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PREVIEW: Liberty hoping for big improvement in Brooklyn debut

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With training camp coming to a close and the Liberty poised to open the season Friday night against the Indiana Fever, coach Walt Hpokins is still getting his team ready for action ... and their Brooklyn debut.

At Media Day Monday, Hopkins provided an update on star guard and former No. 1 overall pick Sabrina Ionescu. Ionescu played a mere two games last season with the Liberty in the WNBA “wubble” due to an ankle injury. Ionescu, in fact, did not play in the Liberty’s closed scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun earlier in camp. Hopkins has said the team is continuing to “ramp-up” the young star who’s expected to handle point guard duties. However, Hopkins also said that she was all but back to normal.

“Yeah, she’s been getting pretty close to full-go. There [isn’t] a ton of restrictions, we try to keep her reps reasonable, and we’re still trying to scale her up — she’s not 100%. But she’s getting closer and closer everyday, she looks good.”

What is the coaching staff seeing from their star in training camp? According assistant coach Shelley Patterson, her intangibles are making all the difference:

“Today at the end of our circle, I made a point to tell Sabrina just being out there and the way that she’s so vocal and getting everyone organized and talking through every play — whether it’s offensively or defensively — it really helps a lot,” said Patterson.

“You can tell when she’s on the floor, the organization, you can see it. You can see how people play off of her, the confidence that they have in her and also knowing the fact that we have — having her back on the floor is an extra shooter, [that] makes a huge difference.”

Before going down in Game 3, Ionescu showed just what she could bring. She admitted being nervous in her debut but was happy with her 12-point line on the box score. Then, in Game 2, she went for 33 points, showing her promise.

The Liberty’s only serious injury in camp was very serious. New York lost wing Jocelyn Willoughby for the season to a torn Achilles, which is clearly hitting the team hard. Patterson commented on her absence ... and how the team will — and won’t — replace her contributions, starting with what they can get from this season’s top pick, UCLA’s Micheaela Onyewere.

“Well, first of all, Micheaela Onyewere is almost like a little-Jocelyn. She’s learning, she’s had a chance to be with Jocelyn for a little while, but you’ve got to think of some of the people we still have coming. You know, you still have Natasha Howard, coming, Rebecca Allen is coming, so have Kiah Stokes,” said Patterson referring to three players she and Hopkins hope can fill other parts of Willoughby’s game. “We’ve got a lot of players that are coming - Betnijah Laney is another one who can play all five positions.

“So yeah, we did lose Jocelyn, [but] we’ve got a lot of people waiting. A lot of people are similar in the things that they do and the things that they bring. We can’t replace Jocelyn, but we have some people waiting!”

The Libs won only two games last season down in Florida while suffering 20 losses. But as the players will attest, there’s nowhere to go but up, and that’s exactly where they plan on going. Hopkins emphasized that they “haven’t lost anything yet” and a “positive outlook” will be crucial entering this odd, pandemic-ridden season. Second year player Jazmine Jones noted that there can’t be too much “pressure” on a team that severely underperformed in the past year:

“I mean, we won two games last year, so what pressure is there? To win three this year? I feel like, we’re going to be good this year, we’re going to be good, we have some great new additions to the team, we got [Rebecca Allen] coming back, [Kiah] Stokes is coming back from overseas, we’ve got [Natasha Howard] coming back soon, so then having Sami [Whitcomb], Betnijah [Laney], and Sab[rina Ionescu] back, and with all the rookies we had last year, I mean, we’re going to be fine this year.”

“Guaranteed, I can put my check on it that we’re going to win more than two games.”

A common theme from Media Day was the advantages of having the same head coach as last season, with no need to learn a whole new system. Unlike last year, where training camp was focused on the basics of Walt Hopkins’ system, this year is all about nuance.

Joyner Holmes, a 6’3” forward, noted that learning last year’s new offense - “especially the dribble-drive” was “a lot to take in” so this year’s added comfort will help. And as a bonus, this year’s sophomores will be able to answer the questions of the rookies about the system, the same ones they had just a year ago.

It’s been made clear that a major focus of training camp will be team defense. The Liberty added some major defensive pieces this offseason both in the draft, free agency, and in trades; first round pick Onyewere was a plus defender at UCLA, free agent wing, second round pick Didi Richards was the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year at Baylor. Laney was named to the WNBA All-Defensive team on top of being the league’s Most Improved Player. And in the blockbuster trade of the offseason, Howard, the former Defensive Player of the year, was acquired from the WNBA champion Seattle Storm.

Both Howard and Allen’s arrivals have been delayed due to overseas duties, not uncommon in the WNBA. Hopkins says that both are expected any day now. They’re just waiting for their respective overseas teams to finish up. Laney, another player who joined training camp late, provided insight on what it is like to be away from the team while overseas:

“During the time that I was overseas, [the Liberty and I] stayed in communication, they gave me the program so that I could see some of the plays, just gave me a run-down on what the offense would look like, so that made it a bit easier for me coming in late. And you know, I wasn’t too late, I missed a few days, but even though I wasn’t able to be on the floor I was able to watch some of the practices. You know, just being able to sit back, watch and absorb, it allowed for me to [have] a smooth transition into practice and it’s been good.”

After the Liberty faced off against Connecticut in a closed scrimmage, Hopkins cited a lack of rebounding as a major reason for New York’s loss. New assistant coach Jacki Gemelos, a WNBA veteran, talked about how they’ve focused on those rebounding struggles in camp since the scrimmage.

“With rebounding and details like this, it’s just heart and determination and willingness to go get it, so we’re enforcing that as a staff. They hear us every day.”

Holmes said that rebounding was a “big focus”, and will be especially important in their season opener with Indiana, which is a big team. Of course, the return of Howard will be a big help in that regard. She averaged 7.1 boards last season.

Liberty brass also talked about how they’ve been impressed by Onyenwere. The 6’0” wing appears to be coming into her own earlier than expected. Patterson admitted that she was pleasantly surprised with the 3-point shooting of the sixth overall pick

The Liberty don’t play again in preseason so their next game will be the season opener (for both the team and the WNBA) on Friday at 7 p.m. against the Indiana Fever. Gemelos noted its importance and the value of starting the season with a win.

“Yeah, I mean, it’s huge. It definitely sets the tone. It would be amazing to come out and get two wins against Indiana, a team that I think we can get a win against,” said Gemelos. “Every team is going to be hard, every win is going to be fought and earned for, but I think it’s a great momentum setter heading towards the season and we can open the gates in a really good way by getting two wins.”

Players, of course, are excited for the game and the challenge of facing up with a much bigger Indiana team, namely Tiffany Mitchell. Jones commented on Mitchell’s game, saying: “Oh, Tiff is definitely hard to guard because she’s so versatile. Tiff can light it up from anywhere on the court so just making it tough for her and basically, keeping the ball out of her hands. Same thing with Kelsey [Mitchell]. Them two, they’re some sharpshooters, and they can get to the rim with such great pace and they have a high motor so it’s going to be a great matchup. I’m looking forward to the first game of this year.”

As part of the build-up for the Brooklyn debut — and the team’s return to New York after two years in Westchester and one in the “wubble” — the Liberty held a marketing day Saturday. Players tried on jerseys and were able to venture onto the floor at Barclays where they’ll play on their own court. DiDi Richards, another Liberty draft pick, had to rank her favorite New York jerseys:

“I definitely want to say the seafoam is first. You know, all those bright colors look so good on my chocolate skin, so that’s one’s first. And then the black one is a really close second because all girls look good in black. Those two are my favorite right now, the others ones… they’re tied for third.”

It all starts Friday.