On Monday night, the New York Liberty began their highly-anticipated 2021 WNBA season with a closed scrimmage in Connecticut against the Sun. Both teams suited in practice jerseys, saving their official threads for the real games which begin in only 10 days.
Joe Tsai who bought the Liberty from James Dolan a little more than two years ago has been upgrading both the team’s roster and facilities this off-season in hopes of ending the franchise’s three-year slump in which they’ve finished 7-27, 10-24 and 2-20. In addition to being their first year in Brooklyn, the Liberty is celebrating its 25th anniversary.
Seeing as the game was in fact a closed scrimmage, no official box score was announced but there was still news and The Next’s Jackie Powell was able to obtain some stats from the scrimmage. The Sun, a team of veterans, won, 55-42, in the shortened scrimmage.
The big news was that the Liberty, purely out of caution, didn’t play Sabrina Ionescu, their second year player and presumptive star. They’re easing her back into the grind after she suffered a severe ankle sprain in last season’s “wubble.”
She wasn’t alone either. The team’s big free agent pick-up, Betnijah Laney, rested after returning from playing in Israel, per Powell. The Rutgers product was the league’s Most Improved Player last season as well as member of the WNBA All-Defensive team,
Head coach Walt Hopkins described the scrimmage as a “barometer”, saying it was a “chance for a young team to get a look at what we need to keep focusing on.” Despite a few veterans joining the group, much of the roster is still made up of first or second year players. And most of the seven second year players on the training camp roster still describe this season as merely an extension of their rookie year played in the “wubble” at IMG Academy in Florida.
Hopkins said camp has been “really fun” for the team, but felt the Liberty lacked the same “swagger” they had shown in recent practices. But there were highlights. Michaela Onyenwere, New York’s first round pick in the WNBA draft and the sixth overall pick shined in her first unofficial WNBA action, per coach Hopkins:
“Michaela – once you see the box score, it won’t blow you away – but I thought she did a really good job getting into the paint consistently offensively,” said Hopkins, himself a second year head coach. “She’s a really tough matchup for opposing bigs if we play her at the big spot – [we’re] playing her at the 4 some, and she did a really great job kind of exploiting that. I think we’re going to see continued growth from her too, but early stages it looked great.”
Kylee Shook stepped into the center role against the Sun, but clearly had an up-and-down game. Hopkins described her performance as having some “really, really great highs, and then a few lows”, citing examples:
“She’d run the floor, get a wide open fast break layup and miss it, or she’d be open to finish and in the past she would finish.” Being a center, Stokes is still adjusting to the physicality down low, Hopkins said. She can no longer rely on her size, so she needs to work on “being more active before the play gets to her.” As a young big, though, this development is natural.
Hopkins praised the energy of both rookie Valerie Higgins and Jazmine Jones, who spoke post-game.
Jones noted how the team had been out-rebounded against Sun and how that has been a point of emphasis during training camp. Rebounding issues, he noted, became apparent during their first non-intersquad scrimmage.
Hopkins noted that although the game was a good opportunity to get some experience for the group, it was also used to experiment with some lineup combinations. Jones went into further detail on what those combinations were, specially for the guards:
“I was playing lead guard a couple times, like being the one and two – Sami [Whitcomb] and me, me and Layshia [Clarendon], played the one and two,” said the second year guard. “If it’s me and Layshia in the game at the same time, one of us will take the lead guard.”
It was a busy day for the Liberty yesterday beyond the scrimmage. The WNBA announced that the team will be on the league’s national TV schedule multiple times, starting May 14. with ESPN on opening night at Barclays Center vs. the Indiana Fever. They’ll have two games on ESPN, five on ESPN3, six on CBS Sports and four on NBA TV. The YES Network will carry the Libs locally.
The Fever game will mark the Liberty’s reintroduction to New York. After spending last season in Bradenton, Florida, and the two years before that in White Plains, they’ll finally get to play at their new home, Barclays Center, In fact, they’ll be co-tenants with the Nets for as long as Brooklyn can extend their playoff run. The Liberty been acclimating themselves with their new home by running training camp on the practice court just off the arena’s entrance plaza.
The Liberty will continue their preseason up through May 13, including holding Media Day on May 10.
- Liberty’s Sabrina Ionescu doesn’t mind slow ramp up process: ‘I’m just excited to be able to play’ – Sarah Valenzuela – New York Daily News