season due to overseas commitments, Howard returned with a bang as she led the club to wins over the Chicago Sky and Dallas Wings.
Unfortunately, the victory over Dallas came at a cost, as she suffered an MCL sprain costing her several weeks. When Howard returned in August, she averaged 16.5 points per game over her last 11 outings, creating havoc on the defensive end as well. Her return to form is pivotal for the squad’s advancement.
Next up, we have Betnijah Laney, a first-time All-Star in 2021. As one of only five players in league history to average 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists in a season, she excelled in her first campaign in the Big Apple. As a three-level scorer with playmaking chops, she is the offensive fulcrum that powers the Liberty attack.
Lastly, we have DiDi Richards, who heads into her sophomore season following a strong rookie year. After not making a single three-pointer during her collegiate career at Baylor, she hit 10 threes for the Liberty last season.
Now, with the recent release of Paris Kea, Richards is reportedly going to get more ball handling duties at the onset of the season. She tallied 25 assists to 16 turnovers last year, and it’ll be interesting to document her progression.
Key acquisitions: Stefanie Dolson, Jocelyn Willoughby (kinda), Marine Johannes possibly?
From a 2-win season to a playoff berth, the Liberty sought out to make a splash in free agency and continue their momentum. After an intriguing meeting with Seattle’s Breanna Stewart, Joe Tsai and Jonathan Kolb put the full-court press on Big Mama Stef. After chilling with Betnijah Laney and actor Anthony Ramos, Dolson was ready to sign on the dotted line. A dominant force spacing the floor and rolling to the rim, her addition should add a new dynamic to New York’s offense. Oh, and last year’s championship experience won’t hurt either.
The Liberty traded for Jocelyn Willoughby during the 2020 WNBA Draft, exchanging Shatori Walker-Kimbrough for shooting and versatility on the wing. After a decent rookie season in the Wubble where she shot over 40% from three-point land, Willoughby tore her ACL during a team scrimmage last May. Now healthy, she offers even more long-range shooting ability for a team that just set the single-season record for three-point makes last year.
Marine Johannes is potentially returning stateside at the conclusion of her season overseas, but there’s a chance it might not happen. If it materializes, though, the Liberty will add a trustworthy facilitator with three-point range in the event that the “DiDi Richards: part-time point guard” experiment doesn’t work out. Also, if Johannes comes over, the Liberty will have to release someone from the roster since they’re currently at 12 players, so time will tell.
Key stat from last year: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
The Liberty had the fastest pace in the league last season, averaging over 83 possessions per 40 minutes. However, this led to some rough numbers offensively, as New York led the league in turnover rate and turnovers per game. Brondello has already preached playing with more patience this year, so Ionescu, Laney, and potentially Richards will have to cut back on those mistakes in order for the Liberty to reach their ceiling this season.
Season projection: 19-17, 6th in WNBA standings
Maybe I’m being a little optimistic, but I consider the Liberty’s acquisition of Sandy Brondello as perhaps the biggest move of the off-season. As one of the best coaches in the league this past decade, her experience is invaluable. That, when paired with a healthy Natasha Howard, an All-Star in Betnijah Laney, and further development from the young core in the rotation, should lead to another playoff appearance for New York and its first above a .500 record since 2017.
That’ll do it for my 2022 season preview on the Liberty. Make sure to tune in all weekend as the W tips off for its 26th season, and especially later today as New York takes on the Connecticut Sun!